If you count all the times your child has argued with you about something, how many times has it been about rules? Things like picking up toys, being home on time, putting clothes away and no putting lipstick on your baby brother have probably come up at your house at some point. We recently had to make a firm rule about not leaving pens or pencils on the floor because our 18 month old picks them up and writes on walls, doors and even sneaks up on his siblings to write with colored markers on their legs.
The Family’s Social Contract
These expectations we have of our kids (that frustrate them to no end) makeup a social contract. As parents, we have the responsibility to take care of our children. We need to provide them a safe place to live, food to eat, clothing and a loving home. In return we expect our kids to live by some rules, get along with the rest of the people in the house, help when asked and please make it to the bathroom before throwing up. This gets to the heart of the social contract which is really a balance of trade-offs.
Parents give up full freedom of their lives and money to have these sweet, lovable, rebellious and randomly puking children. Kids get most of their needs and some wants provided for them to which they are mostly oblivious because they don’t know any different. What often puts the social contract out of harmony in our families is when parents focus on “look at everything I give to you” and kids see things in terms of “you won’t let me do anything.”
Give Up Rights To Protect Rights!?
The balance of rights and responsibilities in the home aren’t too different from what we experience with government. In order to understand freedom, kids need to understand this balancing act of the social contract which requires us to give up some individual freedoms to the state (government) in order to protect the rights that we keep.
For example, when something is stolen from us, we give the state (government) the right to go knock some heads rather than trying to do it ourselves. In fact, we will find ourselves in trouble if we try to take the law into our own hands. The benefits are that the government has enough collective power to seek justice for those who are weaker and acts as a general deterrent. But the trade-off is that we have to live with the resolution of the justice system. If someone is wrongly convicted or doesn’t receive fair restitution, they have limited choices but to accept the outcome.
To start a discussion with your kids about the balance of freedom and the rights we give up, you should briefly talk about the brilliant John Locke. Explain that John Locke was a 17th century philosopher who became arguably the spiritual father for the American Revolution.
Locke lived in England during a time when there was great turmoil about how much power the monarchy should have. During this time, the outcome of the English Civil War set a new precedent that the English monarch cannot govern without the consent of Parliament. Coming out of these events, Locke was inspired to write about good government and how people could be protected from having their rights taken from them.
The foundation to Locke’s beliefs can be tied back to his definition of natural rights. Let your kids read (or read to them) the following from Locke’s Second Treatise Of Government:
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…
…and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s.
Ask your kids what stands out from this excerpt (you might get blank stares but having them read from original text is good for them). Here are a few hints:
- There is a natural law that “obliges” or is binding to everyone.
- All are equal.
- Among these natural rights are life, health, liberty and possessions.
- None of these rights should be harmed by another.
- No divine right to monarchy as there cannot be any “subordination” (placing someone in a lower rank) and no person was made for another person’s “uses.”
What We Get
Locke believed a social contract should allow for the formation of a government that:
- Gets its power from the people. Would represent and be accountable to them.
- Would pass laws to protect these rights: life, health, liberty and possessions.
- Could be replaced by the people if it didn’t serve their needs.
What We Give Up
In return Locke believed it was necessary for people to:
- Delegate disputes to a judicial system. You can’t hunt down criminals to beat them up or imprison them.
- Property could be taxed to run the government.
- Do you think this is a fair trade-off?
- Do you think government should restrict freedom? If so, for any law passed by Congress or your State Legislature it’s good practice to ask yourself: “what do we give up and what do we get?”
- How could the contract become unbalanced or unfair? Hints: taxes are too high, tax money is wasted, rights aren’t protected like they should be.
- What do you think about the possibility of replacing the government? (The American Revolution did just that–replaced the English King with a new government). How do we do that on a much smaller and non-violent level? (We elect representatives, we can vote the old ones out or even have them removed early from office)
- Do you think your rights are well protected today?
Have your kids make a visual representation (drawing, white board) of the social contract according to Locke. Use the above sections “What We Get” and “What We Give Up” to guide the drawing. Feel free to use any other insights the kids have as they read Locke for themselves.
What Other Social Contracts Do You Have?
As an individual, we don’t have much of a choice but to live by the social contract that is in place. We do have the opportunity to vote when we are 18 and change representatives who can change laws, but just by living in the country, we agree to live by the contract.
There are, however, other social contracts that we voluntarily enter into where we agree to give up certain things in exchange for others. If the benefits outweigh what we give up, then we stay in the social group. We might also choose to leave if we feel that we aren’t getting the benefit from the contract.
Go through the exercise with your kids about social groups in your life and list what you get versus what you give up. Here are a few examples:
- Religion: Being a member of a religion, you might agree to give up things like alcohol or personal time to attend a service. You might also agree to give up certain foods while living a certain dietary code. Often religious people say that they gave up their old life. In return people hopefully live a happier life, have needed structure or gain a support group.
- Educational Class: I took a photography class in high school (school on its own requires that you give up a lot of freedoms). As a shy kid, I liked to stay quiet and lay low in the back of the classroom. But the teacher required each person to present a photo during class and explain how they set their camera and what inspired them. In addition, we had to follow some strict rules using the dark room like turning off enlarger lights and not wasting the chemicals to expose the film (yes, we actually developed film). If we didn’t follow the rules, we would be kicked out of the class. I had to go out of my comfort zone by talking to the class and giving up some freedoms–but I did it because I loved the overall experience so much.
If John Locke were alive to see the United States today, I think he would be utterly amazed by the success that started as an experiment based on his ideas. He would probably be thrilled to see how the Constitution protects individual rights, that we have representation and that we can have peaceful discourse about the role of government.
When I talked about the social contract with my kids, I wanted them to take away a couple things. One, that it exists, is always-changing and they need to be vigilant about making sure it is balanced. It’s very tempting for people to give up too many rights to government for a promise of other benefits. And lastly, that any time they get to consider supporting a law or a social policy that they should ask the question, “what freedoms do we give up and what do we get in return.”