Michael Jackson was a commodity, a thing of his parents first, then of wily kingmakers. His extra-ordinary dance movements were those of an android – sharp, fast, angular, sudden, as if there was a remote controller somewhere sending electrical impulses into the singer who was programmed to obey. It may have been his way of reminding us that his talent and wealth gave him no freedom.
The sweet child star was beaten, abused, forced into becoming a performing creature to bring in cash and fame for the grotesquely ambitious father. If he had been a baby bear, he might have been rescued from such cruel exploitation. Michael, in turn, also treated his children as his belongings (though from what we know, he did not physically castigate them). And so the sins of the fathers are inherited and passed on by the agonised son.
Debbie Rowe, the mother of Jackson's two older children, was either compelled to, or agreed to, trade in her maternal role for, it is said, a few million dollars. It seems she does not want to raise them now. The third child had a European surrogate mum who thus far remains unknown. So it was that Jackson made sure the kids belonged only to him, his toys he would not share willingly with anyone. The views of childhood he promulgated were weird and murky – part-idealised, part-appallingly overprotective and paranoid. He covered the faces of his offspring with feathered masks and kept them away from society. It was a kind of Talibanised parenting. Now, we hear the kids are to go to Katherine, the old Jackson matriarch who, apparently, wants to raise them as Jehovah's Witnesses. The poor Jackson three are pawns yet again, in the hands of adults who do not perhaps recognise them as individual humans with autonomous choices.
Most people around the world, even now in the 21st century, believe that is how it should be, 60 years after a UN declaration changed the status of children from being the property of families to bearers of rights. In their book Empowering Children, published in 2005, Robert Brian Howe and Katherine Covell describe the perceptions and treatment of the young through the ages and the slow progress towards ensuring they are guaranteed justice and fair treatment. In Roman times, the legal principle of patria potestas prevailed, giving absolute control to the father over his family. That power was unchallenged for centuries across Europe, say the authors: "Children continued to be subject to abuse and cruelty unprotected by the state".
In the 18th century slightly more humane values evolved as children became useful earners, and in the 19th century the state in many countries stepped in to stop cruel child labour.
Philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were among the first to recognise children as autonomous beings with rights, but most of the world has not embraced their enlightened ideas and pays only lip service to the UN Declaration and the more recent 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ratified by all nations, except for Somalia and the US, most of the enshrined entitlements remain elusive.
British parents can, with impunity, hit and terrorise their children as long as there are no marks on the flesh. It is barbaric that children are still goods owned by a clan. Less obviously oppressive but still pernicious is the belief that parents have licences to indoctrinate growing minds. It is one thing to teach them what you know, believe, your history, moral precepts and so on. But it is not acceptable to insist that they must follow only the way you dictate. That shows a lack of respect for the young person and crushes their curiosity, individuality and human right to make choices.
Within many religions, brainwashing starts young, so there is never a chance of dissent in later life. Four and five-year-olds are put into hijab these days, so they will never know anything else or ever rebel. Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews have become more ardently committed to the idea that the new generations have to be tightly watched and processed by their parents. Madonna appears as guilty of this as the most authoritarian Muslim parent. She may be infatuated with Kabbalah, but why should a Malawian boy become an offering to the sect?
What is just as worrying is that those who consider themselves to be modern rationalists are just as dogmatic and now going after the young. I hear Richard Dawkins is setting up a holiday summer camp to introduce eight to 17-year-olds to his fanatically held faith – atheism. If it were for 17 to 21-year-olds it would be fine. This seems to me no different from the religious zealots who want to get into susceptible, immature minds, raw material to be moulded by adults.
A child is a blessing, a precious life we caretake for a short while, to love selflessly, to teach and nurture but never to own or recast in our own image. It is a hard call. I wish my two were not so adamantly not me, that they loved journalism, followed my politics and faith. But I have to let them be who they are, having given them the gift of freedom. Who knows, one may end up a Tory, another may don a hijab. I will hate that but not their right to do so. Such rebellions or alternative lifestyles are their prerogative. One of the most erudite and gentle Muslims I know is Yahya Birt, son of the ex-BBC director general, Sir John Birt. His family, he says, were not exercised when he decided to convert many moons back.
I hope he too will let his children make their own decisions for, as the poet Khalil Gibran wrote in his oft-quoted meditation on life: "Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit even in your dreams."
Perhaps adults know and resent that and so they imprison, deny, bully and limit the young, violating their individual civil liberties in the name of love. Michael Jackson was both a victim of such parenting and a perpetrator. Now his kids pass on to his mother, who may too disregard the needs of children and their rights. The tragedy carries on through the generations in millions of families. He who built Neverland did not give full recognition and respect to children, and nor, sadly, does the world. Not yet.