Why We Give Parents Power

Why We Give Parents Power June 19, 2013

One commenter on my post about whether children are an oppressed class had this to say:

You can’t give someone great responsibility without giving them equally great power. . . . If parents are going to be held responsible for their children’s actions, they must have the power to curtail their children’s actions.

This is an important point. While I don’t believe in “parental rights,” I do believe that parents have responsibilities toward their children. They are tasked with ensuring that their children are fed, clothed, cared for, educated, and kept from harm. We can’t give parents these responsibilities without ensuring that they have the ability to actually meet them.

Let me offer an example. Bobby can walk now, but he has no idea that roads and cars are dangerous. I’m forever following him toward the road, picking him up before he gets there, and hauling him back to the middle of the yard. I’m impeding his freedom of movement when I do that—what adult would stand for another adult just picking them up and hauling them off at a whim (we generally call that kidnapping)? But if I let Bobby have freedom of movement, he would end up dead.

Here’s another interesting example. If I’m at the park with a friend and I’m ready to go but my friend isn’t, I can just leave and my friend can stay longer. But if I’m at the park with Sally and she wants to stay and I’m ready to go, I can’t do that. If I left Sally alone at the park at her age, I would be shirking my responsibility to protect her and keep her safe. So if we, say, decided to let children decide how long they wanted to stay at the park rather than leaving them at their parents’ whim (just run with me here), the parents would end up at the whim of the child and have their own freedom of movement effectively curtailed.

Of course, we expect parents to give up some of their freedoms when having children. A parent is not free to go out with friends without getting a sitter, for instance. Taking up the responsibility involved with being a parent automatically means giving up certain amounts of freedom. But at the same time, becoming a parent should not mean being wholly subject to a child’s every whim. To use the ice cream example from my earlier post, it would be unfair to the parent to suggest that they should take a child for ice cream every time she asks for it, and not just because it’s bad for the child’s diet or the family pocketbook. Not giving the child any say is a problem, and so is giving the child final say regardless of the parent’s needs. That’s also not good for teaching children responsibility and self control and empathy. As a parent myself, I try to balance my needs with my children’s needs and to teach them to do the same.

While it should be obvious that older children do need more freedom, even then parents’ need to curtail certain freedoms for the protection of the child does not end. For example, if a 13 year old girl has fallen in with bad friends and has started doing things that are dangerous (dating a much older boy in what you can tell is not a healthy relationship, participating in petty theft or vandalism, trying hard drugs or driving without a license), her parents have the responsibility to protect her—and that may mean breaking off her friendships, taking away her access to multimedia, and grounding her. An 18 year old girl would be allowed to make her own mistakes, but a 13 year old girl is younger, more impressionable, and less able to protect herself—not to mention the fact that her brain has not finished developing, meaning that she may not have the ability to make fully-informed decisions and take into account all of the consequences of her actions. It is the parent’s responsibility to make sure that that child reaches adulthood safe and in one piece.

I think there are two issues I’m trying to pull together here. First, parents have a responsibility to keep their children safe and bring them to adulthood in one piece, and they need the tools to be able to do that. Second, if children are given some of the actual rights adults have (being able to choose when to go out for ice cream, or how long to stay at the park), those rights would infringe on parents’ own freedom and needs, especially so given that children may not always have the same capacity to fully understand and grasp the ramifications and consequences of their choices, or how their choices affect others.

And so it is that we give parents (nearly) absolute authority over children. They are to care for children and help them reach adulthood safely, and are trusted to fulfill those responsibilities. But while I understand why we do this, I do have a few concerns. I’m not simply talking about parents who are legally abusive—those children at least we try to help. What I’m talking about are the smaller things, the things that are actually legal. Spanking, for one. Punishing children with groundings and the loss of their possessions for small offenses or simple misunderstandings. Children who are never actually listened to and are instead simply dictated to. There are no laws banning these things, and the (nearly) absolute authority we give parents over children allows them to occur unimpeded. Does every parent do these things? No, but plenty do.

We give the government the right to protect its citizens militarily, knowing that it is better capable of doing this than we are, but we recognize that there is the potential for it to abuse this power. Think about all the recent concern about the government’s collection of phone data—we recognize that there is the possibility for the government to go too far without necessarily having nefarious aims. Abuse of power doesn’t have to be grave or the result of an evil mastermind for it to be an abuse of power. Unlike children, we the people have a way to stand up and say when we think things have gone too far. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. Children don’t have this.

How do we protect children from the smaller things that are not legally considered abuse—the sort of things that result from almost unchecked absolute power—while still ensuring that parents have the tools they need to protect their children and bring them to adulthood unharmed? Unfortunately, in all to many cases the only thing we do currently is remind the child or teen that once she turns 18, she will be free.

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