Rights and Responsibilities: Parents, Children, and Government

Caesar

You’re not the Boss of Me!

Most parents have heard some version of the above childish response to authority.  At age five our own strong-willed child announced, “When I grow up I’m going to declare myself Supreme Emperor so that no one can boss me!”  Although highly amused by the expressed ambition, as his parents we endeavored to teach him that as a “grown up,” he would certainly enjoy greater autonomy but also greater responsibility.  In addition, we advised him that throughout his life some person or entity would exercise a measure of jurisdiction over him, and much of the time we should respect appropriate authority.

Even as adults we have a complicated relationship with authority.  Like our children, we often balk at attempts to restrict our freedoms, but at other times we would rather someone else take responsibility for tough decisions or difficult challenges.  Judeo-Christians know well the story of the ancient Israelites who demanded that God provide them with a king, despite prophetic warnings that this would lead to more suffering than peace.  Likewise, Socrates (via Plato) proposed that a powerful but enlightened and benevolent “Philosopher King” would offer the best form of government. Now, although the framers of the U.S. system prized individual liberty and less autonomous forms of government, we seem once again to be moving towards more authoritarian structures.

Nowhere is this more troubling than in the arena of parental and familial rights.  In some cases parents seem to assume that certain “professionals,” such as teachers or health providers, have the authority to dictate on a variety of issues.  Lately I’ve heard from mothers who believe they’re required to send children to a sexual-preferences-based story-time because the teacher said it was “mandatory,” or who thought they had to submit to a dentist who prohibited parents from the exam room.   In these cases parents are often unsure of their rights and afraid to assert authority and responsibility for their own children.

Parents vs. Government

Of course parental rights have become controversial as lawmakers attempt to determine the line between the rights and responsibilities of parents v. those of government.  For example, while all fifty of the United States recognize parents’ rights to educate children at home, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that German law superseded a family’s right to home school.  U.S. Lawmakers also struggle to balance parents’ rights to refuse immunizations with the need to promote public health and safety.  And high divorce/single parenting rates, combined with societal confusion on sex and gender, are adding to the legal dilemma over who has jurisdiction over children.

Government Replacing Families

As more Americans look to government to solve societal problems, the number of jurisdictional conflicts will inevitably increase.  The late Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote,

“Every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement… a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, or of the voluntary association.  In doing so, social policy weakens the positions of these traditional agents.”

Glazer’s warning is relevant to multiple areas of policy debate.  The proposed expansion of government-funded education to include pre-kindergarten students at age 4 or even 3 years, will continue to erode family rights and reduce familial responsibility to children.  (Leftists make no secret of this goal in calling for “cradle to career” government institutions.)  Already many educators lament the lack of parental involvement in K-12 public schooling, without recognizing the psychological impact of our quasi-imposed system.  Parents are relieved of the role of making any choices about their child’s education, and therefore distanced from the educational process.  This dynamic will only worsen under expanding programs.

Adults Dependent on Government

In addition to weakening family structures and reducing parental investment, increasing the role of government often turns adults into child-like dependents.  Although lawmakers in the past have often crafted welfare initiatives to serve as temporary “safety nets,” some recent leaders seem unconcerned about long-term dependency.  President Obama sought to reduce accountability and work requirements for certain welfare recipients, and there are a surprisingly high number of able-bodied adults without dependents utilizing programs like SNAP.  More recently, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez appeared to call for economic support of those “unable or unwilling to work.”

And yet, Leftists like Anand Giridharadas justify government solutions that include willingly stifling private philanthropy by invoking an interesting and disturbing semantic sleight of hand; instead of “private charity,” they reframe such efforts as “private redistribution.” Girinharadas and others such as Chiara Cordelli, un-ironically claim that such private redistribution treats adults “like children.”   Girinharadas and company are unwilling to acknowledge the destructive dynamic of government programs, which often reduce adults to long-term wards of the state.

The best welfare programs, whether public or private, are like good parenting: they create pathways to independence.  Rather than “redistribution,” such programs engage, teach, and assist. Also, private efforts arguably allow for greater innovation and less bureaucracy.  One Texas-based example is S & B Engineers and Constructors ‘earn while you learn’ program, in which unemployed and underemployed women are paid $17/hour while learning welding and pipe-fitting, after which the women obtain jobs starting at around $60,000 per year.  Such private sector programs not only create a skilled and needed workforce, but assist voluntary participants in gaining financial independence.

Render Unto Caesar Only That Which Is Caesar’s

Unfortunately, an increasing number of adults are calling for government solutions to all societal problems.  In their utopian visions, a benevolent government will serve as parent to people of all ages and will meet all needs.  They seem unable to grasp the idea that said government will not be composed of angelic and benevolent creatures, but…of flawed human beings; some of whom will be ethical and competent, some who will be ethical but incompetent, and worst of all, some who will be unethical but deadly competent.  While we should not be afraid to “render unto Caesar,” we should also guard that which is not the rightful jurisdiction of “Caesar,” by defending and reinforcing parental rights and responsibilities, and encouraging able adults to enjoy the dignity of self-sufficiency.

As for our aspiring “Supreme Emperor,” I am happy to report that he is a working college student who pays for his own car, gas, and auto insurance, and who participates in elections.  He still gets “bossed” by his bosses and professors, but he understands his rights and responsibilities, and we celebrate his continued progress towards full adult independence. Hopefully he will be able to pass these values to his own children.

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