GOVERNMENT AND THE FAMILY

                                            Jack C. Westman, M.D. 

In the United States we expect things to work. We expect competence and reliability at least in other people. We expect and find that telephones work, that checks will be honored, that prices will be honestly displayed, that the contents of foods will be labeled, that contracts will be honored, that manufactured goods will be warranted, that schedules will be dependable, and that laws and regulations will be enforced. Travel through foreign countries makes one realize how much we take fulfillment of these expectations for granted in the United States. The single stark exception is that we do not expect competence and reliability in the parenting of biological children. 

Because we hold no expectations for parents who conceive and give birth to children, the neglect and abuse of children has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Almost 7 million children have been neglected or abused. Many of them grow up to be violent, habitual criminal, or welfare dependent members of our society. 

Sociological research relates antisocial behavior to poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination. But most poor or unemployed people and most members of minority groups do not engage in antisocial behavior. The critical factor in the backgrounds of those who do is incompetent parenting as reflected in child neglect and abuse, a growing problem in the United States

If we wish to preserve the quality of our lives, we must reverse the deterioration of parenting in our nation. There is no question that children who grow up without the benefit of competent parenting are disadvantaged. When they are abused and neglected, they become the sources of most of our social problems. 

At the present time it falls upon the government to intervene in families after children have been neglected and abused. Often those interventions are ineffective. The result is enormous public costs in preventive, rehabilitative, treatment, and incarceration expenditures. Competent parents contribute $1 million to our economy for each child they rear. Incompetent parents cost society $2 million for each child they damage by neglect and abuse. 

All of this would dramatically change if each child in this country was raised by a competent parent. This can be achieved by expecting competence and reliability in parenting so that each child might have a chance to succeed in life. 

How People Become Competent and Reliable

We can expect competence and reliability in business and professional transactions in the United States because of the power of our laws and regulations. But compliance with these expectations depends upon persons having internalized values that support competence and reliability. Persons who have not internalized these values exploit others on grand scales as white collar criminals and on modest scales as underclass criminals. 

In order to explain why people are competent and reliable, we need to look at the way in which children internalize values. Childrearing styles that produce competent, reliable adults have a common denominator: the parents' behavior modeled those values. The parents did not say, "Do as I say, not as I do." Instead they respected their children who learned to respect them. Their children learned early in life that their parents meant what they said and trusted children to do likewise. Although these parents talked about values, they did not impose them. They acknowledged their mistakes. They transmitted the importance of learning to their children. They encouraged their children's interests and creativity. 

The failure to develop self-generated competence and reliability is understandable when parents do not model these qualities. It is less obvious when parents "preach" but do not "practice" them. Those parents find themselves repeatedly telling their children what to do. They are dismayed when their offspring do not comply. 

Parents who worry about their children and "want the best for them" are likely to be disappointed in the outcome. They are inclined to say, "Do as I say, not as I did." They exhort their children: "I want you to have a better life than I had. I don't want you to make the mistakes I made." As a result they find themselves having to repeat their admonitions, perhaps over and over again. They find themselves scolding their children, who test limits because they lack internal controls and lean on their parents to guide them. Their children either overtly rebel against or covertly sabotage their parents' values, both with self-defeating consequences for the children. In extreme instances, parents misuse their power and abuse their children or abdicate their responsibilities and neglect their children. 

The Progressive Erosion of Parental Power

The historical evolution of families has been marked by successive restrictions on the authority of parents over their children and by progressively increasing involvement of government in the lives of children. Families originated out of clans with power invested in leaders and fathers, who were free to do as they wished with their wives and children. This meant absolute power over the life of a child, including the right to kill the child. 

The Jewish tradition introduced marriage as a sacred bond between husband and wife with procreation as its goal. Husband and wife were seen as children of God, as were children. Fathers no longer had absolute power over the lives of their children, but they remained the heads of their households. 

In the context of the rights of individuals, Christianity introduced the idea that wives and husbands were to mutually respect each other and that children were autonomous beings whose loyalties were primarily to God. 

The Industrial Revolution stripped away many of the functions of the family, which was the dominant social institution during the Agricultural Age. Production went out of homes, education shifted from the home to schools, and the care of the elderly went to the state. More recently the trend has been toward sidestepping the family in childbearing and childrearing. The results are fatherless families, uncommitted parents, and unprecedented levels of child neglect and abuse, necessitating increasing
governmental involvement in the rearing of children. 

The Need for Governmental Interventions

We would not need law enforcement personnel and facilities if every citizen considered the rights of others. We would not need welfare if every individual was capable of, and had the opportunity to lead, an economically productive life. Unfortunately, the human condition is not characterized by these qualities. We always will need law enforcement and some form of welfare. We also will always need to contend with the social repercussions of incompetent parents, unless we set standards for parents. 

Now all parents are assumed to be competent until they damage their children by abuse or neglect. A more accurate picture is that most parents are competent, but children need protection from a critical number who are incompetent. 

Parents are in the best position to represent the interests of their children. But we need to counteract the belief that children are the property of their parents to do with as they wish. We need to see parenting through the eyes of children and of society. Because it is vital to the future of our society, parenting should be recognized as a privilege supported by society. 

Childrearing is not a totally private matter. Parents are accountable to society, as attested by the progressive enactment of child labor, mandatory education, child abuse and neglect laws, the formation of juvenile and family courts, the licensing of foster parents and child caring facilities, and divorce custody and visitation laws. Because of the delegation of child care by parents, regulations have been imposed on day care, nursery schools, schools, and others who are responsible for aspects of children's lives. 

More recently the abdication of parental functions by parents has necessitated a series of new laws designed to strengthen parental involvement in childrearing. Laws mandate parental participation in school conferences, the liability of grandparents for the children of their children, and the liability of absent parents for the financial support of their children. 

The government has played an increasing role in family life because too many parents have not fulfilled their childrearing responsibilities. The misuse of parental power in child abuse and the abdication of parental responsibilities in child neglect have necessitated governmental interventions in order to protect children. This is the proper role of government whose responsibility is to do what the people cannot or do not do for themselves. If all parents competently reared their children, there would be no need for governmental involvement in family life. The only way that we have been able to set standards for any kind of behavior that affects other persons has been through regulation. Because the oppression, neglect, and exploitation of children cripple the next generation, the government has a clear-cut role in preventing child neglect and abuse. 

We have come to the point in our society at which a new paradigm for childrearing is needed. As it now stands anyone who conceives and gives birth to a child has the full care and custody of that child until the child is damaged by abuse or neglect. We need a paradigm in which we expect that parents will be competent and reliable and that they will not abuse and neglect their children. 

A new paradigm in which parenting is seen as a privilege rather than as a biological right could be implemented by licensing parents. A parent license would validate parental rights, certify parental responsibilities, and provide a basis for governmental interventions in the form of financial support, parent education and training, and protective services for children when necessary. It would hold parents accountable for competent and reliable childrearing. 

A license for parents would place the responsibility of childrearing on parents not on the government. Just as individual responsibility for driving a car is promoted by a driver's license, individual responsibility for childrearing would be promoted by ensuring that parents are competent. Then there would be little need for governmental interventions. Parents indeed would bear the responsibility for rearing their children. 

Another area of family life that undoubtedly will require governmental regulation is reproductive technology which is highly susceptible to unethical commercial exploitation. This includes contractual pregnancy arrangements, processing of gametes and embryos, genetic screening, genetic engineering, selective termination of pregnancies, fetal transplantation, sex selection of embryos, in vitro fertilization, cryopreservation of embryos, and conflicts between all involved parties. We now must regulate businesses and technologies that affect human beings and animals. The time will come when similar regulation will be necessary for the artificial production of human beings. 

Conclusion

The family is the most important agent for developing internal restraints. Without internalized controls individuals are at the mercy of their wants and desires. Without parental modeling of values, a child becomes less than human, driven by uncontrolled urges to the detriment of everyone, especially the child. Successful living with respect for oneself and others grows from having competent, reliable parents. 

Because our society stirs and encourages the expression of impulses, preserving our society as one that "works" depends upon parents who produce competent, reliable citizens. Without competent, reliable citizens, our democratic form of government cannot survive. The proof of this simple fact can be seen in the chaotic and oppressed nations on the face of the Earth. 

Parents are in the best position to represent the interests of their children., but they also are accountable to society. Parenting should be recognized as a privilege supported by society. Setting standards for parenting would prevent child neglect and abuse. It would reduce the need for government interventions in family life. 

References:

1. Westman, Jack C. (1994) Licensing Parents: Can We Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect? New York: Insight Books.
2. Overall, Christine (1993) Human Reproduction: Principles, Practices, Policies. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press. And Proceed with Care: Final Report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. Ottawa, Canada: Minister of Supply and Services. 2 Volumes, 1993.