Licensing Parents

I read a little piece recently that recommended, among other things, requiring people to get a license before they could have and raise children. This is not a new idea, as various philosophers have argued for something along these lines, most prominently Hugh Lafayette as long ago as 1980. But  there are three trends whose confluence may point to its looking more attractive. First is the growing consensus that good parenting does not come naturally but requires a special expertise. This expertise involve both specialized knowledge of important facts of developmental and child psychology as well as specialized skills in caring for children. Second is an assumption that this expertise is not reliably acquired and passed on from one generation to the next. Rather it’s the sort of thing that must be directly taught by experts—hence the industry of parenting books, magazines, website, classes, and so on. Lastly is the assumption that the state has an essential role in guaranteeing children a minimally decent childhood at least to the extent of protecting them from gross abuse and neglect.

Working backwards, an argument for licensing might go like this. Currently the state assumes parents are competent until they prove themselves otherwise. Tragically, the standard for competence is so low that it is only when children are actually harmed that the state intervenes. Better, then, to identify incompetent parents before they hurt their children, and so a better system would put the burden on prospective parents—they would have to show they are not incompetent. This would raise the question of defining parental competence, and this is where the other two factors come in. If we can identify what kinds of things good parents must know to be good parents, we can test prospective parents to make sure they have acquired the necessary expertise. Hence a parenting license.

There are I think two kinds of problems with this. One is that there may not be such a tight correlation between lack of parenting expertise and abusive or neglectful parenting, or, for that matter, acquisition of expertise and non-abusive or diligent parenting. In all likelihood the expertise itself will become the standard of competent parenting rather than how children are actually treated. (This would be a bit like having only the written test for a person’s first drivers license.) Secondly, it is not as easy as it may seem to define the necessary level of competence without inviting the state into matters it best stays out of. Gross abuse and neglect are easy to recognize, but if we allow the definition of competence to go beyond these minimums we quickly come to questions about child rearing and parenting that are controversial.

Some recently well publicized episodes illustrate the worry well. In one I just read about a couple is under legal scrutiny for allowing their children to walk home from a park unattended. What is striking is that there is no evidence of abuse or neglect and no one is claiming the children were ever in any danger. Rather, the basis of the investigation is state’s disagreeing with the parents on the question of how old these children should be before they are allowed to walk a distance alone. There is, I think, reasonable disagreement about this type of question, and of course it is just one of many, many areas of reasonable disagreement when it comes to parenting. And so the worry is that any licensing scheme that defines parental competence in any but the most minimal ways risks employing a very blunt instrument to force compliance on genuinely controversial matters.

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