Politics & Policy

Why Is the Government Telling Us How to Raise Our Kids?

(Image: Dreamstime)
Bureaucratic busybodies interfere with parenting and say they’re doing it for the children.

The headline says it all: “Proposed Bill Would Expand Parents’ Rights, but Critics Say It Goes Too Far.” What exactly is too far when it comes to parents’ rights? In the case of this story from Fort Worth, Texas, it means that “critics” think parents shouldn’t have the right to know what their children are doing at school. Opposing this belief is Texas state senator Konni Burton, who authored the legislation. She believes that parents should be allowed access to their kids’ personal information, rather than protecting their child’s alleged right to privacy.

The fact that legislation is necessary to correct the imbalance between parents’ rights and the separate, independent rights of their minor children is one of the defining characteristics of our current age, one in which the government at all levels has become involved in the private lives of families, dictating child-rearing standards and penalizing parents who do not follow the rules. This condition of overbearing state interference in the lives of families is pervasive, though not coordinated, and is the central reason I wrote my book No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting.

The range of activities and choices that have been taken out of the hands of parents only to be decided from on high by politicians, school administrators, and unelected bureaucrats and regulators range from the seemingly innocuous — allowing kids to play unsupervised — to the nearly barbaric — removing children from their parents’ custody because they are obese. The government is telling women what to do with their bodies in the form of pressure to breast-feed, while government departments like the Department of Agriculture and regulatory agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission are making life less tasty by restricting the diets of American schoolchildren and less fun by banning games and toys. As attorney Scott Greenfield noted on his blog after a New Jersey mother was arrested for leaving her toddler in the car unattended for no more than ten minutes:

This isn’t a matter of parenting “best practices,” but whether the failure to adhere to a bubble-wrapped vision of child-rearing forms the basis for criminal prosecution, for inclusion on the child-abuse registry, for loss of civil rights, perhaps career, home, and even the right to remain parent to a child.

It all started innocently enough when I enrolled our fourth child in state-licensed day care. We had come to expect and accept all the rules — detailed instructions about how to cut up fruits and vegetables sent from home, a prohibition on plastic bags coming to school, the mandates about slathering children in sunscreen, etc. But I was not prepared when the day care explained that my one request, that my son be swaddled à la baby Jesus for his naps, could not be honored, since the state had banned the practice in licensed facilities.

The stated reason for the ban, which has been adopted in more than just my state of Pennsylvania, was safety. Since the American Academy of Pediatrics does not define swaddling as medically necessary, and because the busybodies who wrote the guidelines (funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) that became the law argue that any blankets in cribs could potentially harm a child, swaddling has been outlawed. The fact that this regulation is prophylactic — there are no recorded injuries to infants from swaddling at day care — is not relevant because current safety standards are based on the possibility of harm rather than evidence of such. I eventually got permission from my doctor to have my baby swaddled, but it took a lot of effort and I wondered whether I was alone in thinking that the government had no business deciding for me and the day-care operator what was the best way to care for my kid. I also set out to discover if the experience I had was mirrored elsewhere, and if other parents had suffered from nanny-state parenting. It turned out I didn’t know the half of it.

The same “what if” or “worst first” thinking — as Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the Free Range Kids movement and the author of my book’s foreword, has defined it — has been applied in too many other areas of life. Sledding is banned on public hills in various cities because someone might get hurt and the municipality might get sued. A dad in Connecticut was cited for disorderly conduct when he argued with police who wanted him to remove his kids from the banks of the frozen Susquehanna River even though nothing untoward had happened besides a family enjoying an icy wonderland. “This small incident,” the father, Charles Eisenstein wrote on his blog, “reveals a lot about our society.” He continued:

First is the presumption that legally constituted authority should decide what an acceptable level of safety is for oneself and one’s family. I suppose going out onto the ice was more dangerous than staying indoors or on the sidewalk, but I deemed it in my children’s best interest to be outdoors in this amazing ice world.

Assertions of independent judgment by parents as to the best interests of their offspring are exactly what government nannies are trying to prevent. You might want to make your own kid’s lunch, but when there are government-empowered food inspectors at your kid’s school looking into their lunchbox, you may find that your turkey-and-cheese has been replaced by cafeteria chicken nuggets, as happened to Heather Parker of Raeford, N.C. Some school principals have banned home-packed lunches entirely because they believe menus determined by the geniuses at the USDA are more nutritious than what parents will decide to pack themselves.

Assertions of independent judgment by parents as to the best interests of their offspring are exactly what government nannies are trying to prevent.

Who gets to determine what’s in the best interest of children is muddy water when it comes to schools in general. In many states, children’s weight and height information is collected at the public school and each child’s body-mass index is calculated, all without permission of parents. The government argues that while it has access to students in its schools, it has the right to collect such basic health information. Some schools don’t stop at collecting this personal information, however. Instead, letters warning that children may be at risk for obesity have been sent to parents. At the same time, parents in Florida are having a very hard time getting their kids’ schools to do the healthy and inexpensive thing by allowing kids to run around during recess. And the parents in Florida aren’t alone. Not only has recess been limited or eliminated at many schools, but what games and activities are allowed during “free play” periods have been restricted. Tag, dodgeball, gymnastics, swing sets, and running have all been banned at one school or another in the name of safety. When parents demand a change, it can take herculean efforts like protests and petitions to get schools to listen. Happily, the advocacy can work, as when Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo signed a law mandating recess at the state’s elementary schools.

In the most heartbreaking instances of the state determining what’s in the best interest of the child, dozens of kids have been removed from their parents for being morbidly obese. The doctors and legal scholars who justify these removals argue that the best interest of the child is being served by the state’s taking control of their lives. But ask the parents and children to whom these removals have happened and you hear a different story. “They say it is for the well-being of the child,” explained Anamarie Regino, ten years after she was temporarily removed from her parents’ custody for obesity. “But it did more damage than any money or therapy could ever do to fix it.”

There are two important lessons to draw from all this government-run child-rearing. The first is how improperly we are defining private life and public life. Only in a world where a healthy population is defined as a public good can the state justify breaking apart families over a health problem that will cause no harm to anyone but the sufferers.

#related#The second lesson is that there are both individual parents and groups of advocates across the country who are focused on returning the rights of parents to raise their own children. These parents — Captain Mommies and Daddies, I call them — have had run-ins with the overbearing state and decided to advocate on their own behalf and on behalf of their kids. Then there are organizations like the Family Defense Center, which provides legal defense for parents caught in the child-welfare and legal systems. At ParentalRights.org the goal is to amend the U.S. Constitution and support state laws to empower parents. And the National Association of Parents wants to shape public policy on parents’-rights issues through education and advocacy.

As commonplace as nanny-state parenting has become, it will take tremendous effort to change the tide of public policy and the overprotective culture that has brought us to our current situation. But being a good parent, and a good citizen, has never been easy. And it remains as necessary and important as ever.

— Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based writer, blogs at captainmommy.com.


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