A little over two months ago I got all worked up over an article on parenting published in the National Review that I thought was a little too “pro-child abuse” for my taste. I sent them a query about publishing it right away. Their editor responded a couple weeks later, asking to read the piece. Then he politely declined it, noting it was a bit stale (meaning too much time had passed). Of course, it got stale because he sat on it for two weeks. But I figure he didn’t want to publish it anyway, since I basically accused his writer of writing fake news and supporting child abuse.
So . . . I decided to send it to myself. And, after sitting on it for another six weeks, I’m publishing it because it’s crunchy like a piece of old stale bread.
Setting the Record Straight on Government
Interference in Parental Rights
John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.
Abby Schachter’s National Review article (12/26/16) titled, “Why is the government telling us how to raise our kids?” is troubling on many levels.
To start, Ms. Schachter’s headline is inaccurate and misleading. The National Review deserves better than that. In reality, the government isn’t trying to tell parents how to raise their children. An accurate headline would have read, “Why is the government telling us how NOT to raise our kids?”
This is still an important question and begs for a clarification between laws that mandate behavior (e.g., seat belts and registration under the Affordable Care Act) and laws that prohibit behavior (e.g., driving while intoxicated and physical or sexual abuse of minor children). Laws that protect children from abuse are laws that prohibit particular (and unusual) parenting behaviors; they don’t mandate specific parenting behaviors. As is well known, laws mandating specific behaviors—whether within the realm of parenting or focusing on other citizen behaviors—are aligned with tyrannical governments. However, government policies that Schachter mocks in her article are legal efforts designed to protect children from parental abuse and neglect. Is it possible for the government to over-reach in that area? Absolutely yes! But Schachter’s complaints of “bureaucratic busybodies” miss the point and put children at further risk.
Schachter’s complaints about rampant government meddling with good-enough parenting represent a narrow perspective. The historical and current prevalence of child abuse and neglect is stunning. Even the usually stoic Sigmund Freud was shaken after viewing abused children’s bodies at the Paris Morgue in 1885. Child abuse is ugly and disturbing and children need protection. Schachter’s defense of parental rights at the risk of overlooking neglect and abuse implies that she hasn’t seen or appreciated the extent of child abuse in America. Her rhetoric could be interpreted as suggesting that child abuse and neglect should be legal variants of parental rights. I’m sure that’s not her intent.
There’s also a mathematical component to Schachter’s misunderstanding. Government laws prohibiting parental abuse and neglect are a best effort at predicting and therefore reducing child abuse. Schachter’s complaints stem from real cases, but her personal interpretation of the problems reflects no understanding of math and the Bayesian Theorem. To take her position, Schachter must assume the base rates of child abuse and neglect are extremely low, so low that parents and children might be better served if child abuse laws were eliminated. But the facts belie this perspective. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, over 1,800 incidents of child abuse occur every day in the U.S. Even assuming this is an overestimation and the real rates are 20% lower, this still translates to 1,440 abuse incidents daily or 60 per hour or 1 per minute. Let’s assume that Schachter is correct and some laws are an overreach and result in false positive identification of parents as abusive or neglectful. How many times do you suppose false government accusations occur per hour in the U.S.? Do we have 60 parents falsely accused of child abuse per hour? Not even close. But if we embrace Schachter’s position, we protect parental rights and risk a massive increase in unreported child abuse and neglect.
For my money, I’d rather have a few parents deal with the emotional pain of government hassles than to have children deal with the pain of parental neglect or physical and sexual abuse. Over four children a day die from parental maltreatment. I’m betting Schachter can’t find four cases a week like the one she covered in her article.
In the end, I agree with Schachter that government interference in good-enough parenting is wrong. But I also know that in the time it took you to read this article at least five more children in the U.S. experienced abuse or neglect. Parental rights shouldn’t be needlessly usurped. However, in this case, I’m siding with thousands of abused and neglected children over the rights of a relatively small number of parents.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist and professor of counselor education at the University of Montana. He’s the author of eight books, including How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen (John Wiley & Sons).