Thursday, September 3, 2009

Who owns your children?

My thirteen-year-old son spent the best day of our Colorado vaction this summer* hanging by his fingers from a rock 250 feet above the ground, secured only by a belay from above held by a climbing instructor who was simultaneously securing a second climber.

My son is also a skiier, has been since age five. When he was ten, his instructor complained to me, "He doesn't seem to care much about technique. All he wants to do is see how fast he can go down the steepest possible slope without killing himself." [I immediately knew that she did not have any boys of her own.]

His twin sister is also a skiier, albeit a bit more conservative on the double black diamonds, which she has been taking since she was nine years old.

She plays goalie for two very competitive soccer teams. Her goals against average is around 0.6, which means that roughly half of her games are shut-outs. This tends to frustrate the other teams, who usually come up with the bright idea that crashing into the goalkeeper, or cleating her, might be sufficient intimidation to get the ball past her. I've never seen that work, but she gets cleated somewhere on her body about once per game. Two weeks ago she got cleated in the forehead, which is not that unusual [she goes out and dives under other players' feet a lot], except that this time she managed to get cleated in the forehead while standing up. You had to be there: high bouncing ball, exceptionally tall girl who must have taken karate to get that roundhouse kick that high.... A little blood, a few scars.

We have not raised our children to be risk averse. Sane, yes. Calculating about what represents a good risk and a bad risk, yes. But we have attempted to get them to understand that life lived within a cocoon is hardly worth living at all.

You maybe disagree. Fine, raise your children your own way. I won't interfere.

But the State, of course, does not feel that way.

I wonder by whose logic I can sign a parental release to allow a thirteen-year-old to go rock-climbing [where even a fall on belay may leave him with a concussion, or worse], skiing [where any number of bad things can and do happen to people with great regularity, or play soccer [where most of the other team seems intent upon kicking my child in the head], but the State does not consider me competent to determine when and where my children should or should not wear bicycle helmets.

We have family rules about that. The six-year-old grandson must wear his helmet every time he is on a two-wheeler, whether he rides on the sidewalk or not. The thirteen-year-olds must wear helmets if they leave our residential side-street to go on the main drag [which, by the way, is still a residential street], or if they are not riding on an actual cars-prohibited bike path.

Ah, shit: our family rules break the law.

There have always been people--usually, sensitive caring people--who know better than you how to raise your children. And--objectively speaking--some of them probably do. But it is not their responsibility to raise my children.

Another anecdote; when you have twins you learn very quickly what is and what is not essential. You know what is not essential? Heating up baby formula. They can drink the pre-mixed bottle or sippy cup right from the fridge. Yeah, the first couple of times their little faces with squench up, but they get used to it really fast, and once it is normal they get along just fine. [Oh, and don't tell the American College of Pediatrics, but we actually started my son with rice cereal mixed into his formula at three days because he was too big and too hungry and could sleep for more than an hour without waking up to eat if we didn't. Obviously this stunted his growth: at age thirteen he is five nine and has size eleven (adult) feet.]

But the visiting nurse who came to see my grandson when he was just back from the hospital at five days old insisted that if I didn't slowly and lovingly warm each bottle in water atop a stove with the burner set to medium heat he'd need false teeth before he was thirty. Or maybe he'd become a serial killer. I don't remember exactly what she said would happen, but it was going to be bad, really bad.

There are abusive and neglectful parents who do it really, really wrong, and hurt or kill their kids by hitting them, not feeding them, or just not loving them enough. But you know what? Bicycle helmet laws are not going to save those children. Sad fact of life: we can save some of those children [we adopted one of them], but as all down through history childhood is a dangerous part of life, filled with barbaric practices.

If the State used its resources to identify and help only children at severe risk, and if State bureaucrats actually took their jobs seriously [in truth, I know some--angels--who do, but far more who don't], then many more children would be saved than will ever be saved by legislative panaceas like bicycle helmet laws or the statutes repeatedly offered in some California municipalities that defining a parent smoking in the house as child abuse.

For 99% of all families the correct answer is: the State should butt the hell out of child-raising, even in single-parent families, even in the inner cities--unless the parents actually ask for the help.

On another thread, Pandora said that her children have standing instructions that if they are ever with their friends and a gun is produced, they are to go home NOW. Do not pass GO, do not run talk to the parents, GO HOME. As much of a 2nd Amendment advocate as I am, I am 98% in agreement with that for my children, and 101% in agreement for that with hers. Odds are if a gun is produced by other kids with no adult around, there is trouble brewing, even if unintentional. Why 101% with her children?

Because they're her children and she gets to make the goddamn rules. I don't care what you might think about her not being comfortable with firearms or your right to clean your hunting rifle when her kids are visiting your house: her kids, her rules.

On the other hand, when I send my kids to school there is a different set of rules in our household. Or I should say, different RULE. It is really simple: the teacher is always right. Even when he or she is wrong, he or she is still right. If I have a problem based on what my kids tell me, I don't tell them about it, I communicate directly with the teacher: adult to adult, kids not involved. Because the last thing I intend to do is set up a power struggle in that teachers' classroom. And besides: my kids need to learn that the world is full of situations you cannot bend to your own desires, so you need to figure out how to cope without getting in trouble. Or at least without getting caught.

[Oh, yeah: and all children--including yours and mine--lie about what happened in school. Get over it.]

[Old saying from US Army Ranger School that applies equally to kids: If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'. And if you get caught cheatin', you ain't Ranger material. For the intentionally obtuse: I am not talking about cheating on tests.]

Which is why I do not buy any of the faux "freedom of conscience" arguments from people who don't want their kids to be "forced" to watch President Obama on TV. Guess what? School is frankly about coercion all over the place, and the chief lesson once your kids become independent learners is how to find the edges of the system and survive. Coddling them by "protecting" them from strange ideas or bad teachers is, frankly, not helping them at all.

Don't agree? Fine. Take your kids out of every school activity with which you politically disagree; I won't interfere, other than to think you're not doing them any favors.

The answer to the question, "Who owns your children?", is that they own themselves: they are fully complete people placed in our care and training until the time comes when they can competently make their own decisions. This is usually well after puberty when the hormones that rot their brains have subsided, at least a bit, but it varies with every child.

*--here I am required by my agreement with Libertarian in Colorado to point out that the climate in Colorado is far too frigid and the natives are far to unfriendly for it to be a reliably fun place to visit. My successful vacation there was merely a fluke. You would not want to go there. Really. The mountains are overrated piles of dirt and the skiing is terrible. I would not lie to you.


Libertarian in Colorado said...

You forgot to mention our massive velociraptor problem...

Frankly, I'm surprised you made it out alive.

Hube said...

Hey Steve -- you don't have to beat around the f***ing bush with posts like this. Why not just come out and say it -- that this is a reaction to my invoking the "freedom of conscience" line in your other post? WTF are you afraid of?

"Faux?" I was trained as a social studies educator (even though I'm in foreign language now) and my cooperating teacher (a big-time conservative) made it more than clear that on all things political teachers should cover both (or as many as feasible) sides of an issue, and NEVER mandate that students be forced to PICK a side. If you are OK with what the federal DoE had in those lesson plans, fine. (I never said anything about merely watching Obama's speech, which I agree would be pretty much benign in nature, politically.) But as a social studies person yourself, I find that horrifying frankly. Amazing that you brush off concern over that as "hyper-partisanship," yet you get all apoplectic about a DNC memo invoking right-wing terrorism (which has also since been scrubbed from its website) which is what -- just more modern "politics as usual." Spare me.

You implication that I condone parents objecting to all things "controversial" is hilarious. So is your implication that I am a "helicopter parent." Try reading what I've written on that subject in my education archives. It would have saved you from being overly self-righteous (and verbose) in this post. All I was saying is that NO student should be forced to take a [political] side by advocating for something that he/she does not believe in. Would you, Steve, take such a cavalier attitude if schools forced students to say the Pledge of Allegiance? Would anyone concerned about that be "hyper-partisan" and/or "not doing their kids any favors" in life, hmm??

Steve Newton said...

Actually the post wasn't about your comment. When I was writing at that point it seemed to fit right there. Nor were you the only person that I have read in the past few days to use the phrase "right of conscience."

Truth be told, the genesis of the post was someone from my development (not a near neighbor) screaming at me that I was endangering my children by allowing them to ride their bikes without helmets, and that she should call the police and report me.

Steve Newton said...

Oh, and by the way, Hube, I grew up in western Virginia where--during the 1960s--elementary school students were both forced to say the Pledge and even to attend Protestant Bible classes once a week.

But my parents were agnostic and I never went to church, and when I did pick a religion many years later I became Catholic.

Likewise for the Pledge: part of that experience, when I thought seriously about it, made me doubt the "my government right or wrong" mentality it embodied.

So the planned indoctrination didn't work out so well.

Children are amazing resilient and resistant to a lot of this crap, especially when parents are actually involved in their education. When parents are not, the children usually aren't learning much of anything.

When Chairman Obama starts requiring the use of his Little Red Book on a daily basis, I will worry about it.

pandora said...

I don't think I've ever been 101% correct!

We have the same rules about bike helmets, and then, this past weekend, my son and his friend were racing - as boys are prone to do - and his friend flipped off his bike, hit his head and had to go to the emergency room (He's fine, btw). Suddenly I revisited my position on bike helmets, and probably won't change it.

We are also an agnostic house, but have allowed our children - if they were interested - to attend a variety of religious services with their friends. We're pro-exposure.

Agree with your stance when it comes to teachers (and kids telling the truth!). Adults should stick together, work through their problems, and children should not be involved in adult situations.

A lot (not ALL) of the problems in school seem to stem from parents not teaching their kids to respect the teacher's authority. When my kids complain about something a teacher does, my first response is "what did you do?" My second is that they had better learn how to make the situation work, since life is full of people they won't get along with.

As far as pulling children out of school for a speech, that's a parents' right. That said, I always had my kids watch Bush's speeches. I also demanded they be respectful when discussing him - and I kept adult political discussions among adults.

Delaware Watch said...

"the State does not consider me competent to determine when and where my children should or should not wear bicycle helmets"

I can imagine the alcoholic Libertarian saying, "What's this business about blood alcohol levels that the state has foisted on me. I am component to know when I'm too impaired to drive an automobile."

Right, Steve. Adults nearly always are competent and the state has no business ever saying when they are not. Geesh.

Steve Newton said...

Your corollary is equally idiotic: individuals are never to be considered competent so the state should always have the power to intervene.

You carefully ignore the fact that I specifically excluded abuse or neglect, and did in fact leave the State a role in child safety.

Our difference is this: your default is to trust the State, my default is to trust the individual.

In both cases we will often be disappointed by the results.

Steve Newton said...

Your corollary is equally idiotic: individuals are never to be considered competent so the state should always have the power to intervene.

You carefully ignore the fact that I specifically excluded abuse or neglect, and did in fact leave the State a role in child safety.

Our difference is this: your default is to trust the State, my default is to trust the individual.

In both cases we will often be disappointed by the results.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, Steve, it seems clear to me that you are an unfit parent who unreasonably allows his children to engage in dangerous activities that could see them hurt of killed. Parental rights should obviously be terminated, with said children placed in the orphanage of St. Hillary of the Village, where they will be placed in a bubblewrap cocoon and spoonfed the the collected works of Barack Obama until they are 18.

Delaware Watch said...

"Your corollary is equally idiotic: individuals are never to be considered competent so the state should always have the power to intervene."

That would be fine if it were my corollary, but it's not. So lets dispense w/ that straw man.

I frankly don't know if the state should require children to wear bicycle helmets or not. It depends on a variety of factors like what the science says and how great the increased risk is to not wearing them, etc.

But what is irresponsible is the suggestion that such factors don't matter and the state should be suspected nearly always a priori when it wants to spare children from serious injury or death.

Anonymous said...

In the Libertarian world "Parents, or other guardians, have the right to raise their children according to their own standards and beliefs."

Should Amish people have the "right" to end their children's education at the sixth or eighth grade?


Steve Newton said...


Should Amish people have the "right" to end their children's education at the sixth or eighth grade?

They already do. Wisconsin v Yoder 1972

From U. Missouri summary of major court cases in education

Supreme Court Decision:
1) Secondary schooling, by exposing Amish children to worldly influences contrary to their sincere religious beliefs and by substantially interferring with the development of the Amish child and his/her integration into the Amish community at a crucial adolescent stage, contravened the basic religious tenets and practices of the Amish.

2) Since forgoing one or two years of compulsary education would not impair the physical or mental health of children, nor result in the inability to be self-supportive, or to discharge duties and responsibilities of citizenship or in any other way detract from the welfare of society, the state's interest in its compulsary attendance system was not so compelling that Amish practices had to give way.


Anonymous said...


I know, and I think it is wrong and should be illegal.

In a Libertarian world, do parents have the "right" not to educate their children at all, if that is their standard? Or the "right" deny them medical treatment, including life-saving treatment? Or the "right" to submit them to abusive religious beliefs such as exorcism, drug consumption and/or body modifications? Would kids be driving cars as soon as they or their parents said they can?

Given that Libertarians believe "Government should not deny or abridge any individual's rights based on sex, wealth, race, color, creed, age, national origin, personal habits, political preference or sexual orientation," is there a state-recognized age of adulthood? Or is it anything goes?

In a Libertarian world, would the state provide any protection for children' health and welfare?