History, Impact today

Parental Rights : Really A Right Or A Privilege?

parental rights

“Your children are not your children, they come through you, but they are life itself, wanting to express itself.”  – Wayne Dyer

Meaning Of Parental Rights?

Parental rights is a term most often used within the legal system in custodial cases. The history of parental rights is a long one. Not everyone agrees on the definition, but with the help of philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists, that definition continues to evolve.
One of the earliest definitions was termed propertarianism.

According to this theory, children are the property of their parents. While the children have no rights, parents have the obligation to care for them. This theory is based on the concept that parents own the genetic material that produced the children. Since most people now find the concept of owning another human being offensive, with few exceptions, this extreme view has been largely replaced by other more progressive theories.

Biology coupled with advances in reproductive technology made it necessary to rethink the basis of parental rights. For the first time, it became possible for people to donate genetic materials to create children for parents other than themselves. Even in cases of adopted or step-children, there is no “ownership” of genetic material. Some adherents of the biology theory claimed gestation as the basis for parental rights, and that men could only acquire those rights through marriage and adoption as allowed by the mother. It held that when there was a conflict between genetic and gestational mothers, the law should favor the gestational mother. The once all-important biological connection has lost much of its power in favor of other important aspects of parenting.

Parental rights based on biology alone was replaced by parental rights based on the best interests of the child. This theory is still often used in custody cases where there is suspected abuse or neglect, or when one parent proves more capable of meeting the child’s needs than the other. Another closely related school of thought focuses on the interests of parents and children. According to this theory, parents satisfy some of their own needs, such as the need for closeness and intimacy, through satisfying the needs of their children. Children need individual attention and guidance based on their dispositions and preferences, the knowledge of which is gained over time through consistent interaction. In this way, strong familial relationships are forged, relationships that can be damaged by excessive intrusion by the state.

Critics of this theory developed another called constructionism, which argues that the rights and obligations of parents aren’t based in biology, but are in fact social constructs. According to constructionists, parental rights are the result of a social agreement between prospective parents and the social community responsible for the care of its youngest members. One manifestation of this community is the state. In the contructionist’s view, sufficient care and nurturing is more important than biology, and the state plays a larger role in ensuring a minimum standard of care.

The Children’s Liberation movement holds that parents should have no rights over children and that children should have the same legal status as adults. Since they aren’t able to reason as adults, proponents of this theory argue that to make decisions, they can consult adults they trust who do have that capacity. Good parenting according to this theory is the process of assisting children in becoming fully autonomous. It concludes that it is not possible for parents to simultaneously have rights and satisfactorily perform their parental duties. Closely related is the right to an open future theory, which holds that parents shouldn’t limit their children’s future options with their own personal beliefs or preferences. Some examples of what would constitute such limiting would be an arranged marriage or an expectation that a child follow in a parent’s professional footsteps.

The pendulum swing from children being considered the private property of parents towards children’s rights went so far that philosopher Hugh LaFollette suggested licensing parents. In his view, enforcement could consist of tax incentives and other benefits for those in compliance. Alternatives to licensing that have been suggested as ways to improve the quality of parenting include paid family leave, government day care, and mandatory birth control. Most agree that monitoring or counseling is better than licensing due to the potential biases and fallibility of the educational content and testing process for such a license.

The rights of parents and children alike are best served by a shared sense of responsibility for the care and nurturing of children by the entire community in which they live. Like justice, a lack of human rights for anyone results in fewer human rights for everyone. The refinement of the definition of the rights and responsibilities of parenthood will continue to evolve with each new scientific and technological development. Whatever direction the pendulum may swing next, the one basic parenting principle with which everyone has always agreed is the unchanging importance of love.

Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1756, Credit Line Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920
Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1756, Credit Line Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920
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