Parenting Classes Should Be Made Compulsory
Should parents be required to attend parenting classes before being permitted to raise children?
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States have a strong moral, practical and financial interest in the raising of their future citizens...
States have a strong moral, practical and financial interest in the raising of their future citizens. This is why most liberal democracies offer extensive and costly child support systems (typically incorporating such benefits as child-support payments, free nursery care, parental leave arrangements and enhanced health and social care) to aid parents in raising young people who can be active and respectful members of society. It is natural that such generous support should require the recipient to take on responsibilities of their own – such as being sufficiently prepared for raising children. Compulsory parenting classes would not only benefit parents and children, whose educational outcomes, health and life chances are likely to be much improved as a result. It would also allow the state to ensure the cohesion and prosperity of its future generations by raising the standard of parenting they receive.
States may well have an interest in how individuals raise their children, but an interest does not constitute by itself a right to intervene. Not all state support is provided ‘quid pro quo’. In some cases states should assist their citizens simply to provide them with basic rights we believe they are entitled to. For example, citizens have a (broad) right to healthcare regardless of how much care they take of their bodies. This may be expensive for the state, but it is considered a moral duty. Similarly, it may be expensive for states to leave parents to raise children who place a larger cost on society, but this does not give the state the right to overrule them and impose its own methods. We may fairly consider that individuals should have a normative right to be assisted by society in the raising of their children, but while the state should offer help, we cannot require parents to take advantage of it.
The reciprocal ‘right’ to support with the raising of children is different to that of healthcare. ...
The reciprocal ‘right’ to support with the raising of children is different to that of healthcare. A key principle behind state health services is that illness and injury are often unpredictable and down to sheer bad luck. Conversely, the act of having children is, or should be, an active choice on the part of individuals. Citizens can fairly expect the state to fund their treatment unconditionally when they become ill, because (in all but extreme cases) the condition will not be their choice. However, it does not seem to follow that citizens can make the decision to have children, and then demand that the state support this ‘lifestyle choice’ (through tax breaks, benefits and entitlements) without applying even minor conditions, such as parenting classes, to safeguard its interests. Most citizens will welcome parenting classes, but it is reasonable for the state to compel a recalcitrant minority through making its benefits conditional upon attendance.
The offer of state support for families does not create a reciprocal right to let the state interfere in childrearing. There is a fundamental difference between creating marginal incentives for citizens to have children through such mechanisms as the taxation system, and outright coercion, such as the removal of benefits or other significant state support. The former allows for meaningful autonomous decision making on the part of a citizen, whilst the latter places them in a coercive situation where their freedom is inherently compromised. This is a feature of an oppressive, rather than liberal state. Secondly, the division between ‘health’ and ‘lifestyle’ is not as clear as this point presupposes. For example, health services increasingly provide treatments such cosmetic surgery (e.g. for burns or cancer victims,) or IVF (for infertile couples). These treatments are expensive and medically unnecessary, but we recognise that the state should fund them because they are so integral to a normal human life. If the ability to conceive should be unconditionally funded by the state, then surely the raising of the child should be too?
If having childcare supported by the state is so overwhelmingly important, then surely parenting cla...
If having childcare supported by the state is so overwhelmingly important, then surely parenting classes are a natural, and valuable, extension of this. Becoming a parent is something many people are ill prepared for. Compulsory classes would help give parents the skills they need for the early years of their children's lives, and offer piece of mind and support to those who may struggle with the experience. Research shows that standard methods of disseminating health information for new parents are very inefficient and patchy (see the confusion over alcohol consumption during pregnancy for example). Standardised classes would ensure that every parent receives the same basic and essential information.
The issue is not as simple as the ‘net amount’ of state support, but the form that this support takes. Yes, parents do need material support (such as benefits, or day-care places) but they are also entitled to a private space in which they can raise their family as they wish. Basic parenting classes are already commonly available on a voluntary basis. People who are sufficiently daunted by the raising of a child can choose to attend these courses if they wish. However, it is not clear as to why parents who may have their own ideas about childcare must have the ideas of the state forced upon them. In some cases, the methods of the state may violate the religious or cultural identity of the family, proving highly offensive and causing social alienation.
Such classes would need to be compulsory for a number of reasons. Firstly - for all of the subjecti...
Such classes would need to be compulsory for a number of reasons. Firstly - for all of the subjectivity regarding parenting – there are clearly some objectively good and bad parents. A morbidly obese 15 year old with a criminal record, no school qualifications and poor health has, almost certainly, been let down by his or her parents. However the state has no way of knowing in advance as to which parents will struggle in this manner – hence it is better if the classes are for everyone. Furthermore, it seems fair to assume that parents who are somehow socially excluded, wilfully ignorant or suffering some other acute difficulty in raising children, would probably be less likely to take the active step of attending voluntary classes in the first place. Thus voluntary classes may actually be structurally biased to miss the cases in which they are most needed. A compulsory system is likely to offer far better outcomes across society.
The idea of there being an ‘objectively correct’ way to raise a child is a strongly moralised conception. We can of course identify cases such as abuse or neglect, where we feel the wellbeing of a child is clearly violated. We may even want to include such issues as chronically poor diet in such a category. However, applying such a principle of ‘objectivity’ so widely risks demonising families who lovingly wish to raise their children according to their own beliefs. Educational standards, or behaviour are not the objective truths that the proposition supposes, and even in purportedly ‘scientific’ areas such as medical advice, parents have sincere and well founded fears regarding such issues as vaccination. More seriously, when the state introduces such standards of ‘good parenting’, it provide grounds to criticise virtually all parents – not just extreme cases. No parent or child is perfect – but the vast majority have the right to pursue this important and personal relationship without fear of societal stigma, suspicion or intrusion.
The sanctity of the private sphere is, once more, being exaggerated. As with issues such as domesti...
The sanctity of the private sphere is, once more, being exaggerated. As with issues such as domestic abuse – the right to privacy on the part of an individual can never be justification for ignoring tangible harms which they inflict on another. It may well be valuable that families have a sphere in which they can raise their children according to their own beliefs. But when these beliefs do not support the welfare of the child, then these parental rights directly conflict with the rights of children to receive an upbringing which allows them to flourish in their lives. Surely in these cases the health or future opportunities of the child must take precedence over the desire for privacy of a parent? It may not be possible (or desirable) to use legal or monitoring systems to encourage parents to take better care of their children. But parenting classes would help ensure the rights of young people to a decent upbringing, whilst only minimally infringing on the rights of parents to privacy.
Firstly, social services have (chronically) limited budgets. Given this reality, it might well be desirable that states continue to focus their limited resources on the most appalling cases (such as abuse and neglect) rather than seek marginal improvements in the population at large. Secondly, one cannot meaningfully talk of the rights of children without some understanding of the interests of these children. And extreme cases aside, it is not at all clear that an enormously detached and monolithic body such as the state could ever understand the interests of children as well as their parents do. To micromanage down to the level of different children’s personalities is not just inefficient but dangerous. The judgement and good motives of parents have always historically been the best guarantor of the interests of their children. For the state to belittle, or attempt to circumvent these would be damaging, not beneficial, to the overall raising of children.
What do you think?