Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Raising California: The rights of a parent

When I wrote about the private Kansas school that would not allow a woman to ref their basketball game, I went on a brief rant about a parent's supposed right to teach their children whatever they want. I promised a more in-depth look at this issue, and here it is.

I was reminded of this issue, and spurred to write about it, by a story out of California about the legality of home schooling. For all the details, you can read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle or the L.A. Times. The gist of the story is that a California appeals court ruled that parents without teaching credentials had no constitutional right to home school their children.

On the story itself, I am not sure what side I fall on. For those of you who don't know, I was home schooled from first grade through high school. While I was certainly deprived of a solid education in science and biology, and generally found my high school education to fall well short of that of my peers, my early education was much better than anything I would have received in a public school. Since I was the only student in my grade, I was able to move at my own pace in math and reading and other basic studies. With no other students to hold me back, I was usually multiple grade-levels ahead of my peers in these areas. So there are certainly potential benefits of a home school education (I knew some home schooled kids who fell way behind in math and reading because their parents were more interested in having them do chores or because they focused upwards of 90% of their schooling on religion, but the majority of my home schooled peers grew rapidly in their early years of education).

Furthermore, I found this statement from the judge kind of frightening: "A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare."

When I hear the words, "patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation," I hear a veiled promotion of prejudice, but once again, I'm going to have to save that topic for another day.

Ultimately, I think my feeling is that parents who want to home school their children should be allowed to do so as long as they can show that their kids are getting a good education in all areas. I think this would lead to a lot of parents being forced to put their kids in school at some level, once the level of education is too high and specialized to be taught by an individual parent. After all, you wouldn't expect your high school science teacher to be able to teach you Spanish, and you wouldn't expect your math teacher to be a very good english teacher. At a certain point, the benefits of home schooling give way to the benefits of having several teachers who are experts in their varios areas of education. That's my tenative resolution, but it's not at all what I want to write about in this post. The reaction that I found even more disturbing than the judge's statement was from this home school parent, quoted in the L.A. Times:

"I want to have control over what goes in my son's head, not what's put in there by people who might be on the far left who have their own ideas about indoctrinating kids."

The first part of this sentence, "I want to have control over what goes in my son's head," sends a chill down my spine. If he were talking about not allowing his 14-year-old son to watch a violent movie, or read a raunchy novel, that would fine. But he's not. He's talking about planting his political and religious beliefs in his son's mind, and completely sheltering his son from any opposing opinions.

This begs the question, "How much should parents be allowed to control what their children learn?"

When people talk about tolerence, a common concession goes something like this, "You're allowed to teach your children whatever you want, just don't try to force your beliefs on me or my kids." My contention is that this is conceding too much. But before I go any further, I should give a brief look at the nature-nurture issue.

Recent research of genes and human development has shown that "Nature vs. Nature" is actually a false dichotomy. It is much more likely that nature and nurture work one through the other, in an infinite loop. We are certainly born with natural tendencies, but our nature is only shown in how we react to our environment. Since we are interracting with our environment from the moment we are born (and even before that), it is very difficult to distinguish nature from nurture. Now that's just a crude summary of the theory. For a more accurate, more elegant summary, see "Nature via Nurture," by Matt Ridley.

There are two points to take away from this: (1) Every child, no matter how young, is an individual person with a unique personality and a seperate consciousness (or "soul," if you prefer) than everyone else, (2) Because parents have the most control over a child's environment, they are in a powerful position to affect the child's beliefs and opinions.

Like any position of power, the power of parenting brings with it a responsibility to use it only when necessary. Children are people too. This may seem a tired statement--this is certainly not the first time you've heard it--but it is rarely recognized for what it really means. No person is the property of another person, and since children of all ages are persons, this includes them. But many parents are eager to make the jump from "My kids are my responsibility," to, "My kids are mine." Since children are too young to make important decisions for themselves, legal responsibilties are often passed on to the parents. This further promotes the idea that they are our property: we have to sign release papers in order for anyone else to use them. But responsibility for a person does not mean that you own them and are free to control their lives in any way you see fit.

When I graduated high school, I wrote an open letter to all the home school parents in our home school group. Since I save just about everything I've ever written, I have a portion of it here:

Here is what I think about home school parents: I believe you truly care about your children and you want the best for them (you’re agreeing so far). You also remember when you were young, and all the bad decisions you made; you don’t want you’re sons and daughters to make any bad decisions. Your solution: don’t allow them to make decisions. If they can never be alone with someone of the opposite sex, they can’t make the bad decision to have sex. If they aren’t ever around anyone who would possibly have drugs or alcohol, they can’t make the bad decision to get high, or drunk. As long as you are always watching them, you can always jump in if they’re about to make a bad choice. Wake up. You’re over-controlling. Are you proud that you can say your child has never had sex, drank alcohol, or smoked anything? If someone is never offered a joint, does this mean they have chosen not to smoke weed? If a girl is closely watched every time she comes within ten feet of a guy, does this mean she has chosen to remain a virgin?
Think about this: you can’t watch your child forever. They will eventually escape you’re vision. Sooner or later, they will make decisions for themselves. You say you’re waiting for them to mature enough to make the right decision. Here’s a fact: maturity is accomplished by messing up. Some people only make a few, little mistakes. Some people make huge mistakes. Some people continue making mistakes and never mature. But by sheltering your kids from making their own decisions you are only delaying their maturing process. Earlier, I said I am starting to mature. Do you know when this started? When I was given more freedom to make my own choices. To no one‘s surprise, I’ve made bad decisions. I have learned from them. I won’t do them again. Not because my parents say I can’t, but because I’ve gone through it, and now my conscience tells me I can’t. By the way, while a conscience can always be there, a parent can‘t. If you’re kids don’t make any of there own decisions until they’re away at college, what happens when they do make a bad choice? You, the parents, won’t be staying in their dorms, so they will have to deal with their mistake without your help. All that is assuming that there’s still someone there who will tell them they’re making a mistake.

This is one of the few things I wrote when I was 17 that I still agree with whole-heartedly. This particular letter was written to a specific group of home school parents, but parents in all kinds of situations make the same mistakes I wrote about. We do it out of genuine love for our children, because it is painful for us to watch them make decisions that we know are going to hurt them.

Likewise, it is hurtful for us to imagine our children disagreeing with us on beliefs that we hold close to our heart. If I imagine my son growing up to be deeply religious, a Reagan-conservative Republican, an avid fan of Ben Affleck, and a lover of country music, I want to bang my head against the wall. But I'm not going to use my powers of parenthood to prevent that from happening. I wouldn't say, "I've failed as a parent." I would say, "I can't believe how different my son is from me."

I can understand why parents want to shelter their kids from opposing opinions, especially if their kids start to show signs of being persuaded by those opinions. But this is a blatant abuse of your parental responsibilities.

To me, my job as a parent is to allow my son to discover what makes him happy and who he is. It is my duty to provide basic needs, of course, provide him with the best education I can afford, help him accomplish the things that he wants to accomplish, and perhaps most importantly, how to think for himself.

I also see it as my duty as a human to make sure that other children receive the same freedom to develop without any hinderences from their parents or anyone else. In our culture, a garuanteed way to make people uncomfortable is to talk about getting involved in the development of other people's kids without the parents' permission. Yet, I have never heard a convincing argument that the only people that should be involved in a child's development is that child's parents. That's just the way it's always been, which is a good indicator that the status quo is flawed.


Ordinary Girl said...

I agree completely, Nathan. There is a balance between privacy, the rights of the parent's, and also the rights of the child.

As a child I wanted the best education I could get. I didn't get it. My parents thought they were doing the right thing, but the school I went to sheltered me and misled me in many basic concepts. I don't resent them for it because I know they were doing what they thought was best for me. But I felt exactly what you felt in your letter. I needed to make my own decisions and test the water on my own.

If parents teach their children about the world and right and wrong then their children will be OK. They may make mistakes, but they're not going to mess up their lives any more than they would being sheltered. If anything, the world is more of a shock when you get out there after you've been sheltered. I had no defenses and I was lucky that my naiveté and gullibility wasn't taken advantage of more.

And what about parents that don't care enough to try to give a quality eduction or don't value education? Should the child be at a disadvantage? Like you said, he or she isn't property and will have to live with those decisions the parent made.

It's a difficult issue, and I think California stepped over the line, but I think there has to be some sort of standard of education that children are entitled to.

Anonymous said...

Very good post. I'm not against home-schooling, but there has to be some way for society to ensure that its citizens are not being deprived of essential information and experiences. This is a complex issue that we'll likely have to wrestle with across the country for a good number of years to come.

Maggie Macaulay said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking and balanced post. I will put a link to it in Parenting News You Can Use, a free weekly parenting e-Zine sent by the International Network for Children and Families (

We all learn from making mistakes. Making mistakes and learning new ways to handle situations is growth. Parents can create the space for children to experience decision-making at home so that children can safely practice, and parents can provide encouragement when a child makes a mistake.

Regarding the quote from the parent who feared the influence of "the left," the most revealing word was "indoctrination." Education is not indoctrination. We teach our children how to think...not what to think.

Thanks again!
Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed