There was an interesting thread over at Sunni’s Salon concerning the rights of children in a free society. It was inspired by an article in which the author argued that children are born with complete human rights and that mothers undertake an obligation to take care of their children as a kind of one sided contract that the child can later sign on to or repudiate. The author also argues that children would be free to change parents if they were unhappy with their treatment.
My own take on this is informed by my experience as part of the child welfare apparatus. Traditionally, parental rights in children were akin to property rights, but there has been a trend over the years to looking at parenting in terms of the “best interests of the child” with less regard for parental prerogatives. In a real sense, the state has become the owner of all children and simply lets parents keep them on good behavior.
Some rights in children don’t mean much any more. Your right to the services and earnings of your children is generally valueless in today’s society, especially since they aren’t even allowed to work (I would have had kids if they could pay their own way). And the nature of the parent child relationship is quite different in the 21st century than just a century ago. Children are by and large an act of consumption of entertainment. They are an expensive hobby not unlike having an unusually long-lived and destructive pet. Most parents reckon that they are entitled to the companionship of their children and to enjoy them without let or hindrance from anyone else, even the state. Besides the sense of satisfaction and amusement to be gotten from kids, parents have no reasonable expectation of gain from having children. They have every natural incentive, therefore, to be solicitous and loving in order to induce their children to be pleasant and to maintain contact with them. No amount of enforcement of contracts or rights is going to make your kid like you.
If the concept of the “best interests of the child” inured to the benefit of the child instead of empowering the state, I could get behind it. Let’s recognize children as free people with full human rights from the get go. They are not chattels of their parents or of the state. They have the right to be free from aggression, but they don’t have any right to anything from their parents. Care will be provided in most cases gratuitously and in the spirit of love without the need for a fictive contract or parental rights enforced by the state. In some cases, there will be abuse or neglect, but a free society will develop mechanisms for dealing with this issue, such as allowing any person to petition for custody of any child.
As the libertarian sage Donald Rumsfeld once remarked, “Freedom is messy.” A free society will not be free of social ills such as child abuse and neglect, but at least there will be no monstrous intrusive child welfare apparatus coupled with the abuse and neglect it is ostensibly briefed to remedy.
UPDATE: Sunni pointed out in a comment that the item referred to was not at the Salon but at Sunni and the Conspirators, the link to which is http://www.sunnimaravillosa.com/node/1119.