Licenced to parent?

Posted Friday, August 20th, 2010 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Law and Culture, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to General Public

I read this week in the New York Times that half of all pregnancies in America are unplanned.  Many of the social problems I observe–in family court; in my community; in the media–are the result of people becoming parents when they did not intend to become parents.  Not a month goes by when my local paper, The Charleston Post & Courier, doesn’t report some horrific story of parental abuse or neglect, usually from some parent who clearly had no ability to properly parent a child.

As wags often note, we require folks to get a license to drive a car but not to become a parent.  This is because driving is considered a “privilege” and not a “right.”  Yet try to live in South Carolina without a car and see how well you function: my wife, who managed without a drivers license for 13 years after reaching the age where she could obtain one, decided she needed one within months of our move to downtown Charleston–one of the few locations in South Carolina in which one could conceivably do without a car.  I sometimes think that the fact that one needs a license to drive a car is a historical anomaly. Had the car predated John Locke, and the development on an Anglo-Saxon rights culture, driving might well be considered a civil right.  What if we treated parenthood rather than driving as something that required a “license?”

I acknowledge the problems that might result from allowing those in power to decide who should be allowed to become a parent.  When our first child remained an only child past her seventh birthday, my wife and I would often be told by South of Broad Bluebloods that we were the “right kind of people” to be having more children and I wouldn’t want those Bluebloods deciding who gets to be a parent.   In Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including “mental defectives,” “for the protection and health of the state.” He justified this decision with the infamous phrase, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  This is what happens when the powerful get to decide who is fit to parent.

Yet making sure that folks planned on being parents, and had some idea of what parenting entailed, before they became parents would alleviate many of our social problems.  Look how many obstacles are placed in front of folks who want to adopt a child: social worker home studies; guardians ad litem; formal court proceedings.  Meanwhile we allow any ole damn fools in the back seat of an automobile to become parents without any government oversight or intervention.

Two of my early blogs, both from the same month, dealt with the issue of how do we get parents to support their children when they likely didn’t intend to become a parent in the first place?  The blogs are seemingly contradictory.  The first, Irresponsible baby daddies, notes my tremendous sympathy for the frustration single mothers feel when they raise their children without a father’s support.  The second, Is the application of civil contempt in South Carolina’s “daddy round-ups” improper?, notes my sympathy for these same fathers and the way the family court uses its contempt powers (I believe improperly) to force them to pay child support.  Both stem from my frustration trying to ameliorate the consequences of folks who become parents through reckless sexual behavior.

I am disheartened by the parade of frustrated mothers who aren’t getting their child support.  I am disheartened by the parade of fathers, cycling from unemployment to marginal employment, being incarcerated when they fall behind on their support obligations.  I am extremely disheartened by the parade of abusive or neglectful parents who continue to have children–often more children than the attorneys who represent them pro bono–while remaining embroiled in the DSS system.  And if I find this disheartening, I can only imagine how a family court judge–who sees this misery 50 times as often as I do–feels after a few years on the bench.

The ultimate solution is to strive to make every pregnancy a planned pregnancy.  Can one abhor the eugenics language of Buck v. Bell while having sympathy for the idea that society needs some limits on folks becoming parents merely because they have reached sexual maturity?  Yet we would have negative population growth if all children were conceived of a desire to have children.  Can our species even survive if all pregnancies were planned pregnancies?

8 thoughts on Licenced to parent?

  1. “And if I find this disheartening, I can only imagine how a family court judge–who sees this misery 50 times as often as I do–feels after a few years on the bench.”

    Quoting L. Mendel Rivers, Jr.:
    “As important as Family Court is, the judge is unfortunately required to apply very familiar law to constantly recurring, similar facts. At some point, the intellectually curious become bored. After fifteen (15) years on the Family Court bench, I lost my enthusiasm to perform the same job over and over each day. I gave myself the freedom to resign from the Family Court bench and pursue other interests, which I believe greatly benefited me.”

    ‘Freedom’ lovely concept.

  2. California observer says:

    Right idea, but missing one practical piece and one conceptual piece.

    The practical piece is that there is almost no form of state coercion which could *prevent* those back-seat hotties from becoming parents, absent forced abortion or adoption. So even though a license is probably a good conceptual idea, it could only be applied for some incentive like extra welfare benefits or something….and unfortunately the kids who would most benefit from such state-sponsored goodies are precisely the ones whose parents probably wouldn’t have licenses.

    The conceptual piece–implicit in your post–is that the license is for parental *behavior*, not *genetics*. We absolutely don’t want bluebloods dictating eugenics, no question. But as you pointed out in another post (about how conservative family courts implicitly encourage very specific, conservative parenting practices), it’s an open question which parenting practices or approaches should be licensed. “Never hit your kid?” “Always hit your kid?” “Make sure they’re never hungry?”

    Frankly, I’d love to see the specifics of just what such a license would test for, if only so I’d know whether I’d have passed myself.

    1. As my blog notes, I have concerns that government would abuse any power it had over who gets to be parents and thus would not want the government to “license” who gets to be a parent. However, clearly, government could do more to improve parenting skills. I find it amazing that high schools have no mandatory classes in parenting and economics–two skills that most adults gain on an ad hoc basis if they ever hope to gain it.

      Through decades of research on child development, we have a pretty good idea of good parenting skills and bad parenting skills and the government already has or sanctions classes that teach these skills as part of child abuse or neglect treatment plans. Government could require new parents or expectant parents to attend a certain minimum number of hours of such classes in order to obtain the tax credits that come from having dependent minor children.

      Further I may not have stated my thesis as clearly as I should have: I would like government policy to encourage planned pregnancies and discourage unplanned pregnancies. Just as some states have created “covenant” marriage, government could create “covenant” parenting. Couples who attend parenting classes at least 10 months prior to a child’s birth could get greater tax credits or other types of government assistance when any child is born to that couple. This use of tax policy to advantage what we want to encourage (responsible child bearing) over what we want to discourage (mindless child bearing) doesn’t lead to the problems of having government decide who gets to become parents.

      These are just a few ideas. Obviously there are other (and probably better) ideas of how to encourage responsible child bearing while discouraging irresponsible child bearing. However, for a society that talks so much about “family values,” we do an amazingly poor job of encouraging good parenting and good parents.

      1. Tax credit incentives? But many of those carelessly having many kids are very poor and pay no taxes. What about cutting their benefits and welfare checks?

  3. MJ Goodwin says:

    Three generations of imbeciles is most certainly enough. The problem is who decides who are the imbeciles. I wouldn’t want the current administration to do it. I wouldn’t want the past administration to do it. Some people probably wouldn’t want me to do it. So there is the rub. The fact that we can’t solve the problem may make us the imbeciles.

    You know that I have great problems with a large portion of the “breeding population.” I see countless cases of horrible abuse, sometimes resulting in death of the defenseless child. I do think there are some objective measures that could be taken in this regard. I’m sure I’ll catch heck for this, but how about requiriing sterilization after one year on welfare? Anyone can make one “mistake” and have an unplanned baby, which she cannot support on her own. But I don’t think I should have to pay for that person’s repeated “mistakes”. I think that our present system sets up children to be abused or neglected, because the poor are given financial incentives to have more children. Nevermind that the incentives don’t begin to cover the cost of the kid. That doesn’t matter to them. They don’t really want the child, they want the money. I use the generic “they” to include those with more than one child on welfare and no plan to better herself. I recently saw something by C. L. Bryant that purported the idea that the welfare system in this country is the replacement “plantation” and another form of slavery. While that is probably an extreme view, I’m not sure it’s wrong. I think the movie is called Runaway Slave. You can google it.

    One more thought: the Honorable Frank Epps, now deceased, once commented during a guilty plea that people should not be “hatching” if they are not married. He went on to say that the problem with our society is that people used to be ashamed of their behavior and they aren’t ashamed anymore. This was in 1992. I was a young assistant solicitor at the time. He was right then. It’s worse now.

  4. Erin says:

    I wanted to add something. Planning a pregnancy isn’t what makes good or bad parenting. Just as education will not necessarily make a person more or less “smart”. There are some things that are more instinctive to some than others. I could go to class after class to be a “good parent” but what makes us good or not is how we apply what we know. Often this is from what we have experienced. I have learned as much from the things I have experienced in my life that has shown me the right way to do things as I have been shown the wrong. Some things even more so when I have learned he hard way.

    There are some in this world Greg that just are missing that chip in us that provides us with the ability to empathize with our children. My ex is a pathological narcissist. His parents are college educated and planned each of their children. Yet they raised a man that is mentally crippled not just emotionally but in so many ways. He is 50 and still lives with them when he has since I divorced him. He works for them as well because he can’t manage to maintain a job elsewhere.

    While I understand your thought process and I am sure you have seen many things that would make you feel as you do. Unfortunately, divorce is the time we are normally at our worst and most self centered. I also know that many people in this world plan children, go to class after class and read countless books on the subject of rearing children. Then go home to drink, beat their wife and abuse their children. These things won’t stop because people are taking classes or planning children. Unfortunately they just won’t. I have seen things that I can’t begin to mention. Suffice it to say that there is one thing that I feel would make the biggest impact of horrific things done to our youngest and most vulnerable. Sadly it is alcohol and drug use that is the worst influence in that area and unless you have a tax break for people remaining clean and sober I don’t see that stopping any time soon.

    If you look at 90% of the cases before the court for horrific things done to our children you will find substance abuse at its root. Being a survivor as well as having known many others, it is the one thing I heard over and over.

    That is the one thing that would make a significant change. Some things can not be taught. Good common sense is one of those things.

    1. Erin:

      I am not suggesting that there is a 100% correlation between “planning” to have children and being a good parent. I am suggesting there is a strong correlation between “planning” to have children and being committed to child raising and a further strong correlation between being committed to child raising and doing a good job raising children. I also doubt that many planned pregnancies occur among substance abusers (who are, by definition, so fixated on abusing substances that it is doubtful they would knowingly and voluntarily commit to the hard task of raising a child).

      No one can predict with 100% certainty at birth how “well” that child will turn out to be as an adult (if we could even agree upon what it means for the child to do “well”). Further children can turn out great despite bad parenting and children can turn out poorly despite good parenting. Despite all this, I believe that reducing the rate of unplanned pregnancies would do more to alleviate a whole range of social problems than just about anything our culture could do.

  5. I liked what Erin had to say: “Sadly it is alcohol and drug use that is the worst influence in that area and unless you have a tax break for people remaining clean and sober I don’t see that stopping any time soon. If you look at 90% of the cases before the court for horrific things done to our children you will find substance abuse at its root.”

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