Did you catch the controversial Melissa Harris-Perry TV spot? The MSNBC personality has been ridiculed by conservatives and libertarians since she suggested that the United States hasn't invested as much in public education as we should have because we have "this private notion of children." We think, "Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility," she argued, rather than "these are our children." She went on to argue that a necessary remedy is to "break through" the "private idea" that "kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families," and to recognize that kids belong to whole communities. "Once it's everybody's responsibility, and not just the household's," she concluded, "then we start making better investments."
Did she really mean that kids don't belong to their parents or families, but to the community at large? Or did she do a terrible job of expressing the distinct argument that members of communities have some obligations to all the children within them, not just the members of their own families? It's hard to say. Her follow-up post conflates distinct concepts so much I can't tell.
What I can do is to explain why, as someone who supports well-funded public schools, a social safety net, neighborhoods with "eyes on the street" (per Jane Jacobs), charitable work on behalf of needy kids, and an ethos of looking out for any kid who finds him or herself in need of adult assistance, I emphatically believe that "your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility," that "kids belong to their families," not to their communities, and that the converse formulation is dangerous.
It is dangerous in part because children are raised by individuals, not diffuse collectives. Mother and father are in fact responsible for getting baby her shots, strapping her into the car seat, childproofing the house, noticing her allergic reaction to peanuts, and enrolling her in primary school. If they fail to do these things, or to find someone who'll do them on their behalf, baby suffers. A kindly passerby won't peek through the living-room window, notice the child crying, and attend to it. I suspect that if a young couple leaving the hospital, newborn in arms, were to ask Harris-Perry for advice, she would not tell them, "Don't worry, this kid isn't all your responsibility." The fact that most parents feel this responsibility deep within them is literally indispensable to our civilization. Kids whose parents don't feel or ignore it are often seriously disadvantaged.
Recognizing that parents bear primary responsibility for their children's well-being isn't just important for most families. It is a collective necessity in any pluralistic society. Progressives are prone to talking as if optimal policies and methods can be agreed upon if only right-thinking people vest trust in appropriately enlightened technocrats. But outside the wonk bubble, Americans have deep, legitimate disagreements about what ought to happen. Child rearing is no exception. If kids belong to their families, some can spend their Saturdays taking piano lessons, others can mark the Jewish Sabbath, and still others can play baseball or attend Chinese or Korean school.
"Can you believe the Nguyens let Johnny race dirt bikes?"
"I don't care if Caitlin's mom is letting her go."
"My son will not be one of those Muslims who never learns the Koran."
Parents raising their own children as they see fit can disagree vehemently, even on deeply held values, and coexist with nothing more dramatic than incredulous bitching to their spouses about other nearby parents. Conceive of the community as ultimately responsible for raising kids and see how suddenly, intractably contentious and upsetting a formerly thriving place becomes. A secular progressive parent put in a small town of devout Mormons would be the first to tell you that he gets to decide how to raise his kids, not the community. He would be exactly right. Parents get to decide how to raise their kids. Their neighbors ought to help them succeed, but have no claim to the kids.
There are, of course, unfit parents. Fathers who beat their sons. Mothers who get their three-year-olds high. Those kids should be taken away. Like all humans, they possess individual rights. But what those children then want and need -- much more than a community that feels collective responsibility for its children -- is to be placed in a specific family with individuals who'll love them like family. That is far more valuable to them than a community with an abstract investment in them. If their adopted parents love them as their own -- which is to say, prefer them to all other children, and are willing to sacrifice more for them than anyone else -- that is a beautiful thing. Better two loving parents than 200,000 taxpayers with an impersonal responsibility for one's welfare.
You can only have both if the family is in charge.
Free Range Kids is one parents' movement I follow with interest. It's a reaction against helicopter parenting. Its adherents believe that by giving their children extra independence at an early age, encouraging them to solve their own problems, and permitting them to take reasonable risks rather than being overprotective to the point of paranoia, they'll raise happier, healthier, more confident, independent people. They all put a great deal of thought into their parenting.
The group's blog recently featured a story written by a parent who reported that Child Protective Services wants to take custody of their daughter. It is both relevant and worthy of attention in its own right.
"We've taught our six-year-old, whom I'll call Emily, about crossing the street, reading maps, etc. As she's learned these skills we've let her try them out, first with supervision, and then on her own, to make short trips around the neighborhood," the parent writes. "We live in a fairly average residential neighborhood that has a mixture of stop signs, stop lights, and crosswalks. The state that we live in does not have any laws regarding a minimum age for a child to be unattended."
Here is his saga:
Day 1: Six-year-old "Emily" walks three blocks by herself to the post office for the second time. This is after having made the trip with her many times in past through our quiet, residential neighborhood. All the streets have sidewalks, and the walk requires crossing one 'T' intersection that has a stop sign and crossing at a traffic light.
Day 2: "Emily" and I are both walking back from the library. She wants to do it herself, so I let her walk separate from me some of the time. The cops get a phone call from a concerned citizen who says there's a strange guy talking to a little girl. Three officers respond and cite a concern for Emily's safety in crossing the street. I confirm that I am her father and give my name, as is required by law. They refuse to state any reasonable suspicion of a crime being committed or say what law has been broken, and so, in accordance with my 5th amendment rights, I refuse to answer any questions. We are detained for over half an hour before being released. (I asked many times over the course of the detention whether I was "free to go" and I was told that I was not. We were told that we were being held for an "investigative detention.") The sergeant who responded to the scene stated over the radio that he wanted to "hook this guy" for child endangerment. (The recording of radio traffic during the encounter was later received through a public records request that I made.)
Day 6: I call the sergeant who reported on Day 2 to ask if we were still under investigation. He responded that we were not and that an "incident supplement" had been filed by the reporting officer and "that was all." He confirms that there is no law prohibiting a school-age child from crossing residential streets. That afternoon we let Emily walk to the post office to mail a letter. The same officers who responded on Day 2 remove Emily from the post office and detain her. Contrary to the complaint that is filed later, they do not contact me -- I go looking for her when she doesn't come right back home -- and they refuse many times to release her. According to the complaint, Emily, who has known her phone number and address for quite some time, refuses to give them to the officers, but the officers know who she is, who I am, and where we live.
Day 7: A social worker with CPS leaves a letter at my door addressed to a different person than anyone in my family. I mail it back.
Day 12: CPS leaves a letter addressed to my wife and I that cites unspecified concerns about the children.
Day 13: I call CPS twice and leave a message. The phone call is not returned for two days.
Day 14: We give Emily the Free Range Kid ID card to function as a sort of "permission slip" so that she can demonstrate to other people that she has not merely escaped unnoticed. Then we let Emily go to the post office again. When she is just around the corner from the house on her way home, she is stopped by a city utility worker and a school bus driver (though she is not enrolled in public school). She calls me on the cell phone since the bus driver is preventing her from leaving, so I go get her. That night two officers knock on the door, but we do not answer.
Day 15: I talk with the supervisor at CPS on a recorded phone call. I refuse to answer any questions or make any statements. Though he did relay that he was concerned about a child "roaming the streets of [Our City, OH]," he refuses to tell me what law has been broken. We go around and around for about 25 minutes. I find out through my employer shortly after the phone call that if I do not "cooperate" CPS is threatening to seek an ex parte* order, which would allow CPS to take custody without a hearing, to separate us that Friday (and then keep Emily all weekend since a hearing would not have to be held until close of business on Monday). Note that I have cooperated to the full extent required by law. The Home School Legal Defense Assn. is very helpful in getting CPS to agree not to seek an ex parte order so long as Emily does not go outside again by herself.
Since then CPS has knocked on the door many times. I did answer the door when the CPS supervisor came by -- I thought that he was a delivery guy or what not since he didn't have a uniformed police officer with him -- but otherwise we have simply ignored them. There is no law requiring someone to answer their door, and since I had no interest in talking to them or getting detained by the cops simply ignoring them seemed the best course of action.
Day 41: We are served with a complaint alleging neglect and dependency. The County wants to take Emily into "protective supervision" or "temporary custody." The complaint contains many factual errors and inaccuracies. There is also a motion for "pre-dispositional interim orders." As I understand it, this is a mechanism by which CPS can intervene even before the merits of the case against us for neglect are even heard, but less decided. It is scheduled to take place more than a month before the hearing on the neglect charge. It asks the court to force my wife and I to "allow ______ County Children Services to complete an assessment with the family. This is including allowing the agency access in the home, allowing the agency to interview the children, and participate openly in the assessment process." In other words, they want to search our house, interrogate the children, and force us to testify.
He concludes, "We are trying our best to raise Emily to be responsible, curious, and capable. We have chosen to include teaching her about using the library, navigating the neighborhood, and mailing letters as elements of her homeschooling. Needless to say, this entire ordeal has been quite distressing for the entire family, and we view it as a threat to our homeschooling, our parental rights, and both my and Emily's civil liberties. Since our family is being threatened by legal action, I have tried to confine my comments to a dispassionate statement of known facts."
I suspect opinions about the wisdom of this man's parenting will be sharply divided, as will opinions on the particular way that he handled the bureaucratic requests made of him. His case is interesting for our purposes because he very much wants to take full responsibility for raising his child -- and his community very much wants to take responsibility too. Who should win in this conflict? I emphatically side with the parents. I suspect some left-leaning readers will side against the parents in the abstract (though I hope I'm wrong about that). But does any reader think that little Emily would be better off being cared for by Child Protective Services or the foster system?
Does Harris-Perry? If not, why?
It sounds warm and fuzzy to say, abstractly, that a child belongs "to the entire community." What that means, concretely, is being shuffled from family court judge to bureaucrat to group house. Save in extraordinary circumstances, the "private idea" that "kids belong to their parents" serves them best, and doesn't at all preclude helping parents who struggle to fulfill their responsibility.
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