Who has greater responsibility over the wellbeing of a child, the child’s parents or the government?
When there is a disagreement between the two entities, who ought to win out? What is the line that the government cannot allow to be crossed? What principles are in place to protect a family from government overreach into their lives? What principles protect the family’s values against those of the government?
I find these to be difficult questions. While it’s necessary for individuals to be protected from the tyranny of the government, the government must also protect individuals from unjust harm.
In the case a child abuse, it is difficult to lay out a clear line. Many American citizens believe that restrained spanking is completely acceptable. Many deeply resent the idea of government officials telling parents how to raise their own children. But then who else is going to protect children from the verbal and physical abuse of their parents? Indeed it seems that under the current legal regime, way too many parents are getting away with abusing their children. Having worked in education, I’ve talked to counselors and made the calls to Child Protective Services. I’ve seen the hopeless (“it’s sad, but we can’t do anything about it”) attitude from counselors, as well as the impotence of Child Protective Services (“If there are no marks, we can’t do anything.”). But we, as a society, have to make sure every child is protected, whether the government is currently up to it or not.
We need a firm line: no hitting children. That’s somewhere to start. When it comes to verbal abuse, we need to understand that humans are only human and that they’re going to lose their temper from time to time. But if they’re calling their children disparaging names and/or cursing at their children on a regular basis (every week or more frequently), that cannot be tolerated.
When it comes to religion, things get even trickier. Should male and female circumcision be allowed for religious reasons? Absolutely not! Permanent bodily harm of a person should not be allowed until that person voluntarily agrees to it at the age of 18 or later.
But even trickier is the policing of values by the government. Should the teaching of hate be tolerated under any circumstances? If parents teach their children the religious beliefs that gays and apostates ought to be stoned to death, should that be allowed?! On the one hand, it would seem unbelievable for a government to be tolerant of something like that, but, on the other hand, the idea of the government deciding what the acceptable versions of religion are is frightening.
But let’s think about it: if we as a society decided that parents are not allowed to teach their children that particular categories of people ought to be killed, that seems to go too far since the belief that murderers and rapists ought to be killed does not seem completely unjustifiable. But what about the killing of adulterers or liars? Where’s the line? If children cannot be taught that the killing of innocent people is justifiable, who gets to define the meaning of innocent?
Perhaps we can say that children must not be taught that it is justifiable to murder a person on the basis of their religion, race, sexual orientation, family associations, political beliefs, consensual sexual actions, utterances, or misdemeanor crimes. Sure, it seems ridiculous to be that specific, but what else can we do? It seems impossible to lay out a fine line.
Another option would be to allow parents to teach children whatever they want and then simply rely on the deterrent of the consequences of the rule of law to keep those children from violence during their childhood and beyond.
It is, however, possible for communities in America to nearly completely isolate their members from the outside world (think of the Amish and Hasidic Jews). So relying on the consequences of the rule of law as a deterrent in these cases would likely not be very effective. Thus, the more invasive first option seems to me to be the preferable one.
Indeed multiculturalism is not all it’s cracked up to be. It can be okay up to a point, but when the value differences are too severe, it can become harmful to human beings—even fatally harmful. Dangerous values, no matter where they come from, are exactly that. And it is the responsibility of society, through the powers of government, to protect the entire citizenry from those dangers.