Lazy Luddite Log

9.5.08

Parenting Licence

I got involved in a vigorous debate over a few drinks this week on associated topics of parenting and population. As is frequently the case the conversations started with the personal then became political. We were sharing anecdotes of some of the rudeness one finds in society. From the lack of respect for teachers shown by some students to the shitty behaviour some parents model for their children. We are all aware of the existance of pockets of intergenerational welfare dependence and (associated with that) the perpetuation of forms of conduct that are at best barely socialised and at worst borderline criminal. In such a discussion it is natural then to seek solutions...

From time-to-time conservatives will declare that there has been a massive loss of manners in society. The former Prime Minister Howard catered to this sentiment with calls for a renewal in manners (never mind that many pronouncements of his ministers were wildly offensive to many in our society). I wonder how much of a delcine there truly has been however. It is something we cannot quantify so anecodatal evidence must be resorted to.

One useful way of 'sampling' society I think is to take public transport. One witnesses many shades of behaviour and frequently what I observe contradicts received wisdom. Schoolkids en masse can be rather obnoxious but I have also frequently noticed teenages very politely thanking busdrivers. At the same time I have seen more than a few elderly commuters behaving in very offensive ways and acting as if age gives them licence to do so. It all depends on the specific person of course.

Another thing I am tempted to note is that some of the best behaviour seems to come from those of recent migrant backgrounds while some of the worst comes from those who in the US they call 'white trash'. There may be something in this in that migrants tend to adhere more to norms of traditional family values. I think many of these values are problematic in a permissive society but am all for instilling in members of society conduct which demonstrates a respect for others. Ironically conservatives may get what they want by fostering more multiculturalism!

But back to the 'white trash' or what we here fondly call 'bogans'. This demographic is associated with (and I am overgeneralising) intergenerational welfare dependence and tends to concentrate in particular areas. It makes life particularly difficult for those involved in the caring professions in those areas. Or just for anyone who runs into them on the street. It produces teenage parties that end in massive police operations. With this kind of thing in mind some of my friends proposed the concept of 'parenting licences'. I can understand the sentiment behind this. I have come across this same proposal in past conversations with other friends. And then as now I have to object.

I object on philosophical grounds. Having children is a human right - see Artile 16 (1) of The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. To have this right transferred to some government body to then decide who is entitled to have children is offensive to this philosophy of natural rights. It is also dangerous - what government experts or vested interests get to decide what constitutes proper parenting or proper parents? I would object to this form of interference even if those interfering agreed entirely with my vision of how one should behave.

This is all I need to say but I also object on practical grounds. How the heck would something like parenting licences ever be enforced? And what happens to those who defy the new law or indeed to those who are a product of that defiance? If backyard abortions are a problem then imagine backyard births. There are ways in which it could be enforced like artificial sterilisation. But we come now to my final objection...

And with it we return from the political to the personal: Sometimes ones political perspectives are shaped by those one hates as much as by those one loves and I hate fascists and it is fascist regimes that have utilised sterilisation as a part of eugenics programs. The association of this alone is sufficient for me to respond strongly to the suggestion of parenting licences. That is my own historical perspective and it may help others understand why I may stand apart on this one so firmly.

But we still have a problem. Some parents are negligent. Some parents model some very nasty behaviours. Some children take such behaviours into adulthood and so it persists. I think my take on this is similar to my take on the issue of the stupid citizenship test. Rather than test someone to see if they are fit to be a citizen we should provide them with services and guidance to allow them to become worthy of citizenship. We should assume that an adult can manage themselves and children and only intervene if it is apparent that they are neglecting the responsibility they have freely taken on. My preference is for an array of government and societal responses that work together to promote the behaviour society expects. This is moreorless what we have now anyway. Improvements can always be made. Yet there will always be problems that persist despite the best of intentions. But for me a complex response is better than a drastic and simplistic solution like that of the parenting licence.

And Another Thing

We also discussed population control which is another issue deserving its own space that I may come back to at sometime...

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11 Comments:

  • Dear Daniel,

    I think you are on the right track with this.

    The "parenting license" is a bit of an authoritarian response, like an attempt at punishing people for boganinity, sort of "you're a dickhead, so you don't get to have kids".

    I think most people have the capability to be excellent parents, and most parents really do want the best for their kids.

    Isn't it the case that early intervention programs--- things that *help* parents, like intensive visits by child health nurses in the first couple of months, help with parenting skills, high-quality childcare etc etc have been shown to be (more than) cost effective (in terms of the intergenerational unemployment you talk about, and other similar measures eg teenage pregnancy, school attendance).

    (I'm not sure if economists/sociologists have measure the effect on manners, but I agree that a eugenics program aimed at improving the level of manners would be both unethical and unscientific. )

    On the other hand, I did feel very amazed that, given the amount of paper work and stuff one needs to get a car or a dog or build a shed, one can just go ahead and have a baby, just like that! Incredible.

    I think this points to the impractibility of the parenting licence idea--- if it was possible, it would already be with us.

    Hope you're well,

    Julie.

    By Blogger julie, At 09 May, 2008  

  • RE: Eugenics: The idea of a parenting licence to reduce boganism reflects an old paradigm: that social problems are caused by problem people, and that if you remove those people, the problem will disappear. However, these days we prefer to think of social problems as due to social conditions; so if you remove some people, others will take their place, provided the same conditions hold. The most effective way to reduce boganism would be to alter the social conditions that make boganism a necessary and/or viable lifestyle. Eugenics is not a solution.

    The other argument for the parenting license boils down to a 'protect the children' stance - a parenting license could prevent totally inadequate parents from reproducing. You've mentioned the two big problems with this:

    1) Enforcement. There is no foolproof, reversible contraceptive that the entire population can tolerate. If people breed and then fail to qualify for a license, it'd be no better than the systems we currently have for dealing with negligent parents (foster care, court-ordered parenting classes, etc.).

    2) Content. Who decides what skills all parents should have, or what constitutes good parenting? Good parenting varies according to culture, and the child's personality. Basic parenting skills (like the ability to provide food, affection and a safe environment) might be more universal, but even they vary considerably as the child grows up. How the hell do you test for all that? How do you do it without discriminating against particular cultural groups - in other words, sneaking in eugenics under the cover of 'protecting the children'?

    By Blogger Lizzie, At 10 May, 2008  

  • If that is the case, then why do families have to go through checks to adopt a child?

    A family wanting to adopt has to "complete a detailed application, which involves police checks, medical checks, a working-with-children check and other documentation. References will be required. If you're in a de facto relationship, documentary evidence will also be required."

    They have to attend "training sessions" before they can adopt.

    A social worker has to meet with them a number of times to assess them and they have to go up before a committee to show they are capable.

    http://www.office-for-children.vic.gov.au/adoption-permanent-care/applying_to_adopt_and_infant_in_victoria

    Why is it that anyone can get pregnant and carry the child to term, but people have to go through all this to adopt? Why can't they just give their name and have the next unwanted kid sent to them? It's effectively the same.

    There should be some consistency. If a couple wouldn't be good enough to adopt, then they shouldn't be good enough to conceive and have one that is biologically their own.

    By Blogger Lady Flame (AKA Mouse), At 10 May, 2008  

  • Struggling to be terse...

    Controlling reproductive rights is dangerous, no matter how careful. See China's one-child policy, backlash and repercussions thereof.

    Even so, some cases *clearly* justify it: See Mr Fritzl of Austria and family.

    Suggest instead that one might *lose* one's inherent right to reproduce through criminal acts and/or severe mental illness, to be reinstated on completion of suitable gauntlet of psych assessment.

    Agree that support for parents could be better, but point out: This is *already* a form of welfare which fosters dependance and is demonstrably abused, in some cases.

    More could be done to ensure that reproduction is thought-out and deliberate: compulsory 'implanon'-style implanted contraception, for both genders (as yet not 100% viable, but clearly coming) would make fertility an 'opt-in' thing.

    Bottom line: Restricting reproduction is harmful/arrogant/dangerous, but so is any criminal justice system. We accept the imperfect criminal justice system because the alternative is unthinkable. I would posit that extremely negligent/abusive parenting is unthinkable, meriting an equivalent response.

    By Blogger thorin@trouble.net.au, At 12 May, 2008  

  • Daniel,

    I agree with you that a "Parenting licence", as a precondition for having children, is a dangerous thing to try to implement. I also agree with Thorne though, that the "right" to have children is a right that can be lost, due to extreme bad behaviour, such as abuse of one's children.

    Perhaps a "Parenting certificate", could be considered, as a pre-condition for accessing government benefits. A parent would need to complete a test covering issues such as how to care for a baby, where to get help where needed etc. A course could be made available to those who need it to pass the test.

    Just a note: I strongly disagree that "bogan" is a sysnonym for "white trash". "White trash" is a very nasty term, indicating contempt. "Bogan" is more a description of a working class subculture, involving particular styles of dress and musical and sporting taste. I don't know that Australia has a direct equivalent to the term "White trash". Maybe "scroat"?

    By Blogger vcollins, At 13 May, 2008  

  • Thorin, when you wrote

    "Agree that support for parents could be better, but point out: This is *already* a form of welfare which fosters dependance and is demonstrably abused, in some cases."

    --- do you mean that, as a form of "welfare" it is intriniscally not good?

    I'm not sure how the methods we have (at the moment, in Australia) for supporting parents can be abused. (I'm not talking about cash payments like the stupid baby bonus, but human things like maternity leave, child health workers etc). Do you really have documentation of this, or are we talking about different kinds of support?

    By Blogger julie, At 13 May, 2008  

  • To Julie

    I think that most of us do have the capacity to be excellent parents but one only ever meets such potential of one is given a chance to give it a go.

    I like you prefer to say that a level of state support (which we have) can help in the development of parenting skills (and in minimising some of the pressure that go into family life) and this extends beyond childcare policy into other areas of life (since all impact on all).

    On the manners front - as annoying as it can be I think we need to remember that rudeness is a personal decision rather than a crime and that possibly we can be too sensitive to it.

    You are amazed that one needs to do all sorts of compliance in order to (say) get a car but can havea kid just-like-that. I think the historical perspective on this is that government predates cars but the ability to reproduce predates government! Sometimes we mistakenly act like (or wish that) our world was cut from whole cloth all in one moment rather than recognising that it is a constantly changing thing.

    To Lizzie

    Wow. Can I replace my conversational ramblings with your efficient and incisive writing? Remind me to always be on your side in an argument! Thanks for the comment.

    To Mouse

    There is way too much bureaucracy involved in the lives of those that wish to adopt (and plenty of orphans still in need parenting). Imagine putting that same bureaucracy on to everyone!

    The state does have a specific interest in the case of orphans - it has responsibility for them specifically because they have lost their parents. So I can understand the existance of some kind of framework for ensuring that it hands its responsibility over to others.

    But I think it is a mistake to assume that the state has responsibility for every facet of life. There are some things - many things - for which we should take responsibility. And you only ever take responsibility if you are given the oportunity to do so.

    To Thorne

    Do you mean "struggling to be succient"?

    Interestingly the other topic in that pub converation was population control which is more the intent of the Chinese one-child policy. Now there are other motives behind that issue (e.g. environmental ones come into play) but still I am wary of overly-intrusive methods. It is hardly an accident that the nation that has implemented this policy is a one-party dictatorship.

    Agree that basically "one is innocent until proven guilty" and that this applies to the ability to be a parent. There are cases in which that ability is demonstrably lacking and then (and only then) can society take action. It can also prevent such problems by providing the kind of support discussed.

    Welfare can breed welfare dependence but to some extend it depends on how it is done. Naturally a lump sum payment like the baby bonus will be open to abuse. The provision of ever-present services is another matter entirely. And regular modest forms of income support fall into a grey area in between these two.

    Yes we do restrict behaviour with all sorts of laws. But we have to be mindful what is necessary and what is useful. Some control goes too far. I would personally be wary even of your 'opt-into reproduction' suggestion but can see why you are looking for some kind of compromise position.

    To Vivienne

    I am even a bit wary of the parenting certificate concept if it becomes any kind of precondition to accessing ones entitlements. It may still be a worthwhile thing to have. As an analogy - none of the employers I have recently been contacting need be to have a first aid certificate to do the advertised job but it is looked on favourably in my resume.

    I agree that the (potentially offensive) pop-culture terms I have used have different scopes and connotations. I suppose that is why I originally posted the message with a warning of 'offensive' content. It is an overstated thing - parents of any demographic can be good or bad parents according to current expectations of what parenting involves.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 15 May, 2008  

  • Responding to Vivienne's comment:

    Having to qualify for child benefits by being certified as a competent parent is a great disincentive to incompetent parents, but potentially disastrous for the child.

    The children most likely to suffer from terrible parenting are also the most likely to be accidental, unplanned, and born of people who would never be motivated to attempt this kind of test.

    Instead, I am increasingly convinced that the solution needs to be an enforced-by-default impediment, rather than a voluntary 'test' with potentially arbitrary/political/stupid criteria.

    i.e. If one had the technological means, introducing compulsory pre-puberty contraceptive implants for both genders. The bureaucratic process to get one's implant disabled would need to be complex, tedious, long and irritating. This would ensure that any prospective parent had plenty of time to think about it, and was willing and able to make a distinct effort. Apart from that it need not entail any actual criteria.
    Additional measures, like ensuring that new parents had their implants re-enabled after conception/birth, and/or making it illegal to remove or disable one's own implant, might be entirely unnecessary with a scheme like this.

    Without as-yet-unavailable technology, this is still possible, just harder and somewhat less fair: Female contraceptive implants are already available (Google for 'Implanon') and good for 2.5 years. IMO this is still too hard for any government to implement with any hope of re-election at this stage, but it's a technological goal which is visibly getting nearer.

    By Blogger thorin@trouble.net.au, At 06 June, 2008  

  • I will let Vivienne make her own response. All I will say for now is this: Do you really want the ability to meet bureaucratic requirements to be something that is selected for in future generations? What sort of human race would we become? (-8}

    By Blogger Daniel, At 11 June, 2008  

  • I can't help but stir the pot.

    I'm not sure if it makes a difference, especially given the way such things never seem to be enforced, but could one cast the pro-licensing argument as a human rights issue?

    By Blogger thorin@trouble.net.au, At 24 June, 2008  

  • Interesting. Human rights of course apply to both adults and children but are sometimes implemented in different ways. And as you say enforcement will always be a challenge.

    The news item you link to is an instance of enforcement working - the issues have been exposed and are getting addressed.

    Notice how some of these problem families do not send children to school - there is one implementation problem for you if you utilised school as the venue for implanting those sterilisation things.

    And I imagine it would be more problematic if sterilisation became the law. Then you would have conscientious objectors keeping their kids away from your schools, as well as the current minority of negligent parents.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 16 July, 2008  

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