Monday, July 21, 2014

Parenting, Policy, And The Need To Act On An Oxymoron

A who's who of conservative writers are taking up the subject of parenting, more specifically what they call  the criminalization of parenthood because of several high profile cases in which parents have been arrested for endangering their children who skipped church or played unsupervised in a park.

These Michael Brendan Dougherty paragraphs sum up their angst:
My own childhood seems to have become illegal. I was the son of a single mother. During summers I would explore my neighborhood, visit friends' houses, walk to a pond to fish, ride my bike from our home in Bloomfield, New Jersey, to the abandoned lots of Newark, and jump it over curbs. I could be unsupervised from 10 in the morning until 8:30 at night, when the streetlights started coming on. If I was home with my grandmother, sometimes she would leave me alone to do grocery shopping.
As early as seven years old, I was allowed to walk over a mile to school. I traveled long commercial streets like Bloomfield Avenue, and went under the overpass of the Garden State Parkway, all during a time when violent crime rates were much much higher than they are today. The worst that ever happened to me was that I got punched in the the head by a junkie. But I told my D.A.R.E officer, spent an afternoon looking at photos of local junkies and ne'er-do-wells, and got over it, having learned the valuable lesson that I could take a punch in the head. [Dougherty 7/21/14]
Gracy Olmstead offers a big picture summary:
This is the unfortunate result of living in a world where parenting is no longer supported and bolstered by private association and community. If only there had been a family member, friend, or church member who had volunteered to watch Harrell’s little girl. If only the “good samaritan” at the dollar store had considered calling Justin’s father, or offered to take the boys home. We live in a society that neglects the sort of private stewardship that could foster truly safe environments for our children—and unfortunately, when parents are thrown into prison, it hardly seems to create more safe surroundings for these kids [Olmstead 7/17/14].
Each writer, however, is pretty vague on solutions.In fact, they seem to be resigned to bemoaning the status quo or describing how the country came to this state. Radley Balko offers no solutions at all; he merely decries the situation:
You needn’t approve of the parents’ actions in any of these cases to understand that dumping them into the criminal justice system is a terribly counterproductive way of addressing their mistakes. (And I’m not at all convinced that three of the four stories were even mistakes.) The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the “wrong” decision are criminal is downright scary.
It doesn’t benefit these kids in the least to give their parents a criminal record, smear their parents’ names in their neighborhoods and communities and make it more difficult for their parents to find a job.[Balko 7/14/14]
Ross Douthat wants to require work, ensure liberty, and avoid a police state without saying how such a miracle can happen.
And then finally there’s a policy element — the way these trends interact not only with the rise of single parenthood, but also with a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.
This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.
Otherwise we’ll be throwing up defenses against big government, while ignoring a police state growing in our midst.[Douthat 7/20/14].
Dougherty believes restoring community is impossible and conservatives should, therefore, seek to reform the state:
There are two ways to solve the dilemma. The first is a return of those communities, something that seems less likely in an America that is more mobile and more influenced by immigration, which results in constant neighborhood flux. The other is to reform the state's institutions so that they might actually assist parents — not just punish, shame, and harass them. [Dougherty 7/21/14]
Olmstead points out that Robert Nisbet who Dougherty describes as a "communitarian libertarian" predicted the phenomenon but offers no real ideas to correct it.
Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place — assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a "primacy of claim" upon our children. "It is hard to overlook the fact," he wrote, "that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church." In this world, the term "nanny state" takes on a very literal meaning. [Olmstead 7/17/14]].
I don't know what a society based on "communitarian libertarianism" would look like. Having read Appiah and Nozick, I'd suggest the term is a classic oxymoron. Still, arresting a parent because a kid acted like a kid and skipped church gives the state too much power, and the parents who hover like an AH-64D Apache Longbow may be a bit too individualistic to allow a community to thrive. It may not take a village or a superhero but an oxymoron to raise a child. Good luck on getting people to accept policy options based on those premises.

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