Friday, December 13, 2019

Tough Love: Reasonable and Foreseeable Problems

What responsibility do we have for other people?  There is nothing new in this question and I am not the one to answer it.  However, lately I have been thinking about "tough love," a sort of layover from another time that still rears its head in different ways. I know people who swear by tough love as a child rearing strategy. I will confess that I have found this odd. There is a history here, a sort of tradition of looking at children -- even, and perhaps your own children -- in a certain jaded way. I've heard parents say, for instance, "that child is testing you" to other, newer parents. I don't propose to review that history. Instead, what I thought I would do is try to think through some of the implications of tough love, for both kids, parents, and your neighbours.  In a future post, I will discuss some of the other things I find odd about tough love. In this one, I'd like to begin to address an issue that is not often considered: what are the reasonably foreseeable problems that come out of a tough love approach to child rearing?

This question is not often asked and that is, in itself, odd. Someone might say "how you raise your kids is a private matter" and by this they mean several things. One of the things that they mean, to put the matter bluntly, goes something like this "how I raise my child is my business; not yours." You (other person) have no right to intrude on my child rearing. My family is private. And, yet, I want to try to convince you that this is not exactly or precisely the case, nor should it be.

This is so because child rearing is not a right like other rights because you are dealing, by definition, with at least one other person. I might have a right to, say, in the privacy of my own home watch what I want to watch on TV. I do recognize that we could push this example to its limits and likely reject even that assertion but I hope you get my point. Whether I watch Stargate or Doctor Who is really no one else's business. If my neighbour chooses to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie, that is her business. I can't go over to her house, stroll in, and turn the TV off because I consider her selection of holiday movies to be poor. It is private precisely because it has no effect on me. I may like or dislike a personal selection but I don't even know, most of the time, what my neighbour is watching.

Raising children is not like that. While my neighbour's selection of movies has no effect on anyone else, how one raises a child does and in two senses. First, it has an effect on the child. There is no way to claim that the same protected right of privacy applies because being a parent by definition means that you have a duty of care over another person. I recognize that this statement can get messy in rapid fashion. No everyone chooses, for instance, to be a parent. Different people have different understandings of what care means. But, it is also, I think, widely recognized that we do have responsibilities. We have responsibilities as citizens (to obey the law, for instance, and if we object to the law to do so in specific ways). And, we have responsibilities as parents that are enshrined in law.

Most of us think this is right. While most of us would say that we need to be careful not to impose our values on others with regard to child rearing  (we might, for instance, want to protect parents right to make certain decisions for their kids.  Children, for instance, should likely not be forced by their communities or the government to, say, play a certain sport or musical instrument. This can and should be a private familial decision). But, we also recognize that there needs to be a limit to this and that limit occurs when the duty of care for the child has been breached. Don't believe me? Watch how upset people get the next time there is a news story about social services not reacting quickly enough to protect a child who was being abused by their parents and ends up with serious injuries.

No one is saying that this boundary line is easy to define. In fact, I'd be deeply wary of people who think it is. The point is that virtually everyone recognizes that it is there and it is important precisely because we are dealing with human lives and not TV show choices.  From the beginning, then, as a society we recognize (and, have long recognized) that the right of parental control over children is not an absolute right. However contentious this may be in practice, we recognize that the child, at the least, has rights too (to proper nourishment, to education, the protection from cruelty, etc.).

Second, and more controversially, this is also a situation parental actions have effects on other people.  I would contend that those other people have rights too. This might sound a bit odd, but let me use an example to illustrate my point. Imagine a situation where my neighbour elects to raise her child with a certain attitude toward the property of other people. She certainly has the right to teach her children about her views, explain why they are correct, etc. But, what happens if these views, say, are some sort of bizarre anarchistic type of thing and her son (I am just making this example up) elects to burn down my shed. Is it OK that he has done so because he is just enacting a private matter of his own education determined in a familial context?

I am arguing no.  I have a right to protection and safety for myself and my property (in some measure) and this right is important too. If my neighbour (say, someone on my street -- and I hasten to add that my neighbours are really good people, again this is just an example) encourages her children to commit crimes, endanger the lives of others, destroy their property, she cannot argue that this is a private matter when it starts to happen and I should have no say in the matter and no recourse. One's right to raise a child how one wants is, in other words, bounded by the right to life of others, to their security, and their protection.

I fully recognize that the example I made up was silly and I did so just to illustrate a point. The point I want to illustrate is not that I have rights (to life, security of person, etc.) because that is patently obvious. We all knew that already and if that was all I had to put on the table, I should have stopped this blog some time ago. Instead, the point I want to make is that we can and should have a test that we can keep in mind in determining whether the actions of a parent are causing potential danger to others through their child-rearing strategies. In other words, we can create a mental framework, as it were, that can help us make determinations about parental actions.

This is even trickier but I'd propose a standard against which we can measure actions and their legitimacy.  The problem with my example is that it is so binary that it does not capture the shades of grey within which most of us will operate. In my example, the parent who encourages their child to go burn down a shed or car or house of a neighbour is committing a crime. Their are encouraging and promoting reckless and life-endangering actions on their part of their kids, They are teaching them to ignore the safety of others and threaten their security and person. No one that I know would contend that that is a good child-rearing strategy and no one that I know would contend that this is acceptable.

While we can debate the boundaries of this and we would all understand that the situation is mediated by a variety of considerations, we would also all understand that the parent bears some level of legal responsibility. It is not that one person is legally responsible for another's action. This responsibility  is mediated (and, we likely need to discuss what that means so a future blog).

This discussion has taken us pretty far from where I began -- which was with a consideration of the oddities of "tough love" -- but I've done so for a reason. I wanted to indicate that the decisions parents make with regard to child rearing are not absolute rights. They are bounded by law and they have legal responsibilities. Child rearing is different from other rights (which we might treat as more or less absolute) because it involves two levels of human relations: that is, unlike the TV show I choose to watch, decisions with regard to child rearing involve necessarily the lives of others (the child and the folks who might have to live with the effects of your or my child rearing strategies). These people have their own rights and so the actions one takes cannot just be explained away as a "that is my right as a parent."

Here is the key point to which I wanted to get. I am not arguing that every parent is responsible for everything their child ever does. I'll address the limits of this in my next blog. But, I am arguing that parents are and should be treated as responsible adults. If there are reasonably foreseeable effects of the decisions they make, they are responsible for those effects. If you teach a child to hate and they end up hating ... you bear some responsibility for that. If you teach your child that violence against women is OK, and they are violent against women, you bear some responsibility for that. If you teach your child to disregard, say, property rights and burn down your neighbour's house ... you bear some responsibility for that.

Why? Because the actions that you took had reasonably foreseeable consequences. Yes, the person who burned the house is responsible for their own actions. They caused the fire and endangered the lives of others. But, the person who taught them that that was OK is also responsible for their actions. They created a situation where their child was a manifest danger to their neighbours and they cannot wash their hands, I am arguing, of that reality and must take responsibility for their own actions.

There is a lot more than can and should be said about this. I am not trying to create some sort of situation where criminals blame their parents as if this got them out of their own responsibility.  It does not. I am, however, trying to highlight an important and often neglected element of child rearing: the actions of parents have consequences to other people. Let's not pretend that they don't.

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