Who's Really In Charge; Parents Or The State?

Parents are supposed to make the decisions for their kids, but often the government gets involved and it's difficult to know where the line should be drawn between parental control and state control

I think every “veteran” parent can remember those moments when their toddler makes a break for it and you count your blessings that nothing bad happened. I feel for the parents that weren’t so lucky, but does that mean they are bad parents? Should they be judged or penalized for it? When should the state step in with laws and regulations? The government, schools and the courts have already intervened in parenting, sometimes for the good…sometimes not so much. How much government intervention into parenting is reasonable? And is it fair to label parents with the negative connotation of “helicopter parents” when we throw heaps of blame and judgement when a kid is involved in an unfortunate situation when NOT supervised? If we want parents to lighten up, perhaps we could refrain from immediately throwing them under the bus every time there is an accident or incident. Could we at least wait to get ALL the facts?

It seems that every other day we have a story in the news about what parents should or shouldn’t be doing, with outrage on both sides and snarky comments aplenty. It leads me to believe that as parents we are in the classic Catch 22 situation—damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

In recent days, social media and talk radio were all over the parents of a four-year-old that managed to climb into a gorilla enclosure at a zoo in Cincinnati. As usual, parents and non-parents alike, with little knowledge of what actually transpired were quick to condemn the parents of this child. Suggestions of criminal charges and removing the child from the parents were numerous. I saw very few comments about whether the zoo, which should expect plenty of kids, be held responsible for maintaining animal enclosures that are secure enough to keep kids OUT as well as animals IN! Or is this a classic case of “sometimes shit happens?” Is this really the role of government that we want now? Would the state make better decisions and provide mistake-free parenting?

So what is a reasonable intervention? 

Should a school administration step in and ban “balls” from the playground? We all hear the news about increasing childhood obesity, we mock parents that drive kids to school each day, and when one kid gets knocked down by a rogue soccer ball the reaction is to create an outright ban on playing with balls in the playground?  If I let my kids play with soccer or basketballs am I now a bad parent?  

Should a municipality tell parents that their kids cannot enjoy a fantastic winter sport that has been enjoyed for centuries by any kids living in snowy areas? A few municipalities including Orangeville and Hamilton have tried to ban tobogganing, citing injury risks and a paranoia about lawsuits. So again we let our government make decisions for us on what is appropriate fun for our kids? And then we mock parents for bubble wrapping their kids?

Should the state hold parents accountable when they deny medical treatment to their children? There is no clear answer here either. In one case a judge allowed an aboriginal parent to refuse conventional cancer treatment for a child opting for home and/or alternative treatment. Within a few months the child died. However, in another case where a child with strong symptoms of meningitis also died. The child was treated with only home remedies and a naturopath. The parents were charged and convicted with “not providing the necessities of life.” As a parent, this seems like a contradictory message from the state.  Either I am legally obligated to seek conventional medical treatment for my kids…or not?! But apparently there are exceptions.

The same grey area applies to other important parenting areas including the always controversial practice of “spanking.” Is it ever okay to hit your child?  What constitutes a “hit?” Is a little whack on the diaper the same as a slap on the hand? Or use of a strap? In the end the state decides the difference between a legal spank or corporal punishment and abuse? In our home we don’t practice spanking. But I can tell you that as a parent of a very rambunctious boy who has been VERY physically active, I am nervous at times taking him to the doctor. I am happy he is an active and busy kid that runs, swims, rides a bike, plays soccer and basketball, swings on the monkey bars, etc. These activities, however, mean there are many falls that result in skinned knees, bumps, bruised shins, scratches and scuffs. I am always grateful that we have a family doctor that is also a parent. He can apparently recognize the difference between a bruise caused by falling off a bike versus abuse. However, there is always that lingering fear of a mistake and the opening of a Pandora’s box—where all the evils of the world are released—and someone mistakenly thinks my kid has been abused.

My experience of adoption provided a new view into the powers of the state with regard to parenting. Our adoption process was through the Children’s Aid Society and we had to pass through a rigorous process to be deemed acceptable potential parents. And after our daughter was placed we had monthly check up visits for over a year while waiting for the adoption to be finalized. Again we were fortunate to have a very “reasonable” CAS worker in our case.  She was good about encouraging us rather than acting as judge and jury. But make no mistake…we knew what power she could wield. 

On April 1st there was a great “April Fools” joke on social media that said the Canadian Supreme Court had ruled kids could not be left home alone until they were 15. This “joke” got a lot of traction on Twitter and Facebook. I admit that I too fell for this stunt and cursed the nanny state. But in all seriousness the state, while not ruling on a specific age, does say that it would decide this on a case by case basis. In one case a judge ruled that eight years of age was too young to leave a child at home while running to the grocery store. Maybe the judge was right or maybe he had the advantage of hindsight, or maybe he didn’t know this kid?

When I think of how I grew up, my parents would likely be in jail—but they would be in good company as all my peers parents would be in adjacent cells. We walked home from school off the school bus at very young ages, we spent hours on our own and unsupervised. We built tree forts in the woods, went horseback riding, rode our bikes a few km’s to the closest variety store and much more. There was no fear of government intervention at that time. But as kids we knew that any adults we encountered on our journey would be quick to intervene if we were behaving poorly or in trouble. Perhaps that was a bonus of growing up in a rural setting at a time where there was a level of trust among neighbours in the community.

But today, parents function largely in the “grey zone,” unsure of what we can and should do. Judgement runs fast and furious on social media. And the state seems to want to have the best of both worlds. Its hands off in many cases until something goes wrong…then it comes down hard.  Either way, it makes parenting a continuous tightrope walk.  

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