Efforts to describe the legal relationship between parents and children are usually messy and often offensive. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to classify parental rights. What kind of rights are they? Talking about parental rights as if they were property rights in children is distasteful, but that seems to be the usual framework—if only by way of analogy—that writers use. The fact that children grow up further complicates the discussion. When should parental rights end? Clearly the strength and scope of parental rights should decrease as the child becomes self-sufficient, but at what stage of development should that line be drawn, and who should draw it?
The problem is no simpler when considered from the perspective of a child’s rights. What rights can children enforce against their parents? Food, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, emotional health? Is it too extreme to characterize a child’s right to support as an indentured servitude of the parents to the child’s needs? Society recognizes children’s rights over their parents to some degree through child support laws.
This complex relationship of rights and responsibilities only gets murkier as third parties get involved. Doctors who disagree with parents’ medical decisions sometimes try to force parents to administer a prescribed treatment. Social workers take children away from parents they judge to be unfit—sometimes even when that judgment is based on soft criteria like failing to teach social mores. Legislatures and school boards enact compulsory school attendance laws and then grant parents no control over what is taught or who teaches. In short, everyone seems to think they know what is best for children, but some people have enough political power to clothe their opinions with the force of law.
I propose that the only justifiable laws governing the parent-child relationship are those that fall into one of two categories: laws articulating the rights of a parent over his or her child and laws articulating the rights of a child over his or her parents. I can imagine no legitimate basis for a third parties—including government—to assert independent rights over children. This is not to say that third parties can never get involved; I am only arguing that third party involvement must be limited to enforcement of a legitimate right that falls into one of the two categories listed above. To support my proposition, I present the following foundations for children’s rights and parents’ rights, and argue that no such foundation exists for third-parties—including government.
The Origin of Children’s Rights
Murray Rothbard, one of the intellectual leaders of the libertarian movement, argued that children should have no special rights over their parents:
in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights. Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that … the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.
This reasoning strikes me as simplistic because it prematurely dismisses the obligation that parents incur by bringing their child into human existence. Rothbard attempts to raise problems and present a parade of horribles that will come about if we recognize such a parental obligation, but I find his arguments unpersuasive (I can explain my reasons if any Rothbard devotees are interested). I think Attorney Stephan Kinsella has a better argument:
the parent has various positive obligations to his or her children, such as the obligation to feed, shelter, educate, etc. The idea here is that libertarianism does not oppose “positive rights”; it simply insists that they be voluntarily incurred. One way to do this is by contract; another is by trespassing against someone’s property. Now, if you pass by a drowning man in a lake you have no enforceable (legal) obligation to try to rescue him; but if you push someone in a lake you have a positive obligation to try to rescue him. If you don’t you could be liable for homicide. Likewise, if your voluntary actions bring into being an infant with natural needs for shelter, food, care, it is akin to throwing someone into a lake. In both cases you create a situation where another human is in dire need of help and without which he will die. By creating this situation of need you incur an obligation to provide for those needs.
This is a solid foundation for children’s rights. Children’s rights are not derived solely from their need, and not solely from their parent’s act of bringing them into the world. They are derived from a combination of both: a voluntary act by adults that puts another human in a position of complete dependence upon them. This creates an obligation in the parents and a corresponding right in the child.
The Origin of Parental Rights
Rothbard had a similarly limited conception of parental rights:
the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature-in short, when he leaves or “runs away” from home. Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to run away and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age.
I don’t know whether Rothbard was a parent or interacted much with children during his adult life, but regardless of his understanding of the practical consequences of the policy he proposed, his approach fails for a more important reason. It does not recognize the obligation that the child owes because of the suffering and expense that parents must bear to create and preserve a body for the child. Once again, Stephan Kinsella’s reasoning is more persuasive:
So, who owns a child’s body? Initially, the parents own it as a sort of temporary trustee. The parents, as the producers of the child, have an objective link to the child’s body that defeats any claims of outsiders (unless the parents sever this link by abusing their position). That is, parents have a better claim to the child than any outsiders, because of their natural link to the child. However, when the child “homesteads” or “appropriates” his own body by establishing the requisite objective link sufficient to establish self-ownership, the child becomes an adult, so to speak, and now has a better claim to his body than his parents.
In other words, when a child is born its body is entirely the product of its parents’—predominately the mother’s—sacrifice and effort. This serves as the foundation for parental rights. However, as the child grows and matures by developing its body, learning skills and abilities, and gaining self control, the parents’ ties are subordinated to the child-turned-adult’s own claims of self-ownership. It is important to point out that the parents’ relationship to the child is that of a trustee in trust, not total owner. This means that the child’s rights not to be abused remain in full force.
No Third Party Rights
In general, third parties can claim no special relationship that would entitle them to assert rights over children. Certainly, the argument for biological parental rights can be modified to show the legitimacy of adoptive and foster parental rights, but that is not the issue here. The question is whether unrelated third parties are justified in turning their concern for the wellbeing of someone else’s children into a law. I can think of no good reason to permit this. For third-party intermeddlers, there is no way to avoid the force of Rothbard’s reasoning: “in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights.” Ethics of Liberty, 100.
Certainly this broad framework doesn’t answer the detailed questions about when parental conduct crosses the line from discipline to abuse or neglect. But with solid foundations for children’s rights and parent’s rights, it will be easier to work out these details and eliminate laws that seek to impose unjustifiable burdens on parents and children.