Parenting is a responsibility, not a right, but the laws are having a hard time catching up with morality. Legally, a woman is no longer the property of a man, but socially, a man screaming for hours at his wife is still considered their “private business.” If he beats her, the police might get involved. Many years of fighting for women’s rights have led to limited legal protections possible in places like the United States. The effort to protect children has made similar progress, but children, for the most part, are still considered property. As with the ownership of women, there are laws that protect children from physical and sexual abuse and extreme versions of neglect, but children do no have the right to leave or choose a different way of life from their parents or even to proclaim that being routinely humiliated and degraded is abuse without “proof.” Most children, knowing nothing else, are not able to realize that this behavior is wrong or unusual. And when there is a conflict between the parents on how to raise a child, the courts are very limited in how they can intervene. There is evidence showing that emotional neglect and abuse alters the way brains develop—perhaps more than physical abuse—but the courts are still more concerned with parents’ legal rights than the what is best for children. The courts address obvious cases of abuse but are not able to address the equally dangerous neglect and abuse.
I don’t know what the way forward is, but I stand firmly that the responsibility, not the rights, of parents need to be more central in our legal system. My oldest child—at the age of six—began to argue for the rights of children. The argument was that children should have the right to live on their own and work. I tried to explain how there had been a great battle to protect children from work so that they could gain an education, even while I was proud of her sense of autonomy. I was forced during this and because of my research to think seriously about what my rights and responsibilities as a parent were. When does knowing more give parents the right to make decisions and when doesn’t it? Is simply being an adult rather than a child give one the right to make decisions for another? There is clearly the need at times, but what about the other times when it is not so clear?
I was also confronted with a husband who took no responsibility as a father, whom I had to petition to babysit if I had work to do and with whom I could not trust to take care of the children’s basic needs: When I did have to leave, I made sure the kitchen was fully stocked, the needs clearly outlined, and the time as short as possible. A lot of this sounds very similar to the stories of other women, but I’m not sure what to with this observation. I would frequently get a babysitter when my children’s father was home because his work (which routinely involved hours of online chess) could not be interrupted to care for his children, and now I am told by attorneys that his complete lack of responsibility cannot be used in our custody battle. The fact that I intervened when he became emotionally abusive and prevented worse abuse may have protected my children at the time but now prevents me from “proving” the need for legal protections for them.
Laws are rigid, so I don’t believe this basic problem can be legislated, but I feel the need all the more to fight for communities to play a bigger role. I could argue this from feminist perspective, which I support wholeheartedly, but it the more important reasons are about what is best for out children. I never wanted to be the sole caregiver of my children but was forced into the position. Having only one “parent” is less than ideal for children in numerous ways—from the problem of that parent becoming unavailable to questions about how to best integrate a child into the larger society—but it is not a standard part of main stream culture to have that community involved. I ask myself routinely, What world could we create in which children’s needs are truly central? When so much of parenting is relative—about priorities and specific contexts—how can we as a society move forward to create healthier children? If I feel I have no right to tell you how to raise your children, what rights should I have to decide how my children are raised? What rights should their father have?