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Gwen's Spot

15 November 2005

Essay: In Which An Essay Is Published On A NYRA Member's Blog, And It's Not Svend's

I'm very proud of my latest essay, a causal essay I wrote for English. It's pretty long (circa three thousand words), so if you don't have the attention span or the interest, you can skip it and you won't hurt my feelings. Well, you'll hurt my feelings less than if you read it and then told me you absolutely hated it.
I changed it around a little, to accomodate the weird editing stuff in Blogger (mostly indenting problems), so keep in mind that ::: is an indent.
Without further ado, here it is, Mark IV:

:::Believing that parents owe no obligation to the child they physically created leads to a treatment of the child as property, which has profound implications for the child, for the parent, and for society as a whole.
:::In order to examine effects of believing that parents owe their children no obligations, including food, clothing, shelter, and protection, start by assuming that they do. The choice to provide for the child belongs entirely to the parents. The parents, then, have two options: they can either choose not to provide for and protect their children, or they can choose to, with no moral obligation involved either way. If the parents do not feed, clothe, shelter, and protect the child they physically created, either someone else cares for the child, or the child dies, at least at a very young age when the child is incapable of caring for himself or herself. If someone else cares for the child, that person becomes the child’s new protector and provider, and is faced with the same two options that the original parents had. If, on the other hand, the parents do provide for and protect the child, a further complication develops: the parents are giving the child things that they have no moral obligation to. In other words, they are doing the child a favor.
:::Favors have two important characteristics. First, the favors are revocable by the favor-giver in most circumstances. The second characteristic is that of repayment. Depending on the favor, the receiver is usually seen as having an obligation to return the favor in kind. Even if it is not necessary for the receiver to return a favor by default, if the favor-giver requests repayment, most people view giving repayment a moral obligation in most cases.
:::There are cases in which some people consider it morally wrong to revoke a favor. However, when the “favor” is morally irrevocable, it is no longer a favor but a moral obligation. Therefore, it is not consistent to view favors as not being revocable in the parent-child relationship and to view that same relationship as free of obligations from the parent to the child.
:::In the case of repayment of favors, it may be arguable that favors should only be repaid if the receiver of the favor accepted the favor consensually and knowledgeably and knowing that repayment might be expected. Since infants and even very small children do not understand that they are being given a favor or consent to being fed, sheltered, and so on, the favor should not be expected to be repaid, according to this argument. However, as children gain an understanding that they are being fed, clothed, sheltered, and protected, very few reject this by, for example, running away. Therefore, it is not consistent to view favors as needing repayment only when their receiver accepts the favors consensually and knowledgeably and knowing that repayment might be expected, and seeing the parent-child relationship as free of obligations from the parent to the child at the stage when the child understands—but is still dependent upon—the “favor” of food, water, shelter, et cetera.* Also, some parents do hold that the favor of providing for and protecting the child needs repayment even if the child is too young to provide for himself or herself, as evidenced by the statement that “your payment for doing your chores is getting to live in this house and eat our food” to children as soon as they are old enough to ask about allowances, even if they are too young to be reasonably expected to live on their own.
:::Although few parents probably take time to think of all this when providing for their child, the treatment of the providing and protecting as a favor that is both revocable and possibly needing repayment is clearly present on a subconscious level for most. Four stock phrases and sentences of parents both on and off the silver screen provide perfect examples: “As long as you’re living in my house, you’ll follow my rules.” “I put food on your plate, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head, and this is how you repay me?!” “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!” “After everything I do for you, the least you can do is….”
The first and third clearly show the revocable side of favors—the first invites the contrapositive that “if you don’t follow my rules, you won’t live in my house anymore,” while the third has more ominous overtones taken to their natural conclusion most notably in Biblical law allowing parents to have their allegedly disobedient, drunkard, glutton sons stoned without being guilty of murder (on the word of the parents alone) (Bible KJV) and Canadian, United Kingdom, Italian, and Australian laws allowing for post-partum depression as a defense of infanticide. (“Murder…”) The second and fourth both show the “repayment” expectation.
:::The clearest effect that acting as though the protection of and providing for a child were a favor on the part of the parent is that if the child picks up on this attitude (as she could hardly avoid, if her parents were fond of using any of the aforementioned sentences), she might start thinking that if she did not follow the rules, repay her parents properly, do whatever it was that was the least she could do after everything that they do for her, then her parents might kick her out of the house, take the food off her plate, take the clothes off her back, stop doing everything they had been doing for her, or even fulfill the threat inherent in “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!”. Considering the theory that the first relationships someone has—in that person’s family—form the template for later relationships, learning that security comes at the cost of pleasing and obeying people could damage someone’s future relationships for life. If home is, as Robert Frost says in his poem “Death of a Hired Man,” where “when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” providing a family life with even the overtones of “when you have to go there, they might take you in, but only if you do what they want you to do, repay them for the favor, follow their rules, et cetera” could make a child “homeless” in the truest sense of the word.
:::Another effect of this view is one many people object to upon hearing. This effect is that the parents begin to consider their children their property.
Some people don’t object to this view at all. “I claim that parents own their children….I claim this in the most radical sense. I claim that parents own their children as one owns a spoon” says someone on an online forum, (Guillorey) echoing Aristotle’s belief that children belong to their parents (actually, their father) until they become adults (Matthews)—although the former person disagrees, saying that “children gain freedom only by the grace of their parents.”
:::Others do object to the idea that parents view their children as property not by saying “who cares? They’re right to think so,” but by saying that in industrial nations, no one has “owned” someone else since slavery was abolished and women gained property rights.
:::Property is something (or someone) which is primarily controlled by someone or something other than itself, with no reciprocal control over that someone or something. The government uses its authority to enforce property rights by passing and enforcing laws to stop people from exercising control over other people or their property; if the government does not use its power to stop parents from exercising control over their child, the government is according parents the same property rights over children that it accords them over other non-persons, such as animals. If parents are the primary controllers of their child, as they are in the current legal system, then a necessary consequence of those parents having no obligation to their child is that they own the child.
:::The ramifications of parents treating their children as property also need to be explored fully. After all, if granting parents property rights over their children only leads to better care for the children in question, what’s wrong with that? Some of the effects, however, are far more dangerous for the child.
:::One of the most dangerous effects is first on the child but translates into a much larger impact on society at large as the children age, become part of adult society, and parent children themselves. A direct result of treating children as their parents’ property is that people will be used to being property. Rasing people from birth on to be used to being another person’s property may not be the best way to ensure the continuation of a society devoted to the principles of life, liberty, property, and equality.
:::Other, more indirect, effects include the results of inevitable conflict between what the child wishes to do and what the parent wants the child to do (or not to do). Sometimes these conflicts are not merely over the parent trying to protect a child in need of protection, but over more trivial things that, if the average adult were to try to force onto another average adult, would win that person the label of “control freak.” Because the adult has legal authority, as well as usually greater physical strength, the adult almost always wins. (For very young children, the bonus that most people at their age do not understand that “Because I said so” or “Because I’m the adult” are not valid arguments also helps adults assert their authority.) Since any challenge is considered a challenge to the parent’s property rights, “insubordination” and “talking back” become crimes in and of themselves. Punishments range from verbal abuse, invasions of privacy and personal space and loss of property to loss of labor and loss of physical freedom. What is considered a crime, whether the child is guilty, and how the child is punished all are decided unilaterally by the parent. Even if the broken rule is not a “control freak” one, the final word is the parent’s; even if the parent tries to be as just as possible, the structure of the parent-child dynamic sets the parent up to fail.
:::People tend to reproduce what they know. Thus, parenting is considered one of the main agents of socialization: the way one is raised becomes the lens through which the rest of life is viewed. (This could mean rejecting everything that one’s parents thought, or blindly accepting all of it, but usually is somewhere in between.) A person who is raised in a family where “justice” is brought by someone setting what is the crime, accusing the person of committing that crime (even post de facto), bringing the person to be judged, deciding if they’re guilty, and carrying out the punishment is one for whom the justice system works by having the accuser, legislator, police officer, judge, jury, prosecutor, and jailer all the same person. Therefore, society—at least any society that does not consider that particular justice-system structure ideal or even good—suffers by allowing parents property rights over their children.
:::Society, on the other hand, has its own problems when this “command/obey” relationship between parents and children becomes generalized into all adults and all children. Children are seen as collective property—not to the extent that Plato advocated (see The Republic), as it is still accepted that “strangers” should have less authority than family members or adult friends of the family, but still to the point that these “strangers” often are seen as having more authority over the child than the child him-or-herself. Children are told that adulthood in and of itself is enough for the child to respect the adult in question, regardless of intelligence, maturity, stupidity, immaturity, criminality, or any morally relevant qualities.
There are other extremely negative consequences of teaching children “respect” for all adults, at least when “respect” is translated as: “do what they say to do, trust them, don’t ever say no, let them touch you (tousle your hair, poke you, pinch your cheeks, kiss you and hug you), let them hurt you even if you don’t like it,” as it often is. One of the most obvious of these consequences is that it sets children up for sexual abuse. How are children, especially very young ones, to understand the difference between being touched when they don’t want to be touched, hurt when they don’t want to be hurt, not saying no, or always obeying adults in a non-sexual matter and the same in a sexual matter?
:::Society also has the same punishment problems that parents have. Schools are a striking example of how children often have the same invasions of privacy, loss of property rights (remember “confiscation”?), loss of labor and physical freedom, and even, in some places, corporal punishment that they may have at home. The same arbitrary nature of justice is upheld, the same ridiculously small “crimes” are punished, the same command/obey relationship is the most common dynamic in schools as at home, and the same lack of due process is common even in public, government-run schools. (In fact, in Ingraham v. Wright, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment was not valid in public schools because it apparently only protects criminals from cruel and unusual punishment. [“Ingraham…”])
:::Society also helps to support the parent-child relationship as a command/obey relationship, by justifying, legitimating, and enabling this relationship in the behavior of parents toward their children. Society justifies it by using the media to portray parents as either cruel and Evil with a capital E, a stereotype with which no parent would identify, or good and loving—no parents who need help to stop abusing their kids, nobody with post-partum depression, no real parents. The media perpetuate the myth that the mere fact of parenthood—in some cases just caused by a lack of proper birth control use—confers magical powers and mystical knowledge that make it so that parents “naturally” love their children and know what is best for them. Stereotypes of children tend toward the children being either helpless (if children don’t have proper adult guidance/ownership, they get into trouble, die, starve, get raped, commit crimes, ad nauseam) or, if the child rebels against the status quo, it is because they are bad, ungrateful, rebellious, and most of all wrong. Therefore, the unspoken argument goes, children need protection—even if it violates their liberties—and if they try to waive the protection, it must be because they are bad.
:::Society legitimates it by setting up government institutions specifically to help parents control their children’s lives. For example, runaway laws require states who find that a minor has run away from their parent, for whatever reason, to send that minor back to the state from which they came and to their parents. (“Welfare…”) Curfew laws take parental curfews one step further—even if parents don’t set as early a curfew as the state or city does, the police can arrest and incarcerate a juvenile simply for being out at a certain time of night (or day, for some curfews). Also, in some places parents can charge their children with being “incorrigible”—not necessarily criminal—and the child could be put in prison. (“Authorities…”)
:::Society enables parents and other adults to abuse and neglect children in several ways. For example, children are set up to be abused by lessons to obey all adults rather than given tools to combat the inherent power imbalance between young children and adults; if children come forth to be abused, they are often called liars and manipulative (or, for younger children, misled) in news stories on the case, and abuse or neglect is extremely difficult to prove. Even when adults are convicted of abuse, they are often sentenced with extraordinarily light sentences. Mike A. Males, a sociologist who lived in Bozeman, Montana, offers some interesting anecdotes from the time he lived there, less than twenty years ago:
"In 1987, the Bozeman, Montana, school district stripped the track letter from a student alleged to have held a party at which other students drank alcohol; the same district took no action when a 31-year-old coach pleaded guilty to drunkenly assaulting a 19-year-old woman outside a tavern. A 16-year-old served a year in jail for exposing himself to women and writing a bad check; the 32-year-old youth program worker who had sexually molested the boy for four years was sentenced to 30 days suspended, community service, and counseling. The admitted molesting of a 12-year-old girl and scrawled notes from a half-dozen young girls who had been victims of attempted rape failed to persuade a judge to sentence the assailment to prison; when the man later brutally raped two adult women, he received 70 years as a 'repeat' offender." (Males)
:::The media also enable adult crimes against young people when they emphasize the wrong culprits. Most people are familiar with “stranger danger;” many fewer are familiar with statistics that state that twice as many kidnappings of children are due to parents kidnapping them than strangers doing so. (NCRJS) Statistics like these could save lives.
:::When society supports the property model of the parent-child relationship by expanding, justifying, enabling, and legitimating it, society causes the same problems that parents do when they treat their children as property. What society does to its children, the children will do to society; when society treats children dictatorially, children are socialized to grow up to be dictators.
:::Believing that parents owe no obligation to their children does lead, if unintentionally in some cases, to treating the child as property. Treating the child as property has profound implications for the child, for the parent, and for society as a whole.

Works Cited

“Authorities, Courts Can Help Parents Deal With Incorrigible Children.” 8 November 2005 .
Bible, King James Version. Deuteronomy 21:18 to Deuteronomy 21:21. Last accessed through on 8 November 2005.
Guillorey, Gil. “Parents own their children.” Forum thread, Posted 8 April 2002. 8 November 2005 .
Ingraham et al v. Wright et al, 430 U.S. 651. United States Supreme Court, 19 April 1977. 8 November 2005. Accessed through .
Males, Mike A. Scapegoat Generation, The. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996.
Matthews, Gareth, "The Philosophy of Childhood", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), .
“Murder-definition of Murder in Encyclopedia.” 8 November 2005 .
National Criminal Reference Justice Service. “Kidnappings of Juveniles: Patterns from NIBRS.” Juvenile Justice Bulletin, June 2000. 8 November 2005 .
“Welfare and Institutions Code 1300-1308.” 8 November 2005 .

* Although children who do run away as soon as they understand the situation and their choices in the matter present an interesting sub-topic for discussion in treating the providing and protecting of a parent to a child as a favor rather than an obligation, so few cases involve this situation that I will reserve that topic for another discussion entirely.