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  • We expect a lot of parents—but in trying to support them, we shouldn't undermine their role in their kids' lives. Tweet This
  • It is neither possible nor desirable for the state to relieve parents of their duties toward their children. Tweet This

Although the age-old links between sex, marriage, and procreation have largely been severed in recent decades, the link between having children and raising children persists in practice, despite attempts to de-link the two in theory. Our laws and our culture are based on the idea that those who make the children are responsible for the children: in almost all circumstances we would condemn those who abandon their child, as if there is some expectation of “ownership” upon the making of children, and only through somewhat extraordinary measures can baby-makers give up their responsibilities to children.

We can approach this from a different angle too. How, in a world where having children and raising children are not linked, should children be “distributed”? Perhaps the state could take over the education of the child from infancy onwards, or the public could identify “the best” parents for each child and assign that child to the parents. Or children could be randomly assigned to licensed and properly screened adults. Would those who would like to de-link procreation and parenthood prefer to see children bought and sold on the free market?

We can make quick work of these methods of distribution. “What belongs in common to most people,” Aristotle writes, “is accorded the least care.”1 Experience shows that broadly communal child-rearing institutions fail to bring what is distinctive and excellent about each child to the fore: they fail as educational institutions. No test in the world can properly screen parents; nor does proper respect for these little ones allow for a free market in children.

Identifying the best parents is futile, for the 'resources' required by parents are time, care, and self-giving.

Why should the mere act of sex and procreation “entitle” certain people to take responsibility to educate children? What is it, after all, about copulating or gestating that qualifies one to provide proper care for a child? “What father in a thousand, when he begets a child, thinks farther than the satisfying of his present appetite?” John Locke asks.2

The question answers itself, posed in this fashion: nothing exclusively animal or biological qualifies one to raise a child. Identifying “the best” parents or properly licensed parents is futile, for the “resources” required by parents are time, care, and self-giving. Parenting involves the total care of children, from meeting their basic immediate physical and psychological needs to educating them. Education involves cultivating a child’s distinctive faculties, pointing a child toward proper conduct and character, aiding a child in relating to others, helping to ensure that the child gains knowledge of the important things in life and, ultimately, pointing a child toward a happy, prospering life. Parenting at its best aims at the “best being” of the child.

Parenting requires an open-ended and unpredictable commitment to the best being of the child; and marriage is the commitment that prepares parents for and resembles the open-ended commitment that is necessary for the upbringing of the child. Sexual relations, mutual pursuit of a common good, and intense personal relations in a series of unpredictable circumstances—all that is involved in self-giving married love—cement the commitment between husbands and wives and prepare the way for committing each adult to pursue the best being of their child. Marriage is a school for parenthood.

Many efforts of modern policy are designed to make things easier on parents as they seek to raise their children. Many modern countries with dwindling birth rates have sought, without success, to increase birth rates through financial incentives (birth allowances, subsidized child care) that decrease the costs of having and raising children. Yet these policies have not, as Jonathan Last’s book shows, “moved the needle” on birth rates, though they may affect the timing of births. Public schools and universal pre-school (in some forms) help offset the costs of educating and parenting and allow parents more independence to pursue their own lives outside of their families.

It is neither possible nor desirable for the state to relieve parents of their duties toward their children.

These policies, though perhaps high-minded and logical, have the effect of weakening the links between procreation and marriage, and they make for a more and more under-employed family life. In seeking to reconcile parental independence with parenthood, they end up emphasizing only independence and reinforcing a false story that parenthood is more attractive when it is less burdensome and time-consuming.

This is the hard side of a teaching that emphasizes the desirability of the link between education and procreation. The link means that those who make the child have obligations—that their job will, from a certain perspective, entail costs, duties, and responsibilities. It is neither possible nor desirable for state policies to relieve parents of these duties. Making things easier on the family is, at some point, an element—a symptom and a cause—of family decline!

Married parents bear many burdens—and, though it sounds counterintuitive, it may be helpful for them to bear more. What do I mean by burdens? Parents must be engaged in the biggest decisions in the lives of their children. They must be front and center in their education—and be engaged in it. They must take primary responsibility in providing for their needs and for the spices in their lives. Aid to needy children must, in some fashion, be funneled through parents (for children are not yet responsible); however, parents must be left with responsibilities of their own to make decisions about their children. Parents should determine their child’s menu and health care providers. Some helpful pro-family policies must focus on increasing the responsibilities of parenthood as a means of strengthening marriage and family life. School choice, which gives parents a larger role in their children’s education, would be one place to start.

Reflect on what more engaged supervision of a child’s education involves. It would involve picking a school that is best suited for a child’s capacities, talents, and ambitions. It would involve checking homework that the child is in the first place responsible for, asking questions about school and learning, asking children to spend less time on their technological gizmos (gizmos that greatly reduce the influence of parents) and to focus on their studies. Parents might even want to choose more challenging schools so that children do not have the time for as many gizmos and games.

Rebuilding the family in the modern world means giving it more of a job to do.

We are far down the road of family decline. This means that many children do not have parents or even one parent with the time and capacity to make responsible decisions and supervise them adequately. Those who oppose school choice do so partly on the grounds that parents are already so busy or overwhelmed or incompetent that they are unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy in making intelligent decisions about their children’s education. School choice, on this argument, would reinforce inequalities resulting from different family circumstances: more engaged parents would do better by their children than those less engaged parents. The more the family declines, the fewer families are capable of taking on these burdens, the more forces outside the family should be responsible for children. So the argument goes.

This is an argument of considerable force. Its end point is despair of finding families with enough capacity and care to parent their children. This argument never considers the hard alternative, which is this: decreasing parental responsibilities is itself a cause of family decline. My argument is based on the idea that rebuilding the family in the modern world means giving it more of a job to do. Breaking the cycle of family decline means expecting more of parents. This means that parents must take on a “second shift” in many cases: even after a long day at work, they must devote time and energy to their kids. Stronger families embrace this “second shift” and the duties of parenthood, no matter how tough they are—or perhaps because they are tough.

Those who would defend the family today face a complex problem. Our reigning public philosophy suggests that procreation and parenthood are not conjoined by any logic, though they are. Conjoining them entails no small set of “burdens.” Parents are under-employed in the modern world, and many programs of the modern state aim to further that under-employment. In politics, advocates for the family must remember that, as Alexis de Tocqueville writes near the end of Democracy in America, “it is at once necessary and desirable” that government in democracy is “active and powerful,” and the object is to prevent it from “abusing its agility and force.”3 However much financial support parents receive or need from powerful modern governments, the support should maximize parental responsibility as a means of re-employing parents in their jobs.

It is an inconvenient fact that parenting undermines personal independence. It is also a tendency in human nature that we come to love what we invest our time on. In our lives, parents must realize that we have a job to do; it may be a labor of love. This is not a policy as such; it is a pro-family environment. Such an environment can be destroyed, but it cannot simply be built by a set of policies. A pro-family environment is a matter of how much we recognize a self-sacrificing and self-fulfilling love in the center of our lives.

Scott Yenor is a Professor of the Political Science Department at Boise State University and the author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought. He is currently writing a book on ways to understand and realize family community in modern conditions.

1. Aristotle, The Politics, 1261b32

2. Locke, First Treatise on Government, Para 54.

3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 667.