The institution of the family is decisive in determining not only if a person has the capacity to love another individual but in the larger sense whether he is capable of loving his fellow men collectively. The whole of society rests on this foundation for stability, understanding and social peace.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Parenthood involves more than childrearing. It is the legal and physical custody of a child as child and parent grow together. Most parents successfully raise their children without consciously experiencing parenthood’s developmental phases. They enhance their coping skills, altruism and self-respect as they work through their own unresolved developmental issues. For example, being a parent activates both positive and negative memories of relationships with one’s own parents.
People who successfully master these challenges achieve new levels of psychological and emotional maturity along with their children.
Carolyn Newberger, professor of psychology at Harvard University, described how parenthood moves from egoistic to integrative phases:
Phase 1: Egoistic
Parents are self-focused and see their children as extensions of themselves.
Phase 2: Conventional
Perspectives shift from self-centeredness to childrearing practices drawn from traditions, experts and age-related norms.
Phase 3: Individualistic
Children are viewed as unique individuals.
Phase 4: Integrative
Parents learn and mature with their children in their families, communities and society.
Most parents intuitively meet their challenges. Many need help learning how to grow with their children. Some need education and clinical treatment to function competently. A comparatively small percentage but critically large number is unable to function competently. Typically these are adolescents and dependent adults.
We Need a Paradigm Shift
The family is the most fragile of all human institutions, yet it is the bedrock of civilization. Its strength lies in the cohesion and loyalty of the parent-child relationship from which the larger world of kin, community and nation evolves. Our moral stature and our social organization flow from parenthood. It is the source of the work ethic as well as our human capital. Self-assertive social and integrative cultural values are blended in the crucible of parenthood.
Families produce future generations. They protect members against ill health, old age, unemployment and other hazards. Especially in the United States, family relationships are strained by the tension between self-assertive social values and integrative cultural values. Is a child a parent’s private property? Or is a parent a child’s temporary legal and physical custodian?
Both the extreme political left and the right espouse self-assertive values that regard children as private property. The far left stresses the freedom of parents to do as they wish. The far right stresses the privacy of the family. Both extremes assert that parenthood is outside the public domain. Both avoid holding parents responsible for their children’s behavior. To do so is “parent blaming,” they say.
These extreme self-assertive views need to be balanced by integrative values. But the act of balancing them creates friction between competing personal interests as well as between “the world as it is” and “the world as it ought to be.” Like the encircling polarities of the Chinese yin/yang symbol, the world that is and the world that ought to be are intertwined.
The World That Is
Self-assertive capitalism regards the family as a unit for generating money that will be spent on goods and services. It creates winners and losers and undermines reciprocity, altruism and mutual obligation… vital ingredients for the common good. Ironically, self-assertive capitalism weakens the civil society without which the marketplace itself cannot survive.
All wealthy nations, including the United States, are welfare states… that is, they are primarily capitalist states with large, selective doses of socialism. In Wealth & Welfare States: Is America a Laggard or Leader?, Irwin Garfinkel, Lee Rainwater and Timothy Smeeding point out that by its nature, capitalism produces too much economic insecurity. The objective of state welfare institutions is, therefore, to reduce economic insecurity.
Certain institutions families, congregations, service clubs, athletic groups, parent-teacher associations and social organizations offset self-assertive capitalism. They hold our society together, but they are under pressure.
Families have become money machines that generate income to pay off debts. Work schedules are more important than family schedules. Undisciplined consumption is encouraged. Television pumps out images that oppose cultural integrative values. The desire for status is so strong that children attempt to display their worthiness through material things others want or envy. Low-income families struggle to provide these items so their children can achieve some degree of status in school. In contrast, if children are involved in extracurricular, family or community-oriented activities, they don’t need to consume to achieve status.
If we were a true materialistic society, we would value making, using and keeping material things for functional and aesthetic purposes. We would value and enjoy natural and manufactured goods. Instead we are a consumer society in which commodities are sold and discarded. Our economy depends upon planned obsolescence, a throw away orientation.
Unfortunately, promoting consumption of disposable commodities carries over into human relationships. People are viewed as means to an end. They are only consumers of goods and services. Producers and service providers have no commitment beyond satisfying the needs and pleasures of consumers.
This attitude leaks out to color all kinds of relationships. It’s most obvious in the temporary “hook-up” sexual affairs seen today, but it also permeates family relationships. Cohabitation avoids the legal obligations of marriage. Marriage is seen as disposable when one partner no longer meets the other’s needs. Children can be designed through technical procedures and gestated by surrogates. They can be adopted if an individual has enough money to pay others to obtain them. Children have become commodities.
In Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, Rebecca Asher describes how women who set off on a footing of equality with their partners are betrayed by them when babies arrive. Mothers become “foundation parents” and de facto “household drudges,” condemned to professional sidelining and part-time jobs because fathers fail to pull their weight. Mothers feel victimized, fathers feel guilty. The pair that started out on an equal-opportunity journey through life ends up sniping at each other, or scoring weary points. Many split up.
Internationally, the commodification of children is blatantly obvious. Worldwide, 1.2 million children are abducted, bought and sold each year. Every day children as young as nine are abducted or taken under false pretenses from their villages by human traffickers. These girls and boys are promised good jobs and good pay but they end up working in brothels, mines and sweatshops. For example, more than 200,000 Nepalese girls are believed to be victims of this international trade.
In the United States, the commodification of children is less obvious, but here are some examples:
• A Texas Senator proposed a bill that would permit a $500 payment to each woman who places a child for adoption rather than have an abortion. The intention was to provide an incentive to avoid abortion and make an adoption plan. Such a proposal implies that a value can be set on a newborn baby $500 in this case. It ignores the costs of pregnancy, pre-natal care, childbirth and any complications thereof.
• Rebecca Taylor tried to sell her 5-month-old boy for $10,000. Taylor never bonded with the child and needed the money to get another apartment. She was charged with offering the sale of a child.
• Through Fertility Choices Worldwide the cost of hiring a surrogate mother to produce a baby can range from $103,000 to $165,000, although she receives a fraction of the cost.
Challenges for Parents
Parenthood is an economic burden for too many parents. In the United States, our society expects parents to rear their children without adequate resources. The lack of childcare, health care and effective education saps the rewards of parenthood and is detrimental to our society. Parents are distracted by:
• The decline of committed, sacrificial relationships that results in weak family bonds;
• Viewing children as extensions of themselves rather than as life companions;
• Pleasing children rather than expecting them to contribute to family wellbeing;
• Guilt for being imperfect parents; and
• Stress that makes employment away from home attractive and that strains parental relationships.
Efforts to integrate childrearing and employment demonstrate the consequences of delegating parenting functions. After sixty years, the Israeli kibbutzim modified the care of babies and toddlers in separate children’s houses because of its negative effects on parent-child relationships and on adult outcomes. The inability of Kibbutz-raised children to engage in intimate personal relationships was traced to early environments lacking cohesion and continuity because of transient, superficial interactions with caregivers. Virtually all kibbutz babies now receive maternal care at home during their first year of life as their mothers gradually return to the workplace. In the United States, it will take years to assess the long-term effects of today’s delegated childcare of babies and toddlers on child development and adult outcomes.
The World That Ought To Be
Commercial marketing uses world as it ought to be symbols. Slogans such as Be all that you can be, Reach out and touch someone, and Own a piece of the rock focus on appealing cultural values.
John Maynard Keynes concluded in the 1930s that unchecked “animal spirits” emotions, human impulses, enthusiasms and misperceptions drive the economy into booms and busts in a market system that fails to govern itself. On the other hand, tempered by government and safely channeled into healthy capitalism, these same animal spirits can be a source of entrepreneurial energy and benefit everyone.
Most modern social and environmental problems like ill health, lack of community, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours and large prison populations are more likely to occur in a society with large gaps between classes. Addressing inequality in our society would benefit everyone, the well-off as well as the poor.
Our young people’s social, economic, health and educational problems require integrative community and social efforts that include racial and cultural diversity. Still our service systems often view children and youth separately from their families and communities. Programs for different categories of problems treat children as freestanding units and focus on school, peer, social class, racial, neighborhood and societal factors rather than on their homes.
These problems could be minimized if our society recognized that parenthood is a career with economic and social value and that it is our society’s foundation. This would shift the balance from self-centered consumerism to a friendlier and more integrative society.
Because competent parents are essential for our society’s survival, minimum legal standards should be set for determining a person’s readiness to assume these responsibilities.
Readiness for Parenthood
In most states, minors over sixteen can obtain a marriage license with the consent of parents or guardians. Kansas and Massachusetts specify twelve for females and fourteen for males. New Hampshire specifies thirteen for females and fourteen for males. If there is no parent or guardian, or if the guardian is an agency or department, consent can be given by a court. Marriage and military service can be regarded as acts of emancipation from minority status.
In contrast, most European nations make eighteen the minimum age for marriage. In Malta, people may marry from the age of sixteen, although paradoxically the age of consent for sexual intercourse is eighteen. In Turkey, the legal age for marriage is seventeen for girls and boys. In Ireland, a court can authorize the marriage of minors less than eighteen under certain conditions.
Decision-making that leads to adolescent parenthood can be flawed and is an appropriate concern for public policy. In reality, immaturity renders a minor incapable of truly informed consent about marriage or becoming a parent. State laws governing marriage age and emancipation need to be updated to conform with the physical and psychological realities of adolescent development.
In spite of the rhetoric against adolescent pregnancies, our society does little to prepare parents for their new responsibilities. Dependent adult and young adolescent childbirths from unplanned and planned pregnancies are generally considered inevitable. These vulnerable parents, it is assumed, will somehow learn to handle parental responsibilities after the children are born.
Most of the literature about adolescent pregnancy and parenthood doesn’t distinguish between minor and legally adult adolescents. Late adolescent 18 to 21-year-olds are usually considered adults.
Giving birth to a baby doesn’t produce an adult brain or eliminate adolescent developmental issues. John Mitchell, a developmental psychologist, calls attention to romanticized notions that can hide elementary facts:
Romanticizing adolescence blinds us to the adolescent’s capacity for life-diminishing choices. Romantics refuse to tally the teen suicides, runaways, juvenile sex trade, prisoners, broken mothers, damaged infants, and abusive fathers. In order to mature, the natural talent of youth must be aimed and trained.
Many adolescents are wishful thinkers who lack a future orientation because of their sense of invulnerability and their attraction to risk. They are easily swayed by the belief “it can’t happen to me.” This flavor underlies the attitude “I don’t care about that now” despite knowing that cigarettes, drugs, noise and steroids produce diseases, addiction and hearing loss while shortening lifespans. Babies and young children must be protected from these characteristics.
Adolescents who become pregnant have difficulty envisioning alternatives and reasoning through the consequences of childbirth. I had the following conversation with a fifteen-year-old white girl from a middle-class family:
Doctor: I’m told that the test results show that you are pregnant.
Patient: My boyfriend and I knew it because the condom broke.
Doctor: What do you plan to do?
Patient: I’m going to have my baby and keep it. My boyfriend will drop out of school to support us.
Doctor: Do you think that you are old enough to raise a child?
Patient: No. I certainly wouldn’t try to get pregnant.
Doctor: Then how is it that you plan to raise this baby?
Patient: Oh, it was an accident. Besides, I don’t like school, and I can get money to live on. I know a lot of kids who are doing it.
Adolescents who become pregnant are unprepared for the decision-making and responsibilities involved in parenthood. Mature adolescents recognize that they are not ready for parenthood and terminate their pregnancies or make an adoption plan.
Does the Biological Right to Procreate Extend to Persons of Any Age?
The progress of our society has been based on the rule of law, the tangible repository of our cultural values. We are able to transact business with checks and credit cards rather than cash because of the trust we have in the enforcement of our laws. Yet we are still reluctant to legislate standards for competent parenthood. The prime example is our failure to deal with the crisis of adolescent childbirth.
In the United States, there is a strong emphasis on reproductive freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court described the right to procreate as a basic liberty in 1942 in Skinner v. Oklahoma. This has been interpreted as establishing the right to procreate. The political right might oppose the termination of any pregnancy and urge girls on to childbirth. The political left might hold that minor adolescents have the right to procreate when physically able to do so.
GirlMom.com describes itself as a “politically progressive, left-aligned, pro-choice, feminist” website that supports young mothers in their struggle for reproductive freedom and social support. It holds that adolescents are socially conditioned to believe they are irresponsible. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which adolescent parents believe they can’t parent well and therefore don’t. For GirlMom.com adolescent parenthood is not a crisis; the crisis is that adolescent parents do not receive enough public support.
Kristin Luker, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, points out that adolescents have raised healthy children throughout human history. She overlooks the fact that the average onset of menstruation has dropped from sixteen to twelve years of age. She holds that when good prenatal care and nutrition are available, the adolescent years are the best time to have babies from a physical point of view. Luker believes that “the jury is still out on whether or not adolescents make ‘bad’ parents.”
Sara Ruddick, professor emeritus at New School University, hopes that the youngest mothers will have the resources to which all mothers are entitled. These viewpoints reflect a widely held belief that parenthood, as with procreation, is a right rather than a privilege.
These views conflict with the moral and legal principle that a child is not the property of the genetic parent. From the moral point of view, parenthood is not a right awarded by procreation. As adoptive parents well know, it is earned by nurturing a child. From the legal point of view, genetic parents hold legal and physical custodian rights that are defined and can be revoked under child neglect and abuse laws. People who require legal and physical custodians themselves cannot be the legal and physical custodians of other persons… and newborn babies are other persons.
The Double Standard
Franklin Zimring, professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley, points out how accepting low-income adolescent parenthood while encouraging middle-class adolescents to terminate pregnancies or create adoption plans reveals a double standard. Ageism, sexism and racism are all contributing factors as pointed out previously in this book.
Most adolescents who become pregnant realize that it is unwise to enter parenthood. But this wisdom often is not reinforced by their families, professionals or society. To deprive adolescents of informed consent the most important part of which is to ensure that they fully understand the responsibilities and consequences of parenthood is an abrogation of parental and professional obligations. It violates the responsibility of professionals to do no harm.
Title XX of the Public Health Service Act specifies necessary services for Adolescent Family Life Demonstration Projects. These include adoption counseling and referral services; education on the responsibilities of sexuality and parenting; and counseling for immediate and extended family members. This model should be available to all pregnant adolescents and their families as proposed in the next chapter.
The Interests of Society
Our society generally regards preventing teen pregnancy as an important priority. Adolescent pregnancy doesn’t stop being a social and personal crisis when a baby is born. Adolescent parenthood is an even greater crisis with additional health, welfare and legal entanglements.
From society’s point of view, should adolescent childbirth be approached reactively with damage control that might amplify its effects or thoughtfully with holistic planning that can dampen its effects? We have enough knowledge and opportunities to prevent damage if we connect adolescent parenthood to social problems. We don’t need to feel helpless when an adolescent girl gives birth. We can apply the knowledge and problem-solving skills we already have.
Articulating cultural values that discourage premature sexual intercourse and parenthood can dramatically change adolescent behavior. Our country had success with this method in the early Twentieth Century, and the same success is evident in other countries today. The media’s contemporary promotion of sexual behavior could be counteracted by a public health campaign highlighting the disadvantages of adolescent sexual intercourse and pregnancy just like those mounted against smoking, drug abuse and drunk driving. Civic groups, churches and celebrities could articulate standards for sexual behavior and parenthood just as they have to promote educational achievement. Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated a teen pregnancy prevention campaign in New York City in March of 2013. As might be expected, it stirred up criticism reflecting juvenile ageism that treats adolescent parents as adults and that ignores the right of newborn babies to have competent parents.
The Interests of Adolescents
Generally a genetic parent is in the best position to raise a child. This principle guides family preservation in social work. It’s affirmed by fetus-mother bonding throughout pregnancy and by breastfeeding after childbirth. But possessing the judgment, skills and economic resources for parenthood is more important than the ability to conceive, give birth and breastfeed. Genetic mothers and fathers who recognize they don’t possess these qualities make adoption plans.
In 1983, Marie Winn called attention to children who were growing up without childhoods. This is even more prevalent today. One symptom of the denigration of parenthood is the private and public support offered adolescent parents. It presumes that young people who can’t handle the responsibilities of their own lives can handle the responsibilities of parenthood despite our increasingly complicated world.
If we recognize adolescence as a developmental stage and if we define parenthood as an adult responsibility, we can restore childhood for children and adolescence for adolescents. Our society must realize that it can’t cut short the years of nurturing and protection its young need by allowing them to assume adult responsibilities prematurely in any venue.
We need to understand that the developmental characteristics of adolescence and the influences, or the lack thereof, of parents cause more adolescent pregnancies than ignorance and socioeconomic disadvantage. Antipoverty measures alone don’t address parent-child relationships. In their book A Mentor, Peer Group, Incentive Model for Helping Underclass Youth, Ronald Mincy and Susan Weiner noted that poverty is less important than the parents’ behavior in influencing an adolescent girl’s chance of becoming pregnant.
Most importantly, we need to recognize that the charitable impulse to support adolescent parents can have unintended consequences. We need to shift from damage control to offering hope and empowerment.
State statutes use age-grading to protect minors from activities beyond their abilities as well as to protect society from minor’s inappropriate actions. Valuing parenthood enough to set minimum standards could be a tipping point that shifts our society from self-assertive values to integrative cultural values. The most important issue facing us today is whether we value children and our nation’s future enough to value parenthood as a career for adults who can handle its responsibilities.
Governmental Interventions in Family Life
If every citizen respected the rights of others, we wouldn’t need law enforcement. We wouldn’t need welfare if every individual was capable of, and had the opportunity to, lead an economically self-sufficient life. Unfortunately, everyone does not have these qualities or opportunities. We will always need law enforcement and some form of welfare.
We will always face the repercussions of incompetent parents if we do not set standards for parenthood. Currently, all parents are assumed to be competent until they damage their children by neglect or abuse. A more accurate assumption is that the vast majority of parents are competent but children and society need protection from the millions who are not.
We cannot assume competence in parenting any more than we can assume competence in any other activity that affects others. Licensing is intended to ensure that persons who do important things for others are competent and responsible. Irresponsible people conceive and bear children. For this reason, children and society now could have protection from incompetent parents by refining the prevention provisions of child neglect and abuse statutes. When parents are unable or unwilling to become competent, these statutes currently require that parental rights be terminated and the children be adopted.
Parents’ abdication of their responsibilities necessitated laws that mandate parental participation in school conferences; the liability of grandparents for the children of their children; the liability of non-custodial parents for financial support; and the liability of parents for their children’s actions. However, because of the subtle but powerful juvenile ageist assumption that children are property, a belief concealed by the emphasis on family privacy and individual freedom, we intervene only after children have been damaged by their parents.
If all parents were competent, the government wouldn’t need to be involved in family life. Because the neglect, abuse and exploitation of children damage the next generation and create financial burdens for the present generation, government has a clear-cut role in preventing neglect and abuse by setting standards for parenthood. All of us are paying an ever-larger share of the cost of rearing, educating and treating children. Consequently, we all have a financial stake in preventing child neglect and abuse.
Around the world, governments are defining and regulating parenthood in response to conflicts between adult rights and children’s needs. Underlying those conflicts is the erosion of the nuclear family. Children also are increasingly being viewed as commodities in the IVF and adoption marketplaces. A new paradigm is needed. The assumption that anyone regardless of age or capacity has legal and physical custodianship until a child is damaged must be challenged.
Our standards for responsible adulthood include supporting yourself legally and abiding by society’s laws and regulations. Standards are set for foster parents, adoptive parents, divorce custody and visitation arrangements, childcare, preschools, schools and others who are responsible for children’s lives. Minimum standards for parenthood would protect children from neglect and abuse and all of us from the consequences. Standards won’t create optimal childrearing scenarios but will identify the worst scenarios. What’s good for children may be controversial but what’s bad for them is not as is clearly outlined in our child neglect and abuse laws.
Too many of our children are growing up in families that prevent them from becoming responsible, productive citizens. The repetitive cycle of adolescent and dependent adult parents followed by child abuse and neglect is the most preventable source of habitual crime and welfare dependency.
Our society needs a paradigm shift from our dominant self-assertive social values toward integrative cultural values. We can protect our nation’s future by ensuring that all children have competent parents. We would then value parenthood as a career with as much economic and social value as paid employment. Parents would be able to compete economically with adults without children.
Because our society doesn’t articulate expectations for parents, child neglect and abuse have reached epidemic proportions. Rates in the United States exceed that of all other developed nations. We only intervene after neglect and abuse have occurred, and often then ineffectively. Enormous public expenditures on treatment, rehabilitation and incarceration result. This would change dramatically if our vision for America was that all our children will be raised by competent parents.
By failing to recognize a newborn baby’s right to competent parents with adequate resources, our society will continue to be anti-child and anti-parent. If we go on this way, we will ensure that America continues to decline. By addressing the basic needs of families, we can correct our course one child and one parent at a time. We need a system that sets standards for parenthood and that includes in-home and community guidance for new parents along with ensuring that all families have adequate family resource systems.
What Do We Know?
Two vital aspects of parenthood are often overlooked. The first is that readiness for parenthood follows the adolescent stage of life. The ability to assume responsibility for one’s own life is a prerequisite for assuming responsibility for the life of another person. The second is that parenthood is a developmental stage in life. Parents progress though egocentric, conventional, individualistic and integrative phases of parenthood.
Controversies arise over whether pregnancy and childbirth themselves promote maturity; whether everyone has a right to parenthood regardless of age; and whether genetic parents are always the best person to raise a child. In the past, preparation for parenthood occurred within families. With loosening family ties and family strife in the United States, preparation for parenthood now often must come from educational and clinical sources.
By entering parenthood, adolescents gain financial benefits in the form of Temporary Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, counseling, educational accommodations, and childcare in addition to increased status with their peers and possibly families. Adoption is not appealing because it means parting with their babies and these benefits. Making an adoption plan also might evoke disapproval from relatives and peers. All these factors encourage adolescents to become parents despite the likelihood of unfavorable outcomes.
The best time for decision-making about parenthood and adoption plans is when a pregnancy first becomes known. The more mature adolescent parents are, the more likely they will choose not to enter parenthood. The overall evidence indicates that children who were adopted as babies fare as well as children reared in genetic families.
To ensure that children have competent parents, parenthood must be recognized as a developmental stage that follows adolescence and as an essential complement to childhood. Struggling parents also need access to collaborative systems of care.