Are there such things as parenting rights?
I don’t mean parental rights - aka a right to be involved in your child’s life. I mean a right to parent how you see fit, so long as it’s “not abusive” according to our current societal definition of abuse.
If you ever stumbled across a anti-smacking, anti-sleep training or anti-circumcision article online then you’ve probably seen parents claiming that they have a right to parent the way that suits them.
But is there actually such a thing?
There will be parents who argue that a government ban on smacking or circumcision interferes with their rights as a parent, or their right to religious freedom.
Others that claim there is a difference between the practices listed above and abuse, and so long as you don’t cross that line all is good. And those that just generally subscribe to the “it’s nobody else’s business how I parent and it’s none of my business how other people parent”
The thing is though, there are three things people tend to forget.
1: Parents have responsibilities
2: Childrens are people. With human rights
3: Your rights end when your actions infringe upon other’s rights.
First of let’s clear something up - legally speaking Male Circumcision in the US is illegal. (i’m going to focus on the US on this one since they are the only country where the practice is common)
As I outlined here: There are a number of laws in the US that make circumcision’s legal status questionable, including children having a right to freedom from religious-inflicted abuse, and the fact that the US has laws in place to prevent gender-selective application of the law. Title 18 makes female circumcision expressly illegal. Since you can not actually apply a law based on gender, that means that all circumcision in America is actually illegal.
So from a federal law^ perspective you don’t actually have a legal right to circumcise, even for religious reasons.
Unfortunately in both the US and Australia smacking is legally “allowable”, the US even still allows corporal punishment in school in 19 states. Many parents (even anti-spanking parents) will use this legal standing to claim that they or others have a parental right to smack. Legally speaking it’s not “abuse” so as long as you don’t cross that invisible line…… But, laws do not always adequately reflect morals.
When you remember that Human Rights trump legal rights, and that Article 19 of the UN Convention for the Rights of The Child states
Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
then you have to at least question the assumption that smacking is legal considering we are signatories to the Rights of the Child Convention.
How can parents have a legal right to hit their child, when the child has a Human Right to be protected from all violence and injury?
Logically they can’t which means that smacking should be illegal in Australia and the fact that it isn’t simply means our government is putting their private beliefs, and popularity rankings before children's rights and decades of proof.
Even when we look at something like sleep training (defined for the purposes of this article as Cry-it-out, Controlled Crying and Extinction training) the legality is questionable. Particularly the legality of the government promoting such techniques (via informative brochures/websites, ad campaigns or government employed health care workers) and the non-prosecution of private practice doctors who promote them.
Article 24 states that children have a right to food and water.
Doctors like Adelaide based Dr Brian Symon and his US counterparts the Jassey’s who promote extinction methods, tell parents to stretch out feeds to four hours during the day, and to drop all night feedings by one month old.
The Jassey’s actually state that the most a newborn baby will receive on their program is 18oz of milk/24hours. (that’s if the baby manages to drink and keep down the large feeds that are required to meet even 18oz if you are only feeding 4 hourly during the day) The AAP recommends a minimum of 20oz in 24hrs, preferably 25, in order to meet their needs for brain growth and development. In hot weather or times of illness babies need even more. Which means that these doctors are straight up recommending starvation. Malnutrition and dehydration are very real possibilities. So surely it should be illegal for doctors to advise parents to restrict their newborn (or even older baby’s) access to milk. Surely if a baby dies or ends up in hospital with critical dehydration or failure to thrive both the parents and the doctor could be charged with neglect, and endangerment. The AAP has required warnings on and banned the publication of at least one extinction-bassed parenting book before, so why are these books allowed to be sold, or these doctors allowed to practice and speak or have stalls at major Parenting Events?
(ps: article 6 states that Governments have a responsibility to ensure that all children are able to survive and develop healthily, so the government absolutely has the legal and moral imperative to shut down and ban the promotion of such methods. “Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children”)
These doctors, along with many parents, “baby sleep consultants” and articles build off a “shut the door and leave” policy. You put the child in bed at 7pm, you say goodnight, and you shut the door and leave. All sleep training methods (see definition above) are extinction based. They just vary in how extreme they are; from no one re-enters the room/the child is not to get up for any reason from 7-7, to the pick-up put down method. They all rely on the same theory, they are all part of the same category in psychological terms, (behaviourist approaches) and they all have the potential to be traumatic for the child, even if they seem mild to the parent.
When taken to the extreme 7-7 end, it’s pretty difficult to ignore the fact that leaving a baby or child in a room they can not get out of for twelve hours with no food, drink, bathroom breaks or comfort - even if they vomit, scream for hours, pass out or self-harm is abuse and neglect.
Can you imagine the fallout if a teacher did that to your child? If it happened in an institution? But for some reason when it happens in the home, it’s a valid parenting technique? WTF?
Thankfully most parents who sleep train their child, (and most people who make money from convincing you that you need to do so) do not use a total extinction method. But again where is that arbitrary line between abuse and “parental choice?”
Is it a certain number of minutes of crying? Going to them if the self-harm or vomit, but not if they are crying? Is it ok if you leave a drink bottle in their room? Leave them with a dummy or teddy bear? Talk to them through the door/cot rails? If you give them lots of love and cuddles during the day?
where is the line?
In generations past it was only abuse if you killed or permanently injured your child. Before that there was no such thing as child abuse - parents had absolute authority to treat children however they wanted because children were property. In most countries around the world our tendency to put a baby in their own bed is viewed with disgust, and the whole sleep training thing is very much considered abuse and neglect. (even the least extreme versions.) If we were talking about an elderly person or a disabled person, no amount of love and affection during the day would make up for neglect at night in the eyes of either society or the law. Likewise if a nurse ignored their cries (at any time of the day) and told them they had to self-soothe, people would be calling for her to be banned from the industry. But if it’s a baby or young child, then it’s totally fine.
What about the mother this week who went on holidays with her husband whilst a professional did the sleep training? The baby was 12 weeks, and rightly enough the article has been controversial. But would that be socially ok if the baby was 12 months? What about if Grandma or Dad had been the one at home doing the training? Or the baby had been sent to Grandma’s house? What if mum was only in the next room with a professional sleep trainer? Grandma or Dad? Our adult brains say - sure that would be fine, that’s not neglect, you are still there, but since babies have no concept of object permanence being in the next room really isn’t any different in their experience to you being in Barbados.
The answer, just as with smacking, is that the line is wherever current societal attitudes say it is.
But what about when we look at things from a biological perspective? Biologically speaking, the line is pretty clear.
"Leaving babies alone to cry is not part of “normal” human development from an evolutionary perspective. When we do this to other mammals in experiments they become abnormal specimens of their species (Harlow, 1958). And humans are even more sensitive to caregiver treatment than any other animal." Darcia Narvaez Ph.D
Human Rights don’t suddlely disappear at 7pm, or when your two year old has a tantrum.
They also don’t suddenly disappear because a child has acted in a way that an adult deems unacceptable. In fact Article 37 states that: “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” now article 37 is primarily concerned with children who have broken the law, but the home and the school are a microcosm of society, so if lawbreakers are to be treated with dignity, then surely your child who accidently broke a vase or pushed their sister or or keeps sucking their thumb when you’ve told them not too, or broke curfew deserve to be treated with dignity as well.
Parents will often argue that punishment is justifiable because they are teaching their child to respect rules and law, “You’ll regret not spanking when you’re kids in jail because they can’t follow the law”, or “how do you think their boss is going to react when they don’t do what they’re told.” are pretty common arguments from the pro-punishment camp.
But corporal punishment, shaming, destruction of property, and solitary isolation all fit into the category or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. So ironically enough, your child has a better chance of being treated with dignity and respect for their status as a person in Gaol, then they do in your home. If Gaols and courts are not allowed to destroy possessions, hit, shame, belittle or isolate a child even if that child has committed murder or rape, then how on earth is it ok for parents to do those things because a child didn’t do their chores, or had a fight with their brother, or talked back to you?
And yes, by solitary confinement I am referring to time out and grounding. Really, what are they if not a modification of solitary confinement?
What is it that makes children subhuman? What is it about being the child’s legal guardian that suddenly means that you have a right to violate their human rights?
Why do we condone and promote actions towards children that would very clearly be illegal and socially unacceptable if they were directed towards another adult, an animal, your spouse, employees, patients or inmates?
Parental Rights - legal or otherwise do not trump human rights.
The UN Commision on Children’s Rights has this to say about parental guidance.
Article 5 (Parental guidance): Governments should respect the rights and responsibilities of families to direct and guide their children so that, as they grow, they learn to use their rights properly. Helping children to understand their rights does not mean pushing them to make choices with consequences that they are too young to handle. Article 5 encourages parents to deal with rights issues "in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child". The Convention does not take responsibility for children away from their parents and give more authority to governments. It does place on governments the responsibility to protect and assist families in fulfilling their essential role as nurturers of children.
Which means that as signatories to the convention our government has agreed that parents do not in fact have a right to parent however they want - they have a responsibility to parent in a way that both upholds their child's human rights, and teaches their children to understand and use their rights.
Article 4 (Protection of rights): Governments have a responsibility to take all available measures to make sure children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. When countries ratify the Convention, they agree to review their laws relating to children. This involves assessing their social services, legal, health and educational systems, as well as levels of funding for these services. Governments are then obliged to take all necessary steps to ensure that the minimum standards set by the Convention in these areas are being me
Which means that our government is actually supposed to overhaul any laws that impede children's rights and as a result smacking (at the bare minimum) should be illegal.
They must help families protect children’s rights and create an environment where they can grow and reach their potential. In some instances, this may involve changing existing laws or creating new ones. Such legislative changes are not imposed, but come about through the same process by which any law is created or reformed within a country. Article 41 of the Convention points out the when a country already has higher legal standards than those seen in the Convention, the higher standards always prevail. - Optional Protocol pages.
Which means that our government should be educating parents, health professionals and educators in children's rights, childism, normal child development, child psychology and peaceful parenting practices.
They should be actively discouraging parents and teachers from using isolation, shaming, or the removal/destruction of property as discipline methods, and discouraging the continuation of parent-centric sleep and behaviour modification approaches.
And they should certainly be making it clear that, no, you do not have a right - legal or otherwise to parent anyway you want, you actually have a responsibility to your children to be the best parent you can possibly be, to read the research, to find out the history and reasoning behind practices, to develop and improve your skills, to question your assumptions and beliefs about what “successful” parenting or “good kids” looks like, to learn about child development, to employ developmentally appropriate strategies and to treat your children with respect and dignity at all times. (yes even if they are back chatting you, because guess what: you are the adult, you are the one with a fully developed brain, and i’ll bet you still say rude things to other people all the time. Don’t expect your kids to behave better than you do.)
If you wouldn’t treat your spouse, your friends, you employess, you grandmother that way….. If it would be considered abuse, assault or neglect if you did it to your dog, a disabled person, the elderly, some random person on the bus….. why do we believe that we have a right to do it to children?
The answer can only be that we don’t
^ Many states in the US have state based legislation that allows for a Religious based exemptions on various Children's Rights issues, It is unclear if anyone has ever successfully challenged these state level exemptions using either the Federal laws or the UN convention.
*Freedom of religion is recognised under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a party. It is not an absolute right so, for example, it can be limited by laws which are necessary to protect “the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. Clearly, many manifestations of religious belief, such as polygamy or female genital mutilation, may be prohibited due to their impacts on the rights of others. Furthermore, religious practices do evolve.
“Violations of freedom of religion or belief often affect the rights of children and their parents,” he said in a press release. “Children, typically girls, from religious minorities for example, are abducted and forcibly converted to another religion through forced early marriage.”
The rights expert also urged religious communities across the world to ensure respect for the freedom of religion or belief of children within their teaching and community practices, bearing in mind the status of the child as a rights holder.
“Religious community leaders should support the elimination of harmful practices inflicted on children, including by publicly challenging problematic religious justifications for such practices whenever they occur,” he stressed.
Hi I'm Nicole