Parenting/Politics: Should Bad Parenting Be a Crime?

Does bad parenting reach the threshold of being criminal?

Posted Apr 28, 2010

Hey, it wasn't my idea; a commenter raised the question in response to a recent blog post in which I argued that bad parenting is the number-one cause of failing students and failing schools and, consequently, the best point of intervention for public education reform. But it is an intriguing idea.

Now, you may be thinking that I'm suggesting the Parenting Police and another step toward a Nanny State. But give me a little latitude and let's see where this discussion takes us.

Let's look at this realistically. Really bad parenting is already a crime; it's called child abuse. So it's not an issue of whether to make bad parenting a crime, but the threshold at which bad parenting becomes a crime. And we already make crimes of behaviors that have broad individual and social costs; think reckless driving, negligent medical practices, and drug dealing. And is there any behavior that has greater costs to our society than bad parenting: poor health, bad education, unemployment, crime? Because of my interest in public education reform, the purpose of this post is to better prepare disadvantaged children for academic success (though good parenting initiatives would have powerful benefits across the gamut of societal problems).

You might argue that families have always been sacrosanct and protected from government intrusion. But that is more idealist fantasy than practical reality. Government inserts itself in our family lives all the time with, for example, product, food, drug, home, and auto safety.

The challenge, of course, is to decide when parenting reaches the level of criminal given this new perspective. We could, of course, create a blue-ribbon panel of parenting experts to spend months discussing and preparing a lengthy report. But, as usually happens, such a commission would likely end up making politically safe, inside-the-box recommendations that appease everyone and change nothing.

So this blue-ribbon panel of one will throw out some ideas. Bad parenting would be a crime if parents:

  • Don't instill in their children healthy values such as respect, responsibility, hard work, and compassion.
  • Feed their children food that caused obesity and other health-related problems.
  • Don't instill in their children an appreciation for learning.
  • Let their children use media more than is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Don't read to their children daily.
  • Don't engage in frequent two-way conversations with their children.

That seems like a good start, but is far from complete. I'm sure we could add to the list if we look further into what goes into raising a happy, successful, and contributing person. What would you suggest?

But, to be honest, I don't have the stomach to make this threshold of bad parenting a crime. More often than not, parents aren't bad because they want to be bad. The vast majority of parents love their children and want what's best for them. Unfortunately, for a large swath of America that is mired in poverty, particularly those in urban centers and among minorities and immigrants, the economic and cultural pressures that they must bear make it extremely difficult for them to be good parents. Working two jobs, single-parent families, poor English language skills, and unaffordable child care all can conspire to prevent parents from doing what is best for their children.

So, instead of criminalizing bad parenting, how about we simply ensure that prospective parents have what it takes to be good parents? We could start by requiring that would-be parents apply for licenses before they have children. That sounds downright totalitarian, doesn't it? But, as Keanu Reeves said in the 1989 film, Parenthood, "You need a license to drive, you need a license to fish, but anyone can be a parent." If you step back and take a honest look at this idea, it seems perfectly reasonable. Don't we want to ensure that people who have children (that's the easy part) also have the knowledge and skills necessary to raise them (that's the hard part)? So we could develop a test that assesses prospective parents' capabilities and if they fail the test, well, no children allowed. Of course, they could study up and retest just like with driver's licenses.

Okay, that idea won't fly either. So what's next? How about requiring parenting classes? Parent education is already done in most hospitals, but the classes are typically devoted to the basics of feeding, bathing, and changing newborns. And a few classes can't possibly cover all the areas that make good parents.

Perhaps ongoing classes that cover each stage of development are the solution. This idea seems to have merit. I think that people should need a college degree to be parents; they can do more harm than physicians, teachers, psychologists, and dentists, and they are required to get advanced degrees and licenses to do their jobs. But, because requiring a college diploma is a definite nonstarter, maybe regular parenting classes might be acceptable. A continuing parenting course would enable parents to learn what they need to do as their children get older. But how do we decide who should take the classes and where are people going to find the time to attend?

Boy, this is frustrating. All of this thought put into solving the problem of bad parenting and not one workable solution. Alright, here is my final attempt at recommendations for how to encourage good parenting among disadvantaged families:

Have President Obama and other national, state, and local leaders announce and throw their support behind the Good Parent Initiative.

Create a public-service campaign, Be the Best Parent You Can Be, that blankets old and new media with positive and practical messages from celebrities, professional athletes, etc. Often, just raising awareness can change behavior, case in point being the anti-smoking campaigns of the late 20th century.

Establish Parent for America, based on Teach for America, in which trained parent coaches educate and train poor parents on all aspects of effective parenting, including financial management, stress management, nutrition, reading, communication, life skills, and much more. All parents of children who qualify for free lunch programs could get personalized regular parent coaching and support.

In partnership with already-established volunteer organizations, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America and Reading Is Fundamental, Read for Kids' Futures would provide disadvantaged children with early exposure to books and regular reading opportunities.

Develop an affordable, high-quality national child-care system that is overseen and subsidized by the federal government and run by private operators. An enriched childcare environment could provide the children of poor working parents with the learning experiences and tools that their parents are unable to give them and that are essential for success in school.

Of course, it would be great to be able to offer all parents a living wage that would mean working only one job and provide more time with their children. But this proposal is ambitious enough without attempting to create an even greater sea change.

I realize that these ideas are being implemented individually on a small scale around the country. But now is not the time for thinking small or incremental. We've been doing that for far too long with little to show for it; as the saying goes, "Go big or go home." We need to put these ideas into action in an integrated, large-scale way. With sufficient funding, a solid infrastructure, and a clear process, we can actually improve parenting and children's lives, and better prepare underprivileged children for academic success. And, for those federal-budget-minded readers, we can save America a ton of money in the long run through prevention of many of the problems that are caused by bad parenting.