All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1998

For the Children

The Boundaries of Child-Centered Concern Have Expanded to Include Government Action

Russell Madden teaches at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Most parents love their children and seek only the best for them. Indeed, the notion that the next generation should have better and easier lives is best illustrated by the countless immigrant parents who suffer backbreaking labor, long hours, and economic deprivation. That motivation is an integral part of the American vision.

The focus on children and their needs and desires permeates our society. Whether represented by a mother enduring long lines and jostling crowds to purchase this year’s hottest toy or by indulgent grandparents spoiling their grandchildren, the trend seems to be intensifying.

As long as such activities are confined to the home, no harm is done . . . except, perhaps, to the family’s budget or a parent’s patience. Even childless people may gain some amusement, pleasure, or relief when observing the lengths to which modern-day parents will go to please their tiny alter egos.

Unfortunately, the boundaries of child-centered concern long ago expanded to include government action. The increasing politicization of the intimate bonds and responsibilities of parents to their children has restricted our freedom in innumerable ways.

Many of the policies designed “for the children” dovetail neatly with an odd fixation on “safety at any cost.” The combination of these two rationales drives us inexorably down a dark road that is becoming increasingly difficult to exit.

A desire for safety is, of course, no more inherently odd than is an interest in the development and well-being of one’s children. Parents rightly seek to protect their children from life’s multiple and endless hazards, provide them a secure and stable environment in which to grow, and ensure their general safety.

When those goals are achieved, however, by violating the rights of neighbors, the patina of respectability overlaying self-professed good intentions quickly chips away to reveal the corrosive essence of tyranny. Need can never be a claim on the wealth, property, or lives of one’s fellow citizens.

Through increasingly restrictive and intrusive laws, regulations, and rules that strangle civil society, politicians offer bribes that few constituents can or will refuse. If challenged that their actions undermine freedom and install paternalistic control, the dispensers of largesse purchased at others’ expense righteously reply that they are doing this “for the children.”

Who could be against children?

The debate is thus skewed in favor of middleclass entitlements and protection dressed up as benevolence toward poor, defenseless children unable to care for themselves. The fundamental principles involved in this slowmotion takeover of American family life are lost in a political sleight of hand. Freedom, justice, and equality before the law become disposable abstractions.

A Transformation

The for-the-children mantra magically transforms acquisition of goods provided by unwilling others. Theft, robbery, and extortion become caring, compassion, and generous concern. Since few are willing to expose the sleight of hand, such assaults on our liberty continue.

A few examples make the point:

  • Government indoctrination, also known as public schooling, was imposed on our country ostensibly to ensure that our children did not grow up to become ignorant and incompetent adults—despite any compelling evidence that parents had failed in their obligations in this arena. Even Thomas Jefferson advocated (limited) government support for nurturing students in their education. The consequences of losing autonomy in this single realm continue to reverberate in our country, providing a source of continual friction and contentious wrangling that hungrily gobbles up not only countless billions in wasted wealth but big pieces of our freedom as well. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, government-run schools make certain that children learn only the versions of history, politics, and economics that cast the current political status quo in a favorable light.
  • Meanwhile, parents lacking power are forced to subsidize the teaching of ideas and values they may abhor. Childless adults stagger along under heavy property taxes to support institutions providing a service they do not need. To add insult to injury, constant bond issues add to their burden as pretty new buildings bide the ugly truth of a dumbed-down, increasingly ignorant and incompetent student body-the very result used to justify government’s invasion of education in the first place.
  • Telephone rates on second phone lines and other services are increased to provide money to wire every school in America to the Internet regardless of whether this is truly the best avenue for providing a sound foundation of knowledge for children. As a bonus, many educators and families obtain “free” Internet access for which others must pay monthly out of their own pockets.
  • In a direct assault on freedom of speech, politicians seek to regulate that same Internet and World Wide Web . . . for the children. Ignoring the primary role of parents in governing their children’s activities, the state declares that only it can keep innocent children safe from the disturbing images of pornography, the dangers of conversing electronically with sexual predators, and the politically incorrect ideas floating uncontrolled in cyberspace.
  • Paralleling these efforts at censorship, politicians force television manufacturers to place a “V-chip” in new televisions to block out violent images. Computer monitors are next on their list. In a similar vein, the state “persuades” television networks “voluntarily” to rate their programs to protect impressionable young minds. Music recordings, comic books, and other media designed to attract a youthful clientele also fail to escape the scrutiny of our ever-vigilant government nannies.
  • Advertising on children’s television shows is limited even as networks are forced to provide a set amount of “children’s educational programming,” which invariably proves to be a ratings loser.
  • “Joe Camel” is declared animal non grata lest his image corrupt kids and trap them into a lifetime of nicotine addiction. Other cigarette promotions are outlawed for similar reasons. Humorous beer commercials that might appeal too much to underage consumers are also threatened with banishment if they are not changed.
  • Large breakfast-cereal companies are the subject of congressional ire when the prices of their products seem to pose a barrier to consumption by our youngest citizens. Of course, when the supply is readily purchased, the products are castigated for contaming too much sugar and not enough nutritional value.
  • The Family Leave Act is passed with great fanfare. Mothers can take months off their jobs to bond properly with their children and yet still have their positions guaranteed on their return. Childless couples are left to pick up the slack, working longer hours or taking on additional duties to cover for their absent coworkers.
  • Fearing that children will suffer physically, emotionally, or socially from caregivers unlicensed-and uncontrolled-by the state, our political leaders call for greater regulation of the day care industry. To aid parents even more with their child-care needs, the President calls for billions of dollars in subsidies.
  • To further safeguard the health of the nation’s youth, the government moves to extend health coverage to young, uninsured children, providing a matching bookend to the seniors it already controls via Medicare. (See Sue A. Blevins’s article beginning on page 407.)
  • To overcome the lax care of less-than-vigilant parents, government orders air bags for cars, skillfully avoiding any mention of the dangers to children they represent. Demanding that babies be secured in car seats and toddlers by seat belts, the state provides further opportunities for creating unwitting criminals of distracted parents. Helmets for young bicyclers become another symbol of government sovereignty.
  • The rights of adults to defend themselves as recognized by the Second Amendment are infringed by “gun-free zones” near schools, by laws requiring that guns be locked up or broken down and stored separately from ammunition, or banned entirely, all so children will be safe—despite the fact that accidents involving firearms have steadily decreased even while gun ownership has soared.
  • Even the intellectual development of infants falls under the purview of the government as a Southern governor, Zell Miller of Georgia, declares that each newborn shall be provided with a cassette or CD of classical music-paid for by the taxpayers.


Too Many Parents Agree

Implicit in these programs, proposals, and laws is the insulting assumptions that parents are incapable of making the best decisions for their children, that only a bureaucrat who has never met any particular family or knows its unique context is qualified to make such profound and long-reaching decisions regarding the children of this country. Sad to say, too many of those self-same parents, obsessed with safety or befuddled by the complexity of the modern world, apparently agree with that dismal assessment of their abilities; either that or they drop the responsibility for their lives and that of their children into the eager, grasping fingers of the state, relieved to have someone else do the worrying for them. If confronted with the resentment of those whose freedom is diminished as they are forced to pay for another’s consumption, these parents evade the consequences of what they do and indignantly claim that anything and everything the government offers them is theirs by “right.”

Doubtless, many parents are sincere in their beliefs. Equally certain is the error at the base of their reasoning. Engaging in a quixotic quest for a risk-free existence is a fool’s errand—even more so when done while violating the rights of others. As Benjamin Franklin said in 1759, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Not only do they not deserve those values, ultimately they will lose what they so desperately seek.

Anyone truly concerned with promoting the welfare of children now and into the distant future should do everything he can to peel away the multitudinous layers of constraints smothering our nation. If safety and full personal development of our people are the goals, the best course is one that restores justice and freedom.

Let’s do it for the children . . . and ourselves.