The Professionalization of Parenthood

We Must Remove the Incentives for Parental Irresponsibility

Susan Orr is director of the Reason Public Policy Institute’s Center for Social Policy in Washington, D.C.

What do the following things have in common? The child-care initiative, foster care, Head Start, and the child-abuse prevention effort “Healthy Families.” All are programs for children and all receive government funding, most at the federal level. They also share an insidious assumption: most people, particularly the poor, are unable to be good parents without the help of professionals.[1] Is such an assumption warranted? And if not, why not?

Parents increasingly complain about how difficult it is to raise their children in a wholesome atmosphere. In The Assault on Parenthood, Dana Mack tapped into that sense of frustration. Parents, she says, find that the “communal supports for the child-rearing work of even the best families are crumbling. . . . In fact, parents see the decline of social supports and the breakdown of families as symptoms of a larger phenomenon: the sudden and rapid decay of those stable social values that once fostered a protective culture of childhood.”[2]

Recognizing the need for community support does not necessitate turning over parenting to a professional class, particularly one subsidized by the state. But the two things are not unconnected. As anyone could tell who monitored last year’s debate over child care, the White House conference on early childhood development, or the latest proposal to triple funding to schools that make after-school programs available, the Clinton administration is more than willing for government to step in to “help” parents.

Caution Warranted

Americans should exercise caution before embracing such assistance. One has only to look at the results of the government “help” extended to the poor over the last several decades. Since the war on poverty began in the sixties, an unintended consequence of government policy has been to treat the poor as if they were incapable of living responsibly, particularly when it comes to raising their children. This shows up most clearly in education and child-welfare policy.

The easy answer over the years has been to spend more money on government programs. If we are feeling guilty about the plight of the urban poor, then increased funding for Head Start (the preschool program for poor children that is supposed to help them enter grade school on a par with their more affluent peers) is the easy solution. Increased spending requires only our money, not our time or effort. Simply spending more money also has the added advantage of appearing nonjudgmental. We don’t have to say that children do better with both a mother and a father or that neglectful parents are bad. Instead, we ignore the underlying problem, hoping that more education will inoculate children against their upbringing. In practice, this has meant turning the problem over to professionals.

Only occasionally do we get hints that professionalized child rearing might be problematic. Only occasionally is anything made of the fact that Head Start, now in its fourth decade, might be little more than a salve for our consciences. A recent GAO study confirms what earlier research has consistently pointed out, i.e., there is scant evidence that Head Start has any long-term beneficial effects for children.[3] Yet the program now routinely recruits three-year-olds. There is also a “0 to 3 initiative,” because age three was deemed too late for a sufficient head start. This initiative, as its name implies, works intensively with young mothers, teaching them about child development and encouraging them to rear their children responsibly. Yet as the program grows more expansive, there is little indication that children fare any better and some signs that they do not. (See John Hood’s article, page 11.)

The Comprehensive Child Development Program, a similar federally funded initiative geared toward low-income families, released its evaluation results last year with little fanfare because the study revealed that participating families fared no better than their less pampered peers and sometimes even did worse. At some time we have to admit that there are limits to what professionals can do. By failing to insist on responsible parents, we ask educators to take on an extra burden and are shocked when they fail.

In many respects, education policy has been driven by the disasters plaguing the child-welfare system. Just a glance at recent statistics tells us that something is dreadfully awry. Child protective agencies looked into the lives of over three million children in 1996 (the latest year for which we have data).[4] This number reflects more than a 300 percent increase in reports over the last 20 years.[5] In under one-third (28 percent) of the cases, a caseworker determined that a child had been hurt by his parents; of that number, 15 percent were considered to be in sufficient danger to be removed from their homes and put into foster care.[6] While no official count exists, experts estimate that there are at least 500,000 children in foster care today.[7] Unfortunately, over 30 percent of all children sent back home to their families eventually re-enter foster care because of further abuse or neglect.[8]

But who are these children and why don’t we hear about them? The children caught in the web of the child welfare system are overwhelmingly poor and without fathers.[9] Most Americans are horrified when confronted with these statistics, but are unaware that they are predictably the direct result of policies that do not hold parents accountable for their behavior. Not surprisingly, the children of those irresponsible parents are the ones who end up in Head Start.

Perverse Incentives

The pervading problem is that the child-welfare system is riddled with perverse incentives that undermine personal responsibility and reward destructive behavior. Social workers understand themselves as providing remedies in the guise of therapeutic treatment. Child abuse is not regarded primarily as a violation of justice, but as either a symptom of illness or the result of economic deprivation, depending on which theoretical model of abuse the social worker follows: the medical or ecological model. Parents, according to either theory, are not at fault. Because abuse is not seen as a moral problem, it should be susceptible to professional help. It is therefore not surprising to find reluctance to ever pronounce any given parent irredeemable.

Mirroring the science of modern medicine, child-welfare professionals are trained to look at human behavior as a doctor would look at disease. Just as doctors strive to eradicate cancer, child-welfare professionals work to end all strife within the family. Even the tools of their trade are couched in scientific terms. If someone beats a child, he is in need of treatment, even if treatment is a parenting class. Caseworkers use “risk assessment tools” to decide whether a child can safely remain in the home, as if by application of a checklist one could do more than guess who will choose to do evil. Such tools lessen the dignity of all involved: they fail to take into account, and in fact attempt to replace, the free will of the parent and the judgment of the caseworker.

The profession continuously speaks of creating “systems of care” to protect children from the harm caused by bad parents, thus attempting to restore the broken family through social engineering. If a system fails, one needs simply to tinker with the machine, not find fault with the human beings involved. Finding fault is made more difficult because any agency intervention is cloaked under the secrecy of confidentiality laws and treated as utterly private. Since child-welfare agencies are lodged within the state, however, their actions cannot be private: citizens do not have a choice about when the agency enters into their lives.

That cases of abuse and neglect are subject to intervention is not a problem in and of itself; rather, it is the manner in which such intervention is carried out. Child welfare professionals were long ago successful in persuading state legislatures to decriminalize most cases of child abuse and neglect. By forsaking the courts of criminal law, in which determinations of justice and injustice are made and punishments meted out, social work took on the much larger task of attempting to heal family members who have gone wrong. The therapeutic regimen is carried out by providing various services from things as simple as housekeeping to as complicated as residential drug treatment for both the drug-addicted mother and her children.

Healthy Families America, embraced by politicians across the spectrum, is only the latest government-funded fad directed at preventing child abuse. Healthy Families, sponsored by the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and funded by most states, is popular because it is advertised as voluntary. This home-visiting program screens parents with newborns in the hospital for risk factors for abuse; then paraprofessionals visit parents deemed to be high-risk and provide them with advice and information on child development. Its effectiveness is unclear: in Arizona, for example, the first-time mothers in the control group had a lower incidence of abuse than the group in the program.[10] After several decades of social experimentation, one thing is clear: yet another government program will fail to make parents better; we do know it can make things worse, however.

It is the poor and marginalized citizens who are hurt most by current policy. If we want parents to raise their children in a manner fitting to a free society, we must remove the incentives for irresponsibility. Overcoming desperate circumstances requires good character, especially that virtue which is the foundation of all the other virtues: self-control. When virtue is not rewarded, but is instead treated as one of many equally worthy lifestyle choices, the poor are disproportionately harmed. It is more than time to insist that all parents be responsible for raising their children.


  1. This may indeed be true of foster care, where the state steps in and physically removes a child from a dangerous parent.
  2. Dana Mack, The Assault on Parenthood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. 17.
  3. U.S. General Accounting Office, “Head Start: Research Provides Little Information on Impact of Current Program,” April 1997. See also Nina H. Shokraii and Patrick F. Fagan, “After 33 Years and $30 Billion, Time to Find Out If Head Start Produces Results” (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation), July 15, 1998.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, Child Maltreatment 1996: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), p. 2–1.
  5. Patricia A. Schene, “Past, Present, and Future Roles of Child Protective Services,” in The Future of Children, Spring 1998 (Los Altos, Calif.: The Center for the Future of Children, David and Lucile Packard Foundation), p. 29.
  6. Child Maltreatment 1996, p. 2–3.
  7. The Voluntary Cooperative Information System (VCIS) is the most complete aggregate data on children in substitute care. It is collected by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), formerly known as American Public Welfare Association, in Washington, D.C. The last estimate available is for 1995, which puts the number of children in foster care at 483,000. However, APHSA projects a 3–4 percent increase each year, which would put the estimate at 527,787 for 1998. See American Public Human Services Association’s Web site at: http//
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, National Study of Protective, Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 3–11.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, Executive Summary of the Third National Incidence Study on Child Abuse and Neglect (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), pp. 8–10.
  10. Robert Franciosi, “Get ‘Em While They’re Young: The Second Childcare Revolution and the Expansion of the Nanny State” (Phoenix: Goldwater Institute, 1998), p. 20.

Further Reading