For tens of millions of Americans but emphatically not for all adult Americans children are the dearest part of their lives. They willingly and eagerly give up all other pursuits that interfere with giving their own children the best possible start in life. They identify with the idea that they can prove their worthiness by providing their own children with better lives than they enjoyed.

In 1992, Barbara Bush summarized a simple moral paradigm for parenthood. "You don't have to be married to be a grownup," she started. "But if you choose to have children, you should be married and you must make your children the most important priority in your lives."

That's a big conditional conjunction, IF. It implies that, if you choose to have kids, you alone (with your spouse) are responsible for them.

But it's necessary to expand on how people feel about this. Simple thinking sees reproduction as a "basic instinct," which may bring further psychological motives. For most couples, children give both partners something "to do" together to create a product from the relationship. Children provide a goal more fundamentally human and supportable than almost any conceivable kind of other "work." The experience of really "knowing" a spouse, through the total commitment of the family bed, seems to give more earthy men the sense of purpose and belonging they need to build an adult individuality, and to go beyond the collective pursuits of male hierarchical bonds and fraternal, competitive activities. Raising families that men put first seems to give many of these men the credibility they need to sell their other particular undertakings to others, even if these men feel that marriage takes them out of play. Yet, this means that they gives up the chance to keep on looking for the best in others, except in their own kids. The finest hour for a parent may be a son or a daughter's achievements, but it takes considerable risk and years of day-to-day immersion in immediate family priorities to reach that moment. I will never know it because I wouldn't take that risk.

I can remember, while growing up, resenting my father's authority and coming up with the phrase, "children's rights." Indeed, although by definition children cannot fully answer for themselves, it is clear that as human beings, they do have fundamental rights starting with the right to life and a right to the opportunity for happiness later when they do blossom into adults and this implies that the state, with its police powers, is obligated to protect children against the worst parental abuses. Parents, in most states, can be jailed for not allowing their children to be schooled or for refusing life-saving medical treatment; states do give some leeway for parental religious convictions.

It becomes difficult to separate this necessity to prevent obvious abuse and neglect from the more pervasive impulses within a community to promote the welfare of its children. Indeed, children are seen as a society's most important resource because they are a human resource. Of course, considering the way some of us adults plunder the planet, we wonder how seriously many of us take such an abstract notion when applied to us.

Indeed, it's not nice to talk about it, and politicians generally avoid confronting it. But, as we have inferred from previous deliberations about self-ownership, one of our greatest social tensions is between those who raise children and those who don't. For those who don't are tacitly, or perhaps not so silently, asked or required to help support those who do.


So, parents "see themselves" through their children (gifted or disabled) and psychologically express the human generalization of an animal's impulse to prevail vicariously into the future with its own individual genes. Let us return to the proposition that parents ought to be given as much control over their children's upbringing as possible. Perhaps, we should give parents who choose to have many kids credit . . . maybe they can strike gold once (remember the spirit of the song "My Boy Bill" from Carousel . . . but so many boys are not as "tall and tough as a tree.")

The simplest target for "irresponsible" childbearing has been welfare reform. Welfare practices since the 1960's have tended to encourage poor women to bear children and then not marry the children's fathers. But sometimes there have also been attempts to coerce poor women to have themselves sterilized, a practice that would offend their fundamental rights to privacy. Fortunately, states have not tried to interfere with women's having themselves artificially inseminated, popular both with couples that cannot conceive and with lesbians who may want to have children with a "godfather" around as a father figure. To insist that a woman submit to sexual intercourse with a man in order to have a baby would be the grossest imaginable assault on her own dignity.

The other really obvious place to look for improvements in parental choice is the school systems. Is public education a genuine "social right?" Libertarians often say no, although since I personally benefited from public education as a boy, I don't object to paying some school taxes as a childless adult. Public schools, now to their political disadvantage, have tended to force parents to accept common curricula for their children, even containing subject matter they may find morally objectionable. What is more important, that children be taught social and political (and religious) ethics as the parents see these issues, or that they learn curricula that the politicians carrying out (sorry!) the democratic political process view as politically correct and sufficiently sensitive to the needs of minorities?

One solution advocated by conservatives is the gradual de-emphasis or even elimination of public schools, with a process of total privatization, often (in many formulations, such as those favored by Cato) mitigated by state-supported vouchers for low-income families to choose schools with their own play money. This money could be raised by "voluntary" measures such as lotteries, although many would see such a scheme as a cynical attempt to take advantage of the poor, who may be more likely to gamble. (Some libertarians, though, oppose even vouchers with the attitude, "that's tough.") The Supreme Court has allowed communities to contract with private or even parochial schools for special children in certain circumstances. In fact, public school systems have sometimes remained an instrument of de facto segregation, with wealthier communities spreading out into the exurbs to build their own school systems. New Hampshire, a the only state with no income tax and no sales tax and among the lowest per pupil spending in public education, has, with its wealth of private schools, among the nation's highest test scores.

Another solution has been liberalization of "rules" concerning home schooling; home schooled children often outperform their peers on most academic tests. (I had an experience meeting a home-schooled teen, very well read and articulate but behind in math because his father, a fundamentalist preacher, had no concept of the paradigm mathematics offers to civilization.)

But, even given that public schools remain a major source of basic education, the remaining measure is to allow parents enormous discretion in approving the curricula their own children will take. Parents should be allowed to determine, for example, whether they want their children to have sex education and information on birth control and condoms. Parents should certainly have control over their daughters' having abortions. In the long run, hopefully, most parents will want their adolescent children to be exposed to the best information on these issues.

The "right to parent" also provides considerable moral rebuttal to gun control. Many people see the right to defend their families as among the most fundamental of their rights (although this argument makes the "right to bear arms" subordinate to the right to raise a family). When does the right to self-defense and family defense extend to open defiance of established political authority?


But what more should we say about the indirect responsibilities we all have for children who are not are our own?

There are all kinds of mechanisms that provide some external support for parents. The most obvious are the per-child tax credits, which conservative politicians want to increase. Consider, however, many union contracts that require employers to provide fully paid health care benefits. For a given level of salary, this compensates people with kids more, since their medical benefits cost more. Some people want to increase these benefits to families by encouraging employers to pay the "family wage," a deliberate preference for breadwinners that is now technically illegal. Companies (usually those with largely non-union work forces) that require employees to pay part of their health-care benefits may appear much less generous to families, since the contributory portion for family (especially children's) coverage is usually much higher than single coverage and take-home pay is relatively less compared to salary.

The workplace itself can test family commitments. Some jobs and careers require considerable overtime and on-call status, which can be very difficult for parents with young children (especially during the Darwinian economic climate we had during the early 1990's). Other employers may pressure single or childless employees to shoulder much more of these contingent burdens, with resulting resentments. A benefit to one class of employees is always indirectly paid for by all the others, in terms of lower wages and benefits. (You're nave to assume they'll come out of corporate profits.)

Out of respect for the rights of parents and others with family responsibilities, we have laws requiring employers to give unpaid family leave for parents who must care for sick children, for workers caring for aging parents, and even for pregnancy. Employers are required to return a person to the same or equivalent job when the leave ends. Some people have complained that unpaid leave does not help average families much, and some employers have tried to shirk even the unpaid leave requirement. There have been a few cases where employers tried to discharge women after childbirth, out of a belief that a woman should stay home with her child! In some cases, states require some of these benefits to be paid (as do many European countries), although the right to return to work may be lost when pay is accepted. ABC News reports that the United States is one of six developed countries that do not require paid maternity leave (which typically is 75% of wages or more for 8-16 weeks). Then, what about paid leave for new fathers, if "legally married?" (The federal government actually allows female civil servants to "borrow" sick leave for maternity, but does not offer a similar privilege for new fathers.) This leave must be paid for somehow, and it is bound to come from the incomes of non-parents (particularly in salaried, exempt situations where non-parent co-workers can be compelled to do their colleagues' work without special compensation). As noted before, making the unmarried and childless support traditional families with children (particularly with the powers of the state), raises profound cultural issues which many people find unpleasant to face. We may all want to help mothers, but should we use the power of the state to do it, at others' expense? Will companies consider measures like this (such as vacation-banking) on their own? Many people with traditional families may not be very conscious of the fact that some of their peers don't have children and may not understand their resentment.

We might, however, view paid family leave for illnesses of family members differently from maternal and paternal leave, on the theory that illness is not "chosen" (though it can sometimes be traced often to "chosen" behaviors). It sounds reasonable that companies could use short-term disability insurance (and here it is really "insurance") to effectively provide "paid leave" for family members and to be fair to gays and lesbians, these benefits should be available to same sex partners. Of course, anyone could have an aging parent with an illness. But again, is it the place of the state to mandate such paid benefits? New Jersey is currently considering such a provision, funding it with mandatory unemployment insurance.

I've picked a fight with some "liberals," who indignantly see compulsory paid parental leave as an unquestionable social "advance," on this question. They seem incredulous when reminded that companies would have to pay childless workers significantly less for the same work. Spare nothing to help and protect children, the most vulnerable humans, they say. Well, then, let's outlaw all televised violence, nudity, discussion of homosexuality. All to protect children. Oh! Isn't that a fulcrum of policy debate to what extent must adults restrain themselves just because, in a small world, children are eventually affected by cultural choices? Again, if the highest priority of a culture is to provide for children, homosexuality may be seen as an unaffordable and ultimately "selfish" indulgence, unless one punts back to "immutability."

There has been recent debate on more collective support of child day care. Although some progressive companies have tried to assist families with day care, there are pressures in government to further regulate day care, and to require increased training and salaries for day care workers, even if this interferes with local neighborhood "entrepreneurs" who can take care of kids at a much lower cost. Someone would have to pay for all of this; there is debate as to whether this would be childless people, or whether one-income families would subsidize often more affluent two-income families. But the increase of institutional day care reflects the change in our society, towards individual self-direction and away from loyalty to extended family structures which used to provide more communal child care and elder care.

Day care revives another possible anti-libertarian point, regarding public health. Young children are sometimes given extra antibiotics because of the enormous time they may spend together in relatively crowded day-care settings; this practice indirectly results from the need in our economic and social climate for both parents to work. Likewise, antibiotics are used more often because absence from work for illness is less tolerated. Are our social values leading to the development of new "bugs"? We've already visited this question with AIDS.

Another recent expression of the "right to parent" is the insistence by some couples that health insurance cover infertility as if it were a "disease."

If our democracy decides that it must collectively invest more in children, should gays and lesbians be allowed the opportunity to parent? A few states, referring to their sodomy laws, prohibit gay and lesbian adoptions (even gay foster parents), and most do not allow gays to adopt as couples. It seems that if government got out of regulating the adoption process, private agencies would tend to place children with the best available parents, who would usually be heterosexually married couples but (especially with hard-to-place children) not always. It seems feasible (if a paradox) that a more libertarian society would evolve an ethic in which every adult is expected to be participating in taking care of someone! This might involve other opportunities besides outright custody, such as are found in AIDS buddy programs or even (gay-sponsored) big brother programs.

If there is a social right to parent, there may be a social right to expect children to return the favor later in terms of care taking. Indeed, getting rid of the entire government safety net might, as a matter of cultural morals, force most able people into a position of having to care for others. Certainly this possibility could be debated publicly, and there could develop an end result that customers collectively force companies to become much more family-friendly.