In the Best Interests of the Child
You are peacefully breastfeeding your 15 month old baby, cuddled up together in bed like every other night, when a hard pounding on the door jolts your little one awake. As you try to soothe her tears, two police officers and a social worker come into the room. The police read a warrant while the social worker snatches your little one out of your arms and marches out of the room, and the sound of your precious baby’s traumatized screams fade into the night.
Your homeschool year has ended and your family is boarding a flight, happily anticipating an exciting move back to your family’s country of origin. Suddenly, a fully armed police unit storms the plane and snatches your son out of his seat. You rush after them, begging them to give your son back to you, only to watch helplessly as your son is taken away by social services, bewildered tears running down his face.
You arrive to pick up your preschooler from daycare and are suddenly surrounded, handcuffed, and taken into custody where you are strip-searched with no explanation. Meanwhile, a contingent of officers has stormed your house, and Social Services has seized your children and is interrogating your pregnant wife, again with no explanation
While these scenes may seem like they’re straight out of a made-for-tv movie script, they are actually based on real events. In 2011, fifteen-month-old baby Alma was taken from her young mother when Spanish officials decided that breastfeeding and cosleeping were not acceptable forms of parenting. In Sweden in 2009, seven-year-old Dominic was snatched off of a plane and taken into protective custody where he remains to this day. His parents were accused of homeschooling him. And in Canada in March of 2012, little four-year-old Nevaeh set off a firestorm in the life of her family when she drew a picture of her daddy fighting monsters with a gun.
Scenes like these and others are played out in nations around the world when parental choices come into conflict with governmental controls. In nations governed by dictatorships, military rule, and communist parties, the abuses of the power wielded by officials are unfortunate facts of life, and parental choice is a foreign concept. But in democratic nations, parents expect to be able to exercise their rights to make life decisions for their family, including their underage children, without undue interference from their government. Increasingly, however, these parents are discovering just how vulnerable they are to governmental incursion into the heart of their homes.
The desire to give every child a safe, healthy, and happy upbringing and stellar education is certainly a worthy cause. However, the belief that government, that faceless entity populated by an ever-shifting power base and mercurial agenda, should have the final say in what is ‘best for the child’ is an idealistic hope at best and a dangerous arsenal at worst. Enacting and enforcing laws to protect and provide for children is a wise course, but cultures vary world-wide in what is defined as child abuse, what is viewed as proper housing and provision, and what is considered effective education.
In Bali, a thatch, open-air bungalow would be considered perfectly acceptable accommodation, while in the United States a home with no windows or electricity would be grounds for removal of a child into protective services. In Finland, children aren’t expected to even begin formal education until a minimum of age seven, whereas in Japan such educational standards would be considered seriously deficient and even harmful. In the Middle East, young boys are often subject to physical punishment in their religious training, but such actions in Switzerland would result in prosecution.
Having a one-world standard is, then, clearly problematic. But even on a smaller scale, the idea that government is a better caretaker and decision-maker for a nation’s children than their parents is insidiously taking root. Children in the U.K. have been removed from their homes due to educational choices that were once considered the prerogative of parents. Parents have gone into hiding in Australia for making vaccination choices for their children that went against their government’s edicts. U.S. children not old enough to see a pediatrician for an ear infection without having a parent present have been given access to abortion and vaccination without parental consent or notification.
In an era where cultural diversity has become a cultural icon in and of itself, one would expect the idea of whitewashing childhood into an institutional lunch-line to be rejected out-of-hand. But the emotional tug of sensationalized stories of child abuse and neglect is powerful and a far too alluring force for power-mongers to ignore. Harnessing that emotional train to usurp parental choice and enforce government controls is a pattern used to great and terrible effect in the past in Nazi Germany and more recently in The People’s Republic of China, among others, with human rights always, always, suffering in the process. The idea of allowing the same ideology of governmental controls to be implemented to protect human rights, specifically children’s rights, is counter-intuitive and doomed to the same misuse of power history has revealed time and time again.
There is absolutely no doubt that laws and regulations need to be in place to protect children. The question is, should the power to define what constitutes the rights of a child be given to an unelected global council which does not and cannot share a common culture? Even on a national level, how much power and control should government have over the private lives of its citizens?
Clearly there must be some norm, some agreement on what constitutes a safe and healthy childhood. But how far should it be permitted to go? Should government be given the power to co-parent, as claimed by the Canadian officials in the case of little Nevaeh? Should they be allowed to determine whether the turkey sandwich you sent to school with your child fits their standards and replace your choices with chicken nuggets as occurred in a North Carolina elementary school or send your five-year-old home with welts on his bottom from being paddled with a 16″ board without your knowledge or permission as happened to a Florida preschooler? And who should decide? A faceless global council? A distant national committee? Local government officials? Parents?
There are no easy answers, and yet the stakes are huge. We must protect those who can’t protect themselves…these small humans who come into the world so perfect and so helpless, who contain the next generation of scientists and sculptors in their ranks, who will one day run our world.
The question is this: Who has ‘the best interests of the child’ in their hearts and minds for your child? Should you have the right and privilege of deciding if and for how long to breastfeed, whether or not to vaccinate, how and where your child should be educated? Or should the government have the right to dictate those choices and more for you and your child?
Abuses of rights will always exist as long as humans are human. But taking away those rights from the many because of the abuses of the few would be a crime in and of itself. We so often hear, “I’ll make my choices and you make yours and we’ll all get along.” But just as often we hear, “There ought to be a law…” And the truth is that there do need to be laws, laws to protect the helpless and laws to enforce those protections. But who do you want those laws to be written by? Someone you elect and can un-elect if they become power-hungry and corrupt? Or someone distant, unconnected, unaccountable who can and, historically speaking, will misuse their power because they, too, are human?
I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to have the conversations, explore the possibilities, and evaluate the options so I can do my part to contribute an educated and thoughtful voice to a global issue that is sure to be an ever-evolving and ever-controversial dialogue. And I’m willing to do the ‘boots on the ground’ work of educating parents about the needs of their children and about gentle, effective parenting choices. I’m willing to step up and step in if I see a child in need. I’m willing to spend my time and resources helping organizations such as Bead For Life empower women in third world countries to become strong, independent people so they can provide food, shelter, and an education to their children. And I’m willing to stand firmly and openly against so-called ‘parenting experts’ such as Gary Ezzo and Michael Pearl who promote rigid child-training and corporal punishment of small children.
If we as individuals, the grassroots ingredients of change, commit to support and educate families, protect and speak up for children, and provide a helping hand to those in need, we can shrink a global mountain into a local molehill. I’m in. Are you?
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.