In days gone by, government policies and state institutions deferred to parents as the ultimate authority on what was best for their children. In recent years, however, parents’ concerns are increasingly downplayed as government bureaucrats’, teachers’, and health care providers’ roles have expanded. Those whose “expertise” seems to be invoked more and more, often in ways that encroach on areas of concern traditionally given to parents, range from global entities such as the United Nations to the local physician in her office down the road.
The United Nations has proposed two treaties, The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both of which place the authority of the state over that of parents in the determination of what are the best interests of children. Concerns about such infringement on parental rights have hampered ratification of these treaties in the United States, though these treaties seem to be gaining greater traction among some US politicians.
When it comes to education, Germany, Sweden and much of Eastern Europe and South America have outlawed homeschooling completely. Many other countries such as Austria and Iceland have placed burdensome restrictions on the practice. These countries refuse to give up control of the content of education and trust parents to teach their children. Much of this fear likely stems from the religious nature of many home educational programs and the refusal of homeschooling parents to engage in social indoctrination that is well under way at public and many private schools. This indoctrination often includes the normalization of homosexuality, explicit sex education, and endorsement of contraceptives and abortion.
A European Human Rights Court affirmed the German ban on homeschooling, saying that Germany has a valid state interest in preventing dissent from those who hold “separate philosophical convictions.” In the United States, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, recently proposed in a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Schools that not only homeschooling, but all private schooling, should be made illegal. He claims that the right of parents to control the upbringing of their children is not absolute and can be overridden for the good of the state.
In the medical arena, health care providers also often view parents as superfluous once children become adolescents. Most young girls may gain access to contraceptives and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases without parental knowledge or consent. Fewer than half of the states in the United States require parental consent for abortion. Further, in doctors’ offices around the country, physicians are isolating adolescents from their parents. A recent review article on adolescent health care in the American Family Physician, the flagship journal for the American Academy of Family Physicians, emphasized the importance of excluding parents from adolescent health care decisions in order to foster more effective communication between physicians and adolescent patients.
But what does objective scientific analysis say about the marginalization of parents when it comes to the education, health care, and general well-being of children? A study by Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute looked at 11,739 homeschooled students in all 50 states. He found that the homeschooled students scored on average nearly 40 percentile points higher on standardized achievement tests when compared to students in public schools. They were ranked in the 88th percentile in the core subjects of reading, language, and math compared to the 50th percentile for the average public school student. These results were independent of the education level and socioeconomic status of the parents. Equally impressive is the fact that homeschoolers spent roughly 5% of what the public schools spend annually per student.
There are also problems with the widespread assumption that explicit sex education programs are in the best interests of students. In April 2007, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) released an often-cited study on the effectiveness of abstinence education programs. They found that abstinence education programs offered no improvement in teenage pregnancy rates or in the understanding of teens for the potential negative consequences of sex. This report was widely touted as proof that abstinence education does not work and should not be funded. What goes unmentioned in the media analysis of this report, however, is that the study control groups received the standard “safe-sex” education that is common in many school districts. There was essentially no difference in the results for students given information on the avoidance of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and those who were encouraged to abstain from sex. Neither type of program worked.
A reasonable interpretation of the failure of both abstinence education and “safe-sex” education can be gleaned when the characteristics of the study population are analyzed. From the MPR study:
Youth in the study sample come from backgrounds that put them at relatively high risk of having sexual intercourse at an early age. With the exception of My Choice, My Future!, [one of the studied abstinence education programs] one-third or fewer of the sample youth in each site reported at baseline having parents who were married. They also reported relatively high rates of life stressors, such as sisters getting pregnant or siblings dropping out of school. Moreover, although almost all youth reported that they had a mother figure (95 percent), only four out of every five youth in the Recapturing the Vision and FUPTP [one of the studied abstinence education programs] samples reported having a father figure.
The family environments of the study participants were so dysfunctional and so conducive to risky sexual behavior that no outside intervention, however well intentioned or well designed, was going to have much impact. Contrary to the conclusions reached in the media, this report is not an indictment of abstinence education. It merely shows that family stability at home matters more than school programs.
David Paton reached much the same conclusion in his recent study of teenage pregnancy and abortions in England and Wales. He writes in the September 2012 issue of the journal Education and Health that in spite of the fact that millions of pounds have been poured into public policy initiatives for comprehensive school-based sex education, there has been virtually no change in the rate of teenage pregnancies. He points to studies showing that mandatory parental involvement abortion laws reduce the number of teen abortions, reduce teen sexually transmitted diseases, and even improve teenage mental health. He cites work by Sabia & Rees that showed a 15% to 25% decrease in suicide by adolescent females after the enactment of mandatory parental involvement abortion laws. Paton then concludes that rather than focusing efforts on teens in isolation from their families, public initiatives should stress the inclusion of parents in any solution.
In Aldous Huxley’s prophetic Brave New World, parental involvement with their offspring is considered primitive and quaint. A central government takes full control of raising children and the concept of families is destroyed. Huxley’s dystopic vision is now reality: For nearly five decades governments, schools, and medical institutions have attempted to follow this same path by increasingly usurping the roles of parents in the care, education and moral formation of children. The results have been abysmal. It is time to bring parents back into the picture. State policies and institutions should support, encourage, and empower parents and bolster the family. Bureaucrats should get out of the way and let parents be parents. Father and Mother really do know best.
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Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of Human Life International, the world’s largest international pro-life organization. She writes for HLI’s Truth and Charity Forum.