Unthinkable: Are parents entitled to rule their children?

Parents must seek the ‘consent of the ruled’, argues political theorist Dr Allyn Fives

Children’s rights have come a long way since Abraham tied up his son Isaac for slaughter on God’s command. The notion that children have a right to disobey their parents is relatively new. The notion that “children’s voices” should be central to public policy is newer still.

Against the backdrop of what philosophers call normative change, or ever-evolving moral standards, the job of parenting has become more complicated, and the boundaries of appropriate authority more uncertain.

Should parents indoctrinate their children in a belief system? Should they dictate who their children can be friends with? Should they spy on online communications?

Dr Allyn Fives, a political scientist at NUI Galway attached to the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre, suggests that parents can get pointers from the nation state, specifically by reflecting on what legitimates overriding the will of individuals. Thus, he provides today's idea: "As with political power, the power of parents should be judged against the requirements of legal validity, the consent of the ruled, and normative justification."


What legitimates the use of authority?

"There is no easy answer to this question, although there are some extreme answers that would suggest otherwise. For instance, anarchists say that all states are morally illegitimate; conservatives, following Thomas Hobbes, believe the power of the state must be absolute; and postmodernists such as Michel Foucault refuse to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate power.

“The reality is more complex. First, there are at least three dimensions to legitimacy: (1) the state can exercise power in a way that is legally valid, but nonetheless (2) it may not have secured the consent of the governed; and even when a state is based on legal rules and popular support, there may be (3) strong moral grounds to question its normative justification.

“For example, even when a caste-like social system has the backing of law and popular support, there are numerous moral objections, including that it does not treat all members of the community as moral equals.

“But what makes this question even more difficult to answer is that we have various moral commitments, and they sometimes come into conflict. For instance, the state should strive to promote our welfare, and the state should protect individual freedom.

“When these values come into conflict, utilitarians say we should do what maximises welfare, and liberals what protects liberty. However, despite centuries of argument, neither side has shown they are right. This suggests abstract philosophical reflection may be ill-suited to resolving these dilemmas, and maybe we should be trying to find morally acceptable solutions that are suited to the specific situations of conflict that we face.”

What legitimates parental authority? Popular support, or at least popularity, is presumably not a requirement.

“As with political power, the power of parents should be judged against the requirements of legal validity, the consent of the ruled, and normative justification.

“It may seem counterintuitive to talk of children’s consent to the rule of their parents, as children do not elect to join a particular family. But most of us do not elect to join our political community and nonetheless we may be legitimately subject to its authority, and we still believe that consent should be a central feature of a legitimate political community.

“Parents can exercise their power in such a way that they seek their children’s consent in meaningful ways, and some styles of parenting are more conducive to children’s freedom, even while setting standards for children’s behaviour.

“In particular, what is called authoritative parenting is considered to be the most child-centred. It is characterised by high levels of parental interest and active participation in the child’s life, open communication with the child, high levels of trust, encouragement of psychological autonomy, but also high levels of monitoring and high levels of awareness of what the child is doing, with whom and where.”

To what extent should parents consider their children’s consent when either having children or adopting children?

“It is widely recognised that children’s voices should be heard in decisions that affect their lives. This is a key commitment of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The capacity of children to give their opinion varies, in particular based on age, so in some adoption situations consent would be unrealistic, but in other cases consent would be entirely appropriate.”

In Ireland, we give the Catholic Church the authority to run 90 per cent of primary schools on the basis that parental choice takes precedence. Assuming parents endorse the current system of patronage, can we say it has a legitimate foundation?

“If we are concerned with who should control the ethos of our schools, we need to ask: whose interests should we be concerned with and whose voices should we listen to? Yes, parents should have a very significant say in the education of their children, but so too should their fellow citizens, and one concern that citizens have is to ensure that children – other people’s children – are not being educated in a way that is sectarian.

“And finally, children’s interests should be central to our deliberations, and children can be participants in those discussions. Indeed, if we see children as our moral equals, then we should be in favour of student-centred forms of education that are therefore not authoritarian and not designed primarily to indoctrinate.”

People advocating social change – to reduce inequality, for example – often overlook the exercise of power that goes with it. Should politicians and social activists tailor their policies to acknowledge the limits of legitimate authority?

"We should remember that although one moral value justifies the proposals that we believe in, and are willing to fight for, other moral values, values that are equally important, may provide reasons for us to pause and reflect. For instance, John Rawls, mindful of the terrible lessons of the 20th century, was strongly committed to a more equal society, but also believed we were not permitted to bring this about in ways that grossly violated people's freedom.

“This is not a recipe for quietism or conservatism, but a requirement that when we engage in politics we should be sensitive to other, competing moral considerations.”


Question: Should you cheat or lie for the sake of your children?

Socrates replies (from Plato's Crito): "Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first."

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