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May 05, 2005

Exploration: A New Contract Between Parents and Youth

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 22, 2005]

This is an exploration. Rather than being an essay where I know where I'm going, the point of this document is to allow me to sort through some thoughts and see where I wind up.

1:50pm - 2:50pm = 1st hr
2:50pm -/- 4:09pm = 2nd hr
4:09pm - 5:09pm = 3rd hr
5:09pm - 5:39pm = 1/2 hr


Reading William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England" (published 1765-1769), I come across this passage:

" 2. THE power of parents over their children is derived from the former consideration, their duty ; this authority being given them, partly to enable the parent more effectually to perform his duty, and partly as a recompense for his care and trouble in the faithful discharge of it. And upon this score the municipal laws of some nations have given a much larger authority to the parents, than others. The ancient Roman laws gave the father a power of life and death over his children ; upon this principle, that he who gave had also the power of taking away. [...]

THE power of a parent by our English laws is much more moderate ; but still sufficient to keep the child in order and obedience. [...]

3. THE duties of children to their parents arise from a principle of natural justice and retribution. For to those, who gave us existence, we naturally owe subjection and obedience during our minority, and honor and reverence ever after ; they, who protected the weakness of our infancy, are entitled to our protection in the infirmity of their age ; they who by sustenance and education have enabled their offspring to prosper, ought in return to be supported by that offspring, in café they stand in need of assistance. Upon this principle proceed all the duties of children to their parents, which are enjoined by profitive laws."

(Book 1, Chapter 16. URL: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/blackstone/bk1ch16.htm Archaic spellings amended for modern readers' convenience. Footnotes in original deleted. Emphasis added.)

I'm fascinated by this discussion about how different societies conceive of the divine contract between parents and children. In Rome, a father could legally murder his son: in essence, "I made you, I have a right to kill you." In England, in the middle of the 17th century, the right to murder your offspring has disappeared -- but still, in effect the child remains the property of their parent: "I made you, you are obligated to serve me."

What I'm calling the "divine contract" could be phrased thus: "What do I owe my parents for having given birth to me?" My very life? My never-ending obedience? Perhaps, rather, ...nothing?

As I understand it, YL understands the divine contract between parents and children thus: "I did not ask to be born -- the world was thrust upon me. At the moment I become an separate animal, after leaving the womb, I am a person. No person is property owned by another. And no contract may be pressed upon me that I have not knowingly consented to. The burden is upon the parents to support my existence now that I have been created, and I am not obligated to compensate them in any way -- neither by labor, nor obedience, nor love."

I think it is presumption upon the part of parents that their offspring should be "grateful" for being given life. Parents should not play the role of God, becoming the omnipotent ruler of their creations. When human beings create new human beings, these new arrivals must be treated as equal beings, not inferior or naturally "subordinate" due to disabilities. Even among adults, there is a diversity of anatomical shape, intellectual skill, and mental competence. Let us choose to treat each other with equal dignity, affording respect, and compassionate accommodation of differences -- not build a hierarchy governed by those who are deemed "superior". Let us be humble about how great we are; adults and infants are equally ignorant of the true nature of existence; if there is in fact an omniscient deity, then let us leave matters of superiority to him/her.


Rather than seeing the parent-child contract as one of mutual responsibilities, YL places nearly the full burden of responsibilities upon the parents. This may initially seem unreasonably unfair -- but YL must raise questions about why parents choose to create new human beings in the first place.

Very reliable birth control exists in current times (in the U.S. -- not in all countries). The decision to not to have children, without giving up the pleasure of sexual intercourse, can be easily accomplished by most people of my generation. Still, accidental pregnancies are bound to occur. These can be aborted (if access to legal abortion services has not been disrupted by Right Wing politics). If a person has ethical objections to abortion, then they can choose to give birth -- which will obligate them to the parent-child contract -- or they can still avoid the committing themselves to the contract, by giving the child up for adoption. The parent-child contract, as YL conceives it, is burdensome and should not be forced upon a parent if they do not want to commit to it, and there are other persons in society whom are willing to.

In contemporary society, there are many honorable reasons why a person may want to intentionally have a child. [I'm certain I won't mention them all, or do justice to these...] For women, there is the curiosity of wanting to go through pregnancy, getting to experience the full range of possibilities inherent in one's body. There is the sense that sharing one's life with a new person will enrich the lives of parents and child alike. There is nostalgia for one's own childhood, and respect for how one's own parents raised one, that may inspire a parent to pass on the favor.

There are also reasons why a person may want to intentionally create children that are less honorable:

  • Friends and relatives may put pressure upon one to have children (or grandchildren), parenthood becoming a way to acquiesce.
  • Parenthood may be a matter of surrendering to the wishes of one's partner -- either because it's very important to them, or because it's simply unimportant to you).
  • Parenthood may be an attempt to prove one's love to a partner, or to renew an already faltering relationship.
  • Children may be seen primarily in terms of their cuteness, a sort of pet or doll.
  • Parenting a child may be about attempting to re-parent oneself, becoming the parent you lacked, enjoying nurturing now vicariously.
  • A child may be an attempt at immortality, creating someone who will carry on minimally your name, or perhaps your business and values as well.
  • A child may be the attempt to create the you that you failed to be -- pressing them to be an artist or athlete (etc.) because you feel that dream was denied to you.
  • You may have a child as a means of promoting or preserving your political or religious ideology in the world.
  • You might create a child in order to make yourself feel like an adult, or a "real man", or a "good mother", or heterosexual.

Parents in previous periods of history were in a different position than we inhabit now in at least two significant ways. Firstly, preventing pregnancy -- while still having sexual intercourse -- was a much riskier and difficult task. Sex, much more inevitably, would result in pregnancy and birth. Secondly, the conditions for survival were typically much more difficult. Without regularly producing more babies, a community was much less likely to survive. Without replacement citizens, a settlement would die out relatively quickly. Given that settlers were very interdependent upon each other for survival, the pressure to procreate is very understandable. [The flip-side of this is that in an established society where resources are scarce, but birth control is unavailable, infanticide may be understood as a way of making sure that there aren't more available mouths than available resources can accommodate.


Parents in previous periods birthed children and non-consensually demanded labor of them in exchange. In many cases this coercion was done for the sake of personal survival, which mitigates the offense somewhat. Mitigates -- but does not pardon. [A case can be made that allowing the species to die out is not an objectionable outcome -- but that's a matter for another essay.] ...Still, what is the point in judging past societies? I will not make the relativist argument that "we cannot judge them by today's standards". Being all dead, judging our ancestors is moot; I will choose to forgo a real ethical evaluation, instead simply acknowledging that we could not arrive at our current options for ethical behavior had they not built civilization to this point.

In the U.S., the wealthy heart of an empire, we have great material potential for advancing to a more perfectly ethical society. Whether we are collectively primed for this transition politically, psychologically, religious-/spiritually -- is a whole other question! But we do have adequate food, lumber, person-power, technology to consider YL's vision of the parent-contract as a realistic possibility.


Reviewing historical legal developments, it seems that a great deal of the laws dealing with families are about an implicit parent-society contract. Having chosen to give birth to a child, society wants for the parent to be financially responsible for its care. Why should other citizens have to pay?

Why? Because we hope to cooperatively create a pleasant society to live in, rather than a brutal "every man for himself" environment. Without a government, the strong subjugate the weak and create their private fiefdoms, unopposed. Without an inclusive, democratic government, the strong gang together and to wrest political power from the common people whom the government is meant to serve. Kindness cannot be mandated; but cruelty can be regulated and suppressed.

Among Liberals, one of the defining features of our desired society is equality. We oppose discrimination. In letter, that may be interpreted as a directive to treat everyone the same. In spirit, it's a prohibition against intentionally treating certain disliked groups more cruelly than others. We support creating a social safety net that will keep people's personal situations from becoming too painful. We promote making accommodations in our physical landscape and in the processes of its institutions so that many different groups are able to participate in communal life. We look at the diversity of anatomy, competence, and access to resources among our population and try to find ways minimize suffering among all, increase ability to participate willfully for all.

Given these values, we must collectively contribute financially in order to support the special needs of youth.

Particularly since the institution of mandatory schooling in the U.S., there has been a growing public interest in managing the destinies of youth-as-class collectively, rather than abandoning them to the will of their parents. Intervention in situations of child abuse is another bellwether.

From a YL perspective, the main financial contribution that society must make is toward enabling youth to escape abusive parents at will. Youth need:

  • public transportation
  • youth hostels
  • free meal programs
  • welfare checks
  • health care
  • scholarships to schools (in order to be able to enter a profession)
  • training about the legal processes of emancipation and filing discrimination complaints and how to access political representatives.

With these services in place, a youth could live outside the control of their parents. It would not be a luxurious life, but a form of survival that is at least not too harsh. These are services that should be available not just to youth -- but to all. It might be argued that without the threat of perishing in poverty, society would fall apart, the weight of the lazy who coast through life breaking the backs of the workers who support them. I disagree; there is adequate wealth in this nation to support all -- but it has been concentrated in the pockets of a few wealthy corporate leaders, forcing most of us struggling for scraps.

The ambition to have a better-than-minimum life will keep an adequate number of people working. Capitalism need not be abolished -- merely regulated. A redistribution of wealth can be accomplished in part by capping how much a person is allowed to take as income. [Money is a symbol; we need not give our blessing to god fantasies of the successful.]

Accomplishing this socialized society will be an uphill struggle against greed and fear. Fortunately we need not begin from scratch. We already have many socialized services (many stemming from FDR's New Deal), which we can build upon.

To a great extent, the interests of YL are simpatico with those of Democratic Socialism.

[Note: I realize that society runs on money. If judges aren't paid, the courts are forced to shut down. If prisons are not funded, prisoners have to be released. A down-turn in the economy can have a direct impact upon doing the work of justice.]


An infant is a person, not property. In theory, they are independent beings -- even if they require the services of a compassionate caregiver for mere survival. Given this independence, one might think a parent has no inherent right to custody of the child. I do not argue this. I think that there is an inherent affinity between parents and their offspring that must be presumed until proven otherwise.

[Breaking the bond between parent and child, removing a young child from the parents for significant amounts of time, should be avoided as much as is reasonably possible. In this, I am in agreement with my political foes. However, we depart company when it comes to what we consider reasonable circumstances.]

...My original question was "What do I owe my parents for having given birth to me?" My answer: Nothing. However, for compelling me to exist, they owe me the means for independent survival.

What does this mean in financial terms? What standard of survival do they owe me? It's easy to imagine YL activists demanding a financially expensive standard of living for youth. We must beware of oppressing the poor and the homeless. Being poor does not make one an inherently bad parent -- although, it seems, poverty has frequently been used as a means for condemning parents. Shifting a great deal of the burden for providing public transport, etc., to society at large serves to lessen the burden of the parent-child contract on parents without money.

If we demand of parents that they provide clothes, they need not be new clothes. If we demand that youth be allowed some privacy, this should mean a place to safely hide a few possessions, ability to be alone for periods, etc. -- not necessarily a room of their own. ...We should not assume that there is a house.

In the American colonies, before the founding of the United States, the responsibilities of the parent to their child were these: (1) food and shelter, (2) vocational training, (3) to teach literacy, and (4) provide religious training. The parent's responsibility to society (also their privilege) were: (1) to maintain control of the child (by means of inflicting pain if "needed"), and (2) be held responsible for the youth's misdeeds (?). The child's responsibility to the parent: obedience. [This is my own summary of information from the book "From Father's Property to Children's Rights".] ...During that period, I'm not sure what society's responsibility to the child could have been.

My concern is primarily with the child's responsibility to be obedient -- clarifying what areas the youth has right to control. I have an actual contract in mind, to clarify what parents do and do not have power to determine...

Unfortunately, I've run out of time to continue writing today.

Posted by Sven at May 5, 2005 12:00 PM