Parenting Licenses

Ashley and I were arguing the other day about some issues pertaining to state-issued licenses for parenting. In my experience, the proposal usually arises when one is confronted by acts of exceptionally bad parenting, and it must occur to us then that (a) public exhibitions of abuse and neglect are not at all uncommon, (b) many more acts of abuse and neglect are committed outside of the public sphere, and (c) the parents who do not scruple to casually abuse their children in public are liable for much worse in the privacy of their own homes. All told, about 900,000 children are abused or neglected every year, and 1,500 of those children are killed as a result. Despite this, parenting licenses have never received sustained political support, trailing far behind flag pins and gay marriage* in the national consciousness.

The case for parenting licenses is pretty unimaginative:

  1. Before undertaking activities in which an incompetent actor can quickly cause lasting harm, the state may insist upon a demonstration of competence.
  2. Parenting is such an activity.
  3. ∴ The state may insist upon a demonstration of competence in parenting.

Both (1) and (2) seem uncontroversial. We expect plumbers to obtain more training and certifications than we currently require of parents, and we do not conclude from this disparity that the regulatory burdens imposed upon artisans, doctors, lawyers or drivers are too high. Neither do many deny that the role of the parent affords the potential to inflict great harms upon children, including the diminished capacity to create and enjoy future relationships with others. With both premises in place, however, many people and many parents still balk at the conclusion.


*Whether or not the state grants you a marriage license is hardly a trivial panem et circenses issue when you find yourself barred from your partner’s hospital room or dropped from their health plan. I include it for the anxiety it commands from the perhaps 95% of the electorate for whom gay marriage has no practical impact. Put another way, there is no 9/11 of children and infants every two years owing to a lack of political action on gay marriage.

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