Reflections on Citizenship

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about citizenship and how this concept relates to rights and responsibilities in the lives of school-aged children. I am considering the question of who has the greatest right and responsibility to decide what is in the best interest of children when it comes to the issue of school attendance and curriculum: parents, state, or the children themselves? I recently attended a seminar in which the presenter described, among other scenarios, the problem of parents who won’t allow their children to attend school past a certain age. He was considering the impact that this restriction has on their children, and what the state can do to ensure the rights of children are attended to despite parental religious beliefs and the  culture in which children are raised. It seemed to me that his basic premise was that children, especially teen-aged children, ought to have limited autonomy from their parents, and the freedom to choose an education if they wish. However, he considered the problem that children such as these, might be strongly influenced to please their parents, or fit into their community, and in such cases, may not be able to choose in their own best interests, and in such cases, ought the state act to intervene on behalf of the children–in their best interest?

My first response to this is that it is kind of appalling to think that the state could override parents’ and children’s’ wishes. Is the state truly able to objectively act in the best interest of children? Lawyers caution parents who are separating to resolve their differences regarding the shared responsibility for their children, because if it goes to court, the judge will then make the decision as to what is in the best interest of the children. Further, the judgment or ruling is rarely in the best interest of the children. It is understood that parents are best situated to make those decisions.

As I consider how much power parents or states or individuals ought to exercise in these kinds of decisions, I picture concentric circles moving outwards, getting larger from the individual to family to community to province to nation to continent and so on. And  each of these circles represent a type of citizenship, which includes rights and responsibilities. I’m first of all an individual, then I am an individual within a family unit, and then I am part of a family within a community, whether it is religious or some other organization, and so on. But at what age can we consider a child capable of expressing full citizenship at any level?  And until the child is capable of full citizenship, who is to act on their behalf? This has always been the parents responsibility, and their responsibility gives them certain rights.

I overheard a teacher griping that parents don’t seem to understand that their kids also belong to the state. I joined the conversation saying, “Of course they don’t. Where was the state at 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. feedings? and the colic? and nursing the child through illnesses, and potty training, and terrible two temper tantrums, and all that parents do for their children? Of course they are going to resent the state telling them, at the age of five, ‘Thanks, you’ve done a great job, now take a back seat and we’ll take it from here!’”  I think if the state wants to have a few more rights, then they ought to show a bit more responsibility. Like in France, the state is involved in the process of raising the children, offering support to  care givers through the free nanny, cooking, and housecleaning services. Now, there’s some help that would create a bit more willingness to let the state be more involved in deciding what is best for my kids! More rights mean more responsibilities.

If either the parents or the state removes themselves from responsibility to the other, there is a breach in their relational contract. Parents ought not to exclude the state’s interests in their role in raising children, and the state ought not to exclude the parents’ interests in their role of educating the children. Ultimately, I do believe in some autonomy for the children themselves. The impact of overriding parents and the child, with the state imposing its values on the closest environment of the child–the inner circles of self, family, and religious community–would seem to have more damaging psychological implications, than the child being removed from school with the parents in agreement or both the parents and the child in agreement about the decision.

Written February 9, 2009

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