MonoRealism Philosophy Site

The Little People

Part B: Rights & Responsibilities

In Part A, we discussed the nature of children and what rights this gives them. We now look further into the question of the rights of children and parents.

Contractual Obligations

There are no conflicts between the rights of adults: for there can be no conflict between different people's right to be let alone – which is the essence of the fundamental human right to be free from the initiation of physical force.

The issue is not so clear-cut when it comes to the rights of children, as the last thing children need is to be let alone. Their peculiar position is that they are dependent beings with rights to their dependency.

However, in fact this is not essentially different from many other long-term relationships. Adult interactions are often not so fast and loose that people can come and go as they please: they operate under contracts, contracts which define mutual benefits, obligations and termination conditions. Contracts are what protect the rights of the parties to arrangements requiring long-term commitments.

The difference is that whereas in adult contracts all parties agree in advance, children plainly don't ask to be born. For the reasons named earlier – children have known needs, so adults know what they are getting themselves into by having them – this creates an implicit contract between parents and their children: that the former will provide appropriate care. Note that contrary to modern non-objective philosophy of law, which defines rights by needs (thus switching rights from justice to demands, effectively negating rights entirely), this contract between parents and children is the only valid implicit contract there is. It stems from the fact that the party to a long-term relationship who requires the support of the other, metaphysically (i.e., by their fundamental nature) could have no say in the whole thing: while the ones providing the support knew what they were doing, and therefore implicitly agreed in advance to the consequences.

The origin of this implicit contract determines its terms. Morally, people should not have children unless they have cause to believe they will be able to care for them: just as no other contract should be entered into unless you believe you can meet your side of the bargain. The obligation they accept is to provide such care, and this obligation ends at the child's adulthood. That end is implied by why the contract exists at all: it ends when the child should become capable of independent existence.

Of course as noted earlier, parents usually want to continue providing love and support to their children past their childhood: but then we are dealing with voluntary choices based on values, not ethical and legal responsibilities.

At what age is a person "adult"? The precise definition is a question for the philosophy of law, because it concerns a legal question: the time limit on the implicit contract between parents and children. The principle involved is at what age the "average" person should be able to be self-supporting – while recognising the variability in human mental and physical development. The legal definition of adulthood means: when does the implicit contract between parents and children expire? Which means: when should a child be allowed to leave or lose parental care without special permission of the courts? Historically and biologically, around the age of 16 is probably a good average for the beginning of adulthood; in a technical society where the amount of knowledge to be learned is high, perhaps older – or perhaps not. There are complexities in this whose solution is beyond our present scope, which is the basic principles. The answers are to be found in applying these principles to the facts of human nature. Note that the question is not, "When will the child gain no further benefit from staying?" but, "When should the child be mature enough to be able to go its own way if it has to or wants to?"

Children's Obligations

What do children, as involuntary entrants to the arrangement, owe their parents?

Since they did not ask to be born and it is the parents who decided to have them, whether consciously or by default, children certainly do not owe their parents the cost of rearing them. There can be no such thing as an unchosen obligation imposed as a result of somebody else's actions. Parents are not entitled to ask their children to repay their "investment", either monetarily or by demanding that "in return" they be supported in their old age. Children are not a form of social security, whose life you own because you gave it to them. Gave it to them is precisely what you did: children do not tell their parents before they were born, "please bear me and raise me, then I will repay you." It is the parents who made all the choices, and one person's choice does not impose an obligation on another.

Naturally, children usually love their parents and will voluntarily help them out: but there can be no legal requirement for that. Indeed, if the parents are bad and mistreat their children, those children have a perfect moral right to have nothing to do with them once they leave home.

What children do owe their parents, morally, is respect and obedience to their wishes while under their care: anyone supported by another person owes that much consideration in return. Of course, parents must earn that respect and obedience: keeping someone alive does not entitle you to respect if you make that life a misery, nor to obedience if your wishes are irrational or unjust. But given reasonable circumstances, when you live in someone's home and are supported by their effort and love, you owe it to them to respect their wishes (to the extent that it is rational to do so): or leave. That a child cannot actually leave makes that obligation stronger, not weaker: to abuse someone while using your need of them as a shield is despicable. And once a child is capable of leading an independent life, the obligation "to honour or leave" becomes literally true.

Furthermore, obedience to your parents' rational wishes is inherent in the implicit contract: the reason the contract exists is the need children have for care and support. So accepting that care and support, including recognising its parents' right to make decisions on its behalf, is the child's half of the deal. To refuse to accept it is to say "I have no need of your protection any more": which is to say, "I release you from your contract."

Parental Rights & Responsibilities

The foregoing defines the role of parents, which defines their rights and responsibilities. The role of parents is to raise a person from helpless infant to independent adult. Thus their fundamental responsibility is to do that to the best of their ability. The default presumption is that the best of their ability is good enough (after all, they managed to reach adulthood themselves), and thus they have the right to do it according to their own judgement (we shall return later to the question of what to do if this presumption fails – see It's the Law, in Part C following).

Many parents seem to suppress their children's behaviour for no good reason, such as when a young child is exploring a fascinating place like a bank and is made to sit still – when they aren't actually bothering anybody. Or the apparent opposite, of giving in to the child's every whim, or allowing them to "run wild" without guidance or limit.

These superficially opposite policies of repression and over-permissiveness actually share the same essential error. Both are manifestations of "whim worship": where the whims are the parent's or the child's respectively. The proper course, as usual, is not some compromise between opposing whims: it is nobody's whims, but rationality. And rationality in this context is the application of a general principle – the independent mind is man's tool of survival – to the specific case: childhood involves a process of maturation from mindless helplessness to rational independence. From this follows the correct principle of child rearing.

The nature of what parents are doing is raising another person to adulthood, which means, to independence of thought and action. It follows that while a child must be protected from its ignorance and weakness, and guided in its mental and moral development, he or she must be given the freedom to experience reality first-hand, and the tools to think about those experiences. Similarly, while a child's needs must be met and its rational desires taken into account, to attempt to grant its every whim would be counter-productive. Everyone needs to learn that neither the universe nor the lives of other people revolve around your personal wishes – and that your wishes are neither granted on demand, nor fall into your lap if your tantrum is loud enough, but must be achieved by rational action.

Thus, parental rights and responsibilities form a continuum, inversely correlated to human development: from total control of an unthinking, dependent infant, to no control of a reasoning (at least in principle), independent adult. Of course, many emotional conflicts can arise in such a process of diminishing control and care, due to parents and children having different ideas of what and how much is appropriate. By the origin of the implicit parent/child contract, in adult competence vs. children's dependence, the smoothness of this relationship is primarily the parents' responsibility: especially by ensuring that what they ask of their children is rational, thereby earning their children's respect for their fairness, judgment and rationality. Of course, there can be no guarantees in such a process: by the fact of free will, not even the best parent can guarantee the responses of another thinking being with his or her own values, thoughts and philosophy. They can help or hinder the development of their child – but not determine it. It is the child's own judgments and choices which ultimately determine his or her character.