Would Parental Licensure Help to Protect Children From Harm?

infant grabbing finger

Raising a child is one of the greatest responsibilities humans undertake. A child might grow up to cure diseases, prevent wars, or a host of other great accomplishments. A child might instead grow up to be a psychopath, leaving a trail of pain and misery in his or her path. Of course, it would be naive to claim that what anybody does as a parent determines this. Parents do not have that much influence over their children. Still, it seems quite reasonable to think that society has a vested interest in making sure that parents are at least minimally competent to raise their children. This is why I am at least willing to consider the possibility of something like parental licensure.

Operating a motor vehicle is a tremendous responsibility. To ensure the safety of the individual driver and everyone else on the road, a system of licensing is required. We want to make sure the driver has at least some basic knowledge of the rules of the road and can demonstrate that they can safely operate a motor vehicle. We may complain about the inefficiency of this system, but there are few who would argue that we should abandon it completely.

Raising a child requires far more than operating a motor vehicle, and the potential harm that can come from incompetent parenting is probably at least as bad as the harm that could result from incompetent driving. Parental licensure would require us to identify the minimal competencies that would be required of a parent. This sounds like it would be challenging, but we already have models of what this might look like in the form of the classes for new parents already offered by some hospitals and community clinics. Topics typically include basic nutrition, discipline, knowing when to take one's child in for medical care, etc. There is nothing terribly advanced about this, but some treatment providers will tell you that many parents lack these skills and are not always motivated to acquire them. At the same time, there is ample research showing that making this sort of training and support available to high-risk parents reduces many of the outcomes we'd all like to reduce.

Assuming that a standardized curriculum could be developed and that it would prove beneficial (there is already evidence that this type of education reduces infant mortality, child abuse, etc.), the question becomes whether it should be mandatory. "I should have the right to raise my child any way I want!" Really? Why? You don't have the right to drive your car any way you want, hunt any way you want, etc. Your rights with regard to your child are already limited by the law as well. In fact, you do not currently have the right to raise your child any way you want. All parental licensure would do is make it easier for you to raise your child by making sure that you had minimal competencies to do so.

In our current system, it is common for parents to be court-ordered to attend parent training classes when they screw up. Of course, this happens only after harm has already befallen the child. Why should the child have to suffer before the parents receive an education? Some parents do mistreat their children out of malevolence but many more do so out of ignorance. Parental licensure would not stop the former, but it seems like it could help to prevent the latter.

For more information on parental licensure, see The Case for Parental Licensure.

An early version of this post appeared at Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised in 2019 to improve clarity.