When a Child Flies Too Close to the Sun

A 7-year-old California child is killed during an attempt –heavily promoted by her parents – to pilot an airplane

A 7-year-old California child is killed during an attempt –heavily promoted by her parents – to pilot an airplane

cross-country. In New York, a young girl dies after being returned to her abusive mother. Here in Indianapolis. a study confirms?the presence of numerous "street children" — homeless youngsters who cannot legally be

helped by social service agencies because parental consent cannot be obtained.

Predictably, in each instance there is a public outcry. We must save children from their parents. There ought to be a law.

Is this the same public that a few months ago swamped the Indiana legislature with demands for a so-called "parental rights" bill? The public that has responded with anger to the prosecution of the Planck family for failing to get their son Lance to the hospital soon enough? Are these the families that have called the Indiana Civil Liberties Union when Child Protective Services has engaged in unwarranted "interventions?

Is it possible that the issue is a bit more complicated than partisans want to admit?

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment protects freedom of personal choice in family matters. But the court has also held that a parent’s fundamental right to raise children is not unlimited; the state has a "compelling interest" in protecting children. Parents have a duty to provide for a child’s physical and mental well-being. Conflicts arise when parents define "well-being" differently than does the community.

Some of the most passionate proponents of "parental rights" legislation are the very same people who are demanding that government decide what materials children can check out at the local library or access on the Internet. Parents who want. broad authority to accept or reject public school curricula take the position that school dress codes, rather than parents. should dictate children’s clothing choices.

It is tempting to point to these inconsistencies as evidence of intellectual dishonesty, and that is undoubtedly true of some of the perennial busybodies, those familiar and self-appointed arbiters of other people’s morality. But most of us are truly conflicted. We see both sides. We believe parents should control the rearing of their own children. We believe government and its agencies should defer to the beliefs of those parents. But we also acknowledge the responsibility of the community to intervene when children are in danger.

What sorts of parental behavior place a child at risk? Physical abuse is comparatively simple. But I have debated people who believe I am a bad parent for allowing my children to read whatever they wish, who believe the state should intercede to protect my children from a perceived moral harm.

Does a parent’s right to direct the intellectual development of her child protect a decision to keep that child illiterate? Does the state’s interest in child safety justify interference when a parent wants to introduce his child.to the excitement of spelunking? Of flying?

Who decides when a child is flying too close to the sun?