I’m wondering why we need a license to get married, but we don’t need a license to have kids – especially considering the fact that a bad marriage is easily undone and does no irreparable harm, whereas bad parenting can create a legacy of misery that affects large numbers of innocents and often gets passed on from progeny to progeny.
The English poet Philip Larkin made this point memorably in his poem, This Be The Verse:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats.
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Historically, marriage has been pretty heavily regulated in our society. The state tells us who we can marry (or, more accurately, who we cannot marry) and when we can marry. Sixteen states still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books when the Supreme Court finally ruled them unconstitutional in 1967. More recently, the debate over same-sex marriages reminds us that marriage regulations remain a matter of controversy for many Americans and a form of repression for some.
And yet procreation is not regulated at all.
There have been state-sponsored attempts to limit procreation – most famously, China’s widely misunderstood "one-child" policy. And closer to home, one of the main objectives of schools-based sex education programs in this country is to prevent (or postpone) procreation. In "abstinence only" programs, the goal is to prevent sexual intercourse itself.
More common are state-sponsored efforts to encourage procreation. In Italy, where there is growing concern about declining birthrates and the depopulation of many villages, the mayor of Laviano is offering $15,000 baby bonuses to women who give birth and rear their children in this hamlet near Naples. Here in the USA, tax-exemptions for dependent children encourage taxpayers to have children. Anti-abortion policies have the effect of forcing women to have children whether they want them or not.
But there is no state policy or program to determine who should be a parent or, more importantly, to provide basic training in the principles of effective parenting. A licensing procedure could easily be established for this purpose, not unlike what is already in place for drivers’ licenses. There would be a written exam but an interview with a trained psychologist would replace the road test.
Parenting education could be provided by our high schools much as driver’s education once was. Indeed, in many public high schools, what used to be called "Home Economics" has morphed into "Marriage and Family Living" and "Nutritional Science." This is good. But these programs tend to be elective rather than required, boys rarely enroll in them, and none of them focus specifically on parenting skills despite the fact that one third of the textbooks used in such courses demonstrate a "pronatalist bias," according to one study.
Since demands on parents vary greatly as a child matures from infancy to young adulthood, and changing circumstances in the home (e.g., additional children, divorce, etc.) often bring with them a different set of challenges, the parenting license should be renewed every few years.
The fact that there are no effective means of enforcing such license requirements should not dissuade us from promulgating them. Although the state clearly has the right to separate children from parents who are demonstrably unfit, abusive, or neglectful, removing children from homes where the parents are simply unlicensed is not likely to go down well. I would not even support fines for parenting without a license.
But perhaps there could be some practical incentives to comply. The tax-exemption for dependent children, for example, might be limited to licensed parents. If nothing else, the licensing scheme would have a hortatory effect. Even if we cannot compel procreators to be good parents, at the least we can point them in the right direction.
Twelve Rules of Good Parenting
1. Read to your child, early (in utero is not too early) and often. As your child gets older, encourage critical reading by asking him what he thinks about what you’re reading together.
2. Praise good behavior; ignore bad behavior. This really works. (Whoever said "Spare the rod, spoil the child," did not like children.)
3. Talk to your child; listen to your child. (Whoever said "Children should be seen and not heard" didn’t have any; or shouldn’t have had any.)
4. Take an active interest in your child’s education.
5. There is nothing good about television (except The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and your child should not be up that late). If you must have one, limit your child’s access to it. Don’t buy or feed your child anything that is advertised on TV.
6. Love your child unconditionally; you cannot love your child too much.
7. Always treat your child with respect – respect is just as important as love. (Maybe more important.)
8. Have a reasonable set of expectations and apply them consistently.
9. "Because I said so" is never a good answer to your childs question, "Why?"
10. Foster your child’s independence and sense of responsibility. Help her make her own decisions and learn to accept the consequences.
11. No one is perfect; not even you. Admit your mistakes. When you make a mistake, apologize.
12. Set a good example: Be patient. Be polite. Be kind. Be honest. Don’t bite. Don’t yell. Don’t whine.