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Expert culture and the criminalization of parents

I've been reading a lot lately about the criminalization of parenthood. At summer parties, my peers are discussing the topic, comparing the mindset of today with their own freewheeling, unsupervised childhood experiences.

How did we get here? The most common culprits I read about are a preoccupation with safety, class and social issues, and the erosion of community. Some are even calling it a war on parents. As with all complex social problems, untangling the root causes is no simple matter, but I'd like to humbly add a couple of other points to the list of contributing factors.

The first is our expert culture. Credentials rule, and we constantly look to those who have them to tell us what to do. I have nothing against experience and expertise, but when we elevate titles and advanced degrees above all else we lose trust in basic human competency.

How does this apply to raising children? Parents are subjected to an endless stream of books, talk shows, lectures, and media on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, toilet training, discipline -- anything and everything that relates to bringing up kids and doing it right. If you have any parental instincts left after being bombarded by the advice of doctors, teachers, psychologists, and other credentialed experts, don't follow them, especially if they direct you off the path prescribed by experts. Daring to deviate can result in disapproval, and maybe even accusations of abuse or neglect. Ironically, you may be vindicated if the experts modify their views, and what was once considered bad becomes good, although it can take awhile for the general population to catch up. Extended nursing, which the American Academy of Pediatrics now sanctions, is one example.

Homeschooling, still a relatively fringe practice, regularly draws this kind of criticism. Arrogance is just one of the things for which homeschooling parents are scorned. How dare we believe we can do a better job than trained teachers? The question has always flummoxed me, because it has so little to do with the reasons I chose to homeschool in the first place.

Despite the fact that homeschooling is legal in every state, and millions of people do it happily and successfully, the notion that untrained parents can provide a decent education for their children is not a belief embraced by our society, which isn't really a surprise. Look at the abundance of parenting books and classes, and the massive numbers of experts in place to tell parents what they should be doing, and it's not hard to see that a mistrust of parental competency is rampant. One potential result is that when we see parents doing something that experts have warned against, we jump to the conclusion that they are incompetent, negligent, or both.

Ideally, experts would always serve as support systems for parents, rather than punishment-wielding authoritarians. In such a world, we wouldn't be arresting mothers who love their children and do their best to care for them. Instead, we'd be providing them with help and support so they can do their shopping, go to job interviews, and live their lives.

There's also our obsession with perfection and our proclivity to blame. We must be perfect parents, and when we inevitably fail, there is potentially punishable fault. Anyone who's raised a child knows that it can, at times, be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor. Many situations require a lightning speed weighing of options and quick decisions that are rarely black and white. A decision made one day, in one particular set of circumstances, can be just the right thing, while the same decision in a different scenario might not work out.

Homeschooling parents are quite familiar with the blame game. Kid doesn't know how to tie shoes properly, kid is afraid of dogs, kid struggles with math, kid is shy, kid doesn't have enough friends, kid doesn't like broccoli -- whatever a person perceives as a problem (and often, there is no problem) becomes fodder for the notion that homeschooling and the parent who chooses it are at fault.

Such blaming, intolerant attitudes are pervasive and not limited to people who make non-mainstream parenting choices. The result is that when we see children in situations that concern us, our knee-jerk reaction is to assume guilt, ignorance, or ill will. This makes no sense to me, because the greater likelihood is that, however imperfectly, the children are loved, and the parents, however imperfectly, have hopes and dreams for their families.

I say all this, I know, at the risk of sounding idealistic and naive. In actuality, my life experience robbed me of innocence at too young an age. But I don't think believing in people is naivete. I see it rather as a necessity, and a kind of truth. I'm with Atticus Finch, who, in the face of cruelty, vouched for the kindness and integrity inherent in humanity. Why did he do it? For the sake of his children. And so, I think, if we want to stop punishing parents and families, must we all.

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