Society, November 1996
Even though appearing to decrease somewhat recently, violence and crime have
reduced public safety in the United States to an unacceptable level. The rising
rates of juvenile violence and crime portend greater social problems in the
The past focus on socioeconomic, racial, educational, and biological factors
that contribute to violence and crime has obscured the most important element -
parenting. The main source of these social problems is the cycle of child abuse
and neglect that results when parenting fails. Incompetent (defined in legal
terms as unfit) parenting is the most important factor in those adult outcomes.
Competent parenting protects even biologically vulnerable and socioeconomically
disadvantaged children from those outcomes.
Because of the high financial and social costs of dealing with adult and
juvenile violence and crime, in 1991 the National Commission on Children,
appointed by Congress and by the president, urged a change in focus to
preventive interventions during early life.
By far most children who live in poverty, who come from broken homes, who
receive welfare, who have been abused, or who have criminal relatives do not
become habitual criminals or welfare dependent. When any of these factors
converge with parental abuse and neglect, however, one of two or three of these
children is destined for criminality or welfare dependency. Some are
handicapped by brain damage resulting from maternal drug abuse and alcoholism
and inadequate prenatal care. All do not learn from their parents the values
and personal skills necessary for effective education and for productive
employment. These dangerous and dependent persons are increasing in numbers to
further drain public funds and to erode the productivity of our workforce.
Society Depends upon Competent Parents
The Committee for Economic Development, a national organization of leaders
in education and business, and the U.S. Department of Labor's Commission on
Achieving Necessary Skills noted that children are a shrinking proportion of
our population. They warn that unless preventive investment in early childhood
is made a national policy, our future labor force will be disproportionately poor,
unhealthy, uneducated, and untrained. They concluded that our nation cannot
continue to be economically productive when a quarter of our young children
live in poverty and a third of them grow up without learning the skills
necessary for life in modern society.
This grim forecast occurs in the context of an emphasis on hard work and the
relative affluence of most people in the United States. It vividly contrasts
with the excellence in academics, athletics, and creativity shown by many
American children and youth. It reflects the growing disparity between the
lives of the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
This forecast also is a consequence of valuing financially remunerated
activities more than parenting. The emphasis on employing parents away from
home and on paying for family support and day-care services obscures the role
of unpaid competent parenting in preventing social problems. The prevailing
message seems to be that parenthood is a secondary role in our society.
But parenting is vital to the future of our society, as the National Council
of Juvenile and Family Court Judges pointed out:
Society must engender within its citizens the awareness of what it is to be
a good parent. No public or private agency, child care giver, social worker,
teacher, or friend can replace the parent in the child's mind. To the extent
that family life is damaged or failing, our children, their children, and the
nation will suffer. The high calling of "parenthood" must be more adequately
recognized, respected and honored by our society. Therein lies the future of
Although they are only a small fraction of all parents, incompetent parents
gravely endanger our society. I estimate that 4 percent of parents in the
United States are grossly incompetent and that 3.6 million of our young people
have been damaged by both neglect and abuse. Some seven million have been
abused or neglected.
It now falls upon the government to intervene in families after children
have been neglected and abused. Often those interventions are too late and
ineffective, resulting in enormous rehabilitative, treatment, and later
incarceration costs. If we take only the most clear-cut evidence from the lives
of incompetently parented habitual criminals, each one costs society $ 2
million; contrast that to the $ 1 million contributed by each adult raised by
competent parents. This waste of human and economic resources cries out for
solutions. It highlights the cost to society of failing to recognize the
financial value of competent parenting.
A New Paradigm for Parenting
If our society is to appropriately value parenthood, a new paradigm for
parenting is needed. The existing paradigm is that children are the property of
their biological parents. Anyone who conceives and gives birth to a child has
the full care and custody of that child until the child is damaged by abuse or
neglect. No one asks if that person is capable of parenting that child. That
person, often referred to as the "real" parent, can lay claim to the child
years after the child has bonded to parents who reared the child.
The vast majority of biological parents are in the best position to
represent the interests of their children, but we need to move beyond the view
of children as the property of their biological parents. A strong argument can
be made that every male and every female has the biological right to conceive a
child, and that every female has the biological right to give birth to a child.
But true parenthood is defined by the earned relationship between parent and
child over time. It is not permanently endowed by the events of conceiving or
giving birth to a child. We need a new paradigm in which parenthood is a
privilege, as it is now for adoptive and foster parents, rather than a
biological right. We need to see parenting through the eyes of children and of
For the well-being of our society, we also need to accord children a civil
right expected by adults: the opportunity to be free of insurmountable
obstacles to developing one's potential in life. The civil right to competent
parenting is widely acknowledged in declarations of the rights of children in
the United States and by the United Nations. Competent parenting is a legal
right because incompetent parenting is a cause for state intervention and the
possible termination of parental rights. It is a divine obligation when
parenthood is viewed as a covenant with God.
A new paradigm in which parenthood is an earned privilege and competent
parenting is our objective for all children would focus on preparing young
people for parenthood. It would call for nurturant homes and adequate education
for all children. It would encourage recognizing the financial value of
competent parenting in taxation policies and in the workplace. It would target
our resources on identifying, remediating, and replacing incompetent parenting
Creating a New Social Value
How can parenthood become a privilege and competent parenting be ensured as
a civil right for children in the United States?
Changing a social value in our democratic republic is a major challenge.
Because our society is based on the freedom of individuals in successive waves
of minorities, forming a consensus on a social value and ensuring universal
compliance with that value are virtually impossible. Persuasion and education
are enough to gain most people's compliance with an established social value,
but a sizable segment of the population does not respond to those measures and
requires the constraint of laws. Consequently, our society relies upon the rule
of common and legislated laws to formulate and express our social values.
The creation of a new social value in the United States goes through a
process of identifying and discussing an issue in organizations and the media.
Persuading arguments in the form of editorials, essays, and political policies
shape the issue so that it assumes the specificity of a value. Then education
promulgates the need for the value. Finally, legislation embeds the value in
For example, racism was expressed though slavery at one time. The cultural
value that opposed slavery did not permeate our society. A long process
followed, a process that included the identification of slavery as a form of
racism, discussion of the issue, education about its harmful effects, and
ultimately the Civil War that produced the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution outlawing slavery. Since that time a series of laws have affirmed
the social value that racism is unacceptable in our society. A similar process
has taken place in redressing sexism.
At another level, the desirability of safety car seats for children was
identified, discussed, educationally disseminated, and ultimately crystallized
in state laws. The same process has been used to implement values related to
conserving the environment by regulating pollution, including smoking.
The most important, but unrecognized, issue facing our society today is
whether or not we value children and the future of our nation enough to try to
ensure that every child receives competent parenting. We cannot universally
assume competence in parenting any more than we can universally assume
competence in any other activity that affects other people. Irresponsible
people do conceive and bear children. We cannot rely upon every irresponsible
person becoming responsible through persuasion, education, or treatment. Our
children and society need protection from incompetent parents who are
handicapping the next generation now.
Most adults and teenagers already know that parenting is an important
responsibility. For most of the others persuasion and education are sufficient
to convince them that it is. But for a small but crucial percentage, the only
available means of inducing them to function as responsible parents is by
enforcing child-abuse and neglect laws after they have damaged their children.
But children need society's protection before they have been damaged.
Persuasion and education in themselves are insufficient to ensure general
compliance with any social value, as is evident in the need for laws against
criminal and exploitative sexual behavior. Just as aggressive and sexual
behavior can adversely affect others, incompetent parenting also adversely
affects others - the children first and society later.
Because our society must contend with the social repercussions of
incompetent parenting, government has a role in preventing child neglect and
abuse. This could be done by setting standards for parenting in the same way
that we set standards for everything else we do that affects other persons -
and children are persons.
The Evolution of Parenting Standards
The evolution of families in Western civilization has been marked by
successive societal restrictions on the authority of parents over their
children. Families originated out of clans with power invested in leaders and
fathers, who were free to do as they wished with their wives and children. This
meant absolute power over the life of a child, including the right to kill the
The Jewish tradition introduced marriage as a sacred bond between husband
and wife with procreation as its goal. Husband and wife were seen as children
of God, as were children. Fathers no longer had absolute power over the lives
of their children, but they remained the heads of their households.
In the context of the rights of individuals, Christianity introduced the
idea that wives and husbands were to mutually respect each other and that
children were autonomous beings whose loyalties were primarily to God.
The Industrial Revolution stripped away many of the functions of the family,
which was the dominant social institution during the agricultural age.
Production went out of homes, the education of children shifted from the home
to schools, and the care of the elderly fell to the state.
In the United States the last century has witnessed the appearance of
child-labor laws, child-abuse and neglect laws, mandatory education laws,
juvenile courts, family courts, and child-support laws. In recent years the
trend toward sidestepping parental responsibilities in child-bearing and
child-rearing has necessitated a series of new laws that define parental
responsibilities in child-rearing. Laws now mandate parental participation in
school conferences when their children pose behavior problems, the liability of
grandparents for the children of their children, the liability of parents for
the crimes of their children, and stringent interstate enforcement of
child-support laws. All of these laws are moving in the direction of applying
the parenting standards set forth in child-abuse and neglect laws before rather
than after children are damaged by abuse and neglect.
Reasons for Licensing Parents
The time has come to consider protecting children from incompetent parenting
by setting parenting standards through licensing before they are damaged by
abuse and neglect for five reasons.
The first is the human rights principle that all persons, including
children, should be free from abuse, oppression, and rejection. Now millions of
children are abused, oppressed, and rejected by incompetent parents. Little is
done before these children are damaged.
The second is the civil rights principle that all persons should have equal
access to opportunities to develop their potentials in life, an especially
important right for children whose future opportunities can be permanently
foreclosed by parental abuse and neglect.
The third is the common good principle through which government can regulate
activities that are potentially harmful to others and to society. As it is now,
incompetent parents harm their children and gravely endanger the internal
security and productivity of our nation.
The fourth is the humanistic principle that the future success of children
as citizens and as parents depends upon forming affectionate attachment bonds
with their own parents. Incompetent parents do not form healthy attachment
bonds with their children and thereby deprive their children of learning how to
become responsible citizens and parents.
The fifth is that adolescents are not ready for parenthood in modern society
after the attainment of biological puberty, a fact recognized by separate rites
of puberty and adulthood in aboriginal cultures. Parenthood consists of more
than child care. It is a responsible developmental stage in the life cycle that
follows childhood and adolescence.
A licensing process for parents would demonstrate that our society values
competent parenting. It would implement the rhetoric that children have a civil
right to competent parenting. It would accord parenthood the status of a
privilege rather than a biological right. It would elevate child-rearing from
the realm of caprice, accident, and ulterior motives by according parenthood
the dignity and legitimacy it deserves. It would encourage people to become
more responsible in their sexual behavior and in child-rearing.
A parent license would validate parental rights and focus public policies on
supporting competent parenting and on remedying or replacing incompetent
parenting. It would hold parents responsible for being competent rather than
forcing children to endure incompetent parenting until they show publicly
recognized signs of damage. The responsibility would fall on parents to
demonstrate their competence before a child is damaged rather than on the state
to prove unfitness after a child has been damaged, as is the case now. Parents
indeed would bear the responsibility for rearing their children. Then there
would be little need for governmental interventions.
Parent licensing would not attempt to distinguish between "good" and "less
good" parenting or to prescribe parenting styles. It would exclude only those
who are obviously unqualified. It would not be a birth control measure,
although it probably would influence procreation by conveying the message that
society holds expectations for child-rearing.
Procedures for Licensing Parents
The purpose of licensing would be to accord parenting appropriate status in
society, not to create a new bureaucracy. As a preventive extension of the
child-protective system, the licensing process would be a screening device
rather than a definitive evaluation. Establishing procedures for licensing
parents would entail little more administrative structure than currently is
involved in marriage licensing, birth registration, and protective services for
The practical aspects of licensing parents would include its eligibility
criteria, its administration, the consequences of denial of licensure, and the
question of testing for parental competence.
Criteria for Licensure. The criteria for obtaining a parenting license
would fit a straightforward credentialing process, like marriage licensing.
Unlike the marriage license, it would be obtained for each parent and validated
for each child.
The first criterion would be the attainment of adulthood based on the
principle that a parent should be able to be responsible for one's own life
before assuming responsibility for a child's life. Eighteen would be a
reasonable age based on physical, social, and emotional maturity and the
likelihood that the applicant had completed a high school education. For
parents under the age of eighteen who still need parenting themselves, parental
assumption of responsibility for the minor and the child as licensed foster
parents would be required so that the minor could obtain a provisional license
that would be fully validated when the minor becomes an adult.
The second criterion would be a pledge by the parent to care for and nurture
the child and to refrain from abusing and neglecting the child. If this
commitment was broken at a later time, the intervention upon a parent's rights
would be based on the failure of that parent to fulfill a contractual
commitment to the child with revocation of a license rather than on a
quasi-criminal action, as is now the case.
The third criterion would be possession of basic knowledge of child-rearing,
such as by completing a parenting course in a school or clinic or its
equivalent. In all likelihood, parent licensing would stimulate the development
of family life education, already offered in many communities. The mass impact
of such a program would likely discourage premature marriages and reinforce
awareness of the gravity of child-rearing responsibilities. From the point of
view of the educational curriculum, preparation for parenthood is more
important than any other academic subject. Moreover, the need for education in
parenting is widely perceived today by most parents.
The Administration of Licensing. The administration of parent licensing
would be through state and local governments, although enabling federal
legislation, such as requiring licensure for the receipt of federal funds,
would highlight its importance. A new bureaucracy would not be needed since
licensing would involve revising the mandate of the existing marriage
licensing, birth registration, and child-protection systems.
The license application process could be handled through the channels of
marriage licensing, prenatal care, and birth registration since it essentially
would be a question of credentialing. Questionable situations and appeals could
be handled through existing protective services for children in county
departments of human services guided by state statutes. Vulnerable parents and
children would be identified at the outset of the children's lives, and parent
support services could be provided earlier than is now possible. The shift of
protective services for children from an adversarial criminal focus after
children have been damaged to a preventive focus would reduce the need for
extensive interventions years later.
A general parenting license for each mother and father would be granted on
meeting the criteria. It would then be validated for each child, clearly
establishing a child-parent contract that includes financial responsibility and
expectations of parental competence.
If protective services for a child were invoked by child abuse or neglect,
the license could be placed on probationary status while treatment was ongoing,
or it could be suspended during foster placement of the child and treatment of
the parent. When a parent is unable or unwilling to meet parenting standards as
defined by child-abuse and neglect laws, the license could be judicially
revoked for that child through existing termination of parental rights
procedures modified to correspond with revocation rather than quasi-criminal
The administration of protective services for children and the enforcement
of child-abuse and neglect statutes would be facilitated by parent licensing.
From the legal point of view, the burden of proof would lie with parents - they
would be required to demonstrate evidence of minimal competence or of their
parental fitness in legal terms - rather than with the state, which is now
required to prove parental unfitness. If the state required all parents to
become licensed before or upon the birth of their children, much later and
costly case-by-case adjudication under child protection laws after parents have
damaged their children would be avoided.
Parent licensing would remove protecting the welfare of children from the
criminal arena of perpetrator and victim after children have been damaged to
the prevention and treatment arena, in which parents could be helped to avoid
abusing and neglecting their children.
The Denial of Licensure. If the parent of a child was ineligible for a
parent license because of age or incapacity, that person could have a
provisional license under the aegis of children's protective services with
parent training and supervision or foster placement and with a specified time
during which that person could qualify for a license. If the person was unable
to qualify at the end of that time, parental rights would be terminated and the
child placed for adoption in accordance with existing child-abuse and neglect
Individuals denied licensure would have opportunities for appeal through the
usual legal channels. Those mistakenly denied licenses would be able to
demonstrate their competence. Those whose parenting licenses were placed on
probationary status or were suspended would be able to obtain treatment in
order to qualify for reinstatement.
The denial or revocation of a parenting license would be expected to be a
painful experience, particularly for mothers. But disappointment or
inconvenience for people who are denied other licenses does not diminish the
need to regulate activities that are potentially harmful to others. All other
licensing procedures and competency tests are maintained even though they are
subject to error. The overall importance of protecting children from
incompetent parenting justifies the inconvenience to a few parents and the
inevitable imperfections of a licensing system.
Parent Competence Testing. At this time large-scale testing for signs of
parental incompetence is premature. Efforts to predict the parenting potential
of pregnant women by testing have yielded inconsistent results. There are ways
of predicting parental competence through intensive evaluations, such as the
rigorous assessment procedures employed for adoption. However, those measures
are not practical for large-scale use.
At the same time, research should be focused on the early detection of
parental incompetence. This ultimately would enhance the prediction of child
abuse and neglect in a licensing process. It could alert vulnerable persons to
examine their motives for child-rearing and encourage them to improve their
Objections to Parent Licensing
No reasonable person would deny that children should be competently
parented. Yet any effort to ensure that children have competent parents meets
strident objections. Licensing parents seems especially unthinkable to many
The intense emotions evoked by the idea of licensing parents often leads to
the categorical dismissal of setting any standards for parenting. Underneath
these sentiments lie the presumption that children are the property of their
biological parents and the mistrust of government.
The political Left fears that parent licensing would unduly restrict
individual freedom and could be used as an excuse to curtail governmental
support of families and as a tool of racism. The political Right regards parent
licensing as an intrusion of government into the private affairs of families
and as a violation of the sacred parent-child relationship. Parent licensing
actually would identify foundering parents and target private and public
programs to help them. It would no more invade the privacy of families than do
existing child-abuse and neglect laws. It would formally consecrate parenting.
Setting standards for parenting also can be construed as "blaming" parents
who already are stressed by living in an unsupportive society. All parents have
acted in ways that fall short of their parenting ideals. The mere mention of
parental incompetence in itself can evoke the fear that a parent would not
qualify as competent. But a statement by society that parenting is important
enough to license would have the opposite effect. Because only a small fraction
of parents would not meet the standards of minimal competence, the vast
majority of parents would be affirmed. Rather than being taken for granted as a
secondary role in our society, parenting would be valued as an essential social
institution. The due process of law and appeal procedures would ensure that a
competent parent would not be improperly denied a license.
The argument is advanced that we should not inconvenience all parents by a
licensing process for which only a small percentage of parents would not
qualify. This does not deter us from other licensing procedures that only
screen out a similar small percentage of all who apply. In addition, the
purpose of licensing parents would be not only to identify vulnerable parents
but to generally enhance the status of parenting.
Even those who agree that standards should be set for parenting might feel
that such a procedure is utopian and unworkable because of the complexities of
administering a licensing process. They point to the practical problems
involved in predicting parental incompetence and in realigning and expanding
protective services in order to deal with the current overwhelming burdens
imposed by abusive and neglectful parents. They should be reassured by the
screening intent of a credentialing process. They could add their support to
allocating more resources to deal with the current situation.
All of the objections to licensing parents can be regarded as insurmountable
obstacles, or they can be seen as hurdles to be taken into account in designing
and implementing licensing procedures. A process for licensing parents should
not be ruled out simply because it has not been done before or because it would
be too much trouble. The excuse that according parenting the status of
operating a motor vehicle would be too difficult constitutes societal neglect
of our children.
Alternatives to Parent Licensing
The existing child-abuse and neglect reporting system could be intensified
by monitoring deviations in the behavior and condition of children in schools
and communities. But this would not protect children before they are abused or
neglected and would continue to place responsibility on other people to detect
child abuse and neglect rather than on parents to refrain from harming their
children in the first place.
Entering both parents' social security numbers, when known, on every
newborn's birth certificate would identify both parents of each child.
Withholding child support from the wages of absent parents would help to bring
affected children out of poverty and to persuade boys and men not to father
children whom they cannot support.
Measures that support the education and development of children and youth
reduce premature parenthood. In Rhode Island a plan was devised in which
certain children who pass their academic courses, obey the law, avoid
pregnancy, and do not use drugs receive help from a trained mentor throughout
their elementary and high school years. Students who fulfill the contract and
are accepted into college or a job training program receive free education or
An intriguing proposal has been made by the political scientist Paul
Peterson that minors should be represented in the political process by having
votes cast for them by their parents or guardians. This would be an effective
means of giving children a political voice.
Any efforts that strengthen families, that instill pro-social values in
children, and that protect the ecological and economic environments of future
generations will help create a climate that values parenthood. But relying on
family life education, mentoring, the elimination of poverty, the prevention of
adolescent childbirths, or spiritual renewal of the nation to protect children
from abuse and neglect would not protect the children of most incompetent
parents; these parents necessitate a licensing process because, as is the case
with habitual criminals, they do not respond to education or persuasion.
Competent parenting is essential for the survival of our society. Parents
are in the best position to represent the interests of their children. But
because of the damage that incompetent parents cause their children and
society, the accountability of parents to society needs to be made clear. This
could be done by recognizing parenting as a privilege supported by society,
rather than as a biological right, and by affirming every child's civil right
to competent parenting.
The ineffective expenditure of our limited resources on trying to repair
children and adults who have been damaged by incompetent parenting makes
setting standards for parenting necessary today. Setting minimum standards for
parenting would help to prevent child neglect and abuse. We should not continue
to wait until parents damage their children by neglect and abuse and then apply
parenting standards, as we do now.
Licensing parents would lay the foundation for dramatically reducing the
need for costly and ineffective governmental welfare and correctional programs.
It would affirm parental responsibility for child-rearing and reduce the need
for governmental involvement in families. It would increase the general level
of competent parenting and positively affect generations to come.
Imagine what our nation would be like if every child had competent
parenting. This is not an unrealistic goal if we really care about our
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
James G. Dwyer. "Parents' Religion and Children's Welfare: Debunking the
Doctrine of Parents' Rights." California Law Review 82 (1994): 1371-47.
David T. Lykken. The Antisocial Personalities. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum,
Jack C. Westman. Licensing Parents: Can We Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect?
New York: Insight Books/Plenum Press, 1994.
Jack C. Westman, M.D., is professor of psychiatry at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, Medical School. He is the author of Licensing Parents: Can
We Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect?