Mandatory Parental Licensing

posted 01 September 2006

...no, I'm not advocating it. But it got your attention, right? Over on Thingbox we've been having a very long debate about how to tackle those problem children that Tony Blair is so worried about in an effort to distract attention away from his leaving office. So here's my position:

People are hard-wired to make babies, even if it’s not a very good idea.

People who are highly educated (regardless of financial status) tend to try and pick the best time to have kids, and so have fewer, but more successful children. People who are poorly educated show less planning, and have more kids, and those kids are less successful.

We as a society have taken the decision that we cannot let these poorly-planned kids starve to death (because their parents haven’t planned how to feed them) or kill themselves in any of a variety of ways. Instead, we want to try and help them succeed. That’s very noble of us.

One way to help these children succeed would be by helping them be planned children in the first place. This means giving their poorly-educated parents some incentive to think more carefully before having children. We’re already doing that, with mixed results.

Since poorly-educated people will nevertheless continue to have children by accident or through poor judgement, we must find ways to help the children themselves.

Another way to help them succeed is by giving them the same opportunities that better-planned children will get. Since these children are, on average, poorer, this tends to involve financial support, since most opportunities in this country are open to all comers, as long as they can pay.

Financial support is a good solution, and one we are already employing, though it remains to be seen how effective our implementation is.

These poorly-planned children are not, however, just missing out on opportunities. They are missing out on education that happens within the home. Levels of parental education are a good predictor of how educated children will be, even when controlling for financial status. So it’s important that their parents be educated, especially when it comes to teaching their kids.

A common response to this is "but there's no right way to teach children" or "you can't teach good parenting". On the contrary, there is a body of knowledge about parenting styles. And there is also research that shows what parenting style is most successful, where success is measured by the educational attainment of the children. At the very least, there are certainly a large number of easily-identified wrong ways to raise children.

This information about how to be a good important is important and valuable. So in addition to the other ways in which we help poorly-planned kids, we should also be teaching parents how to be good parents. This advice is not foolproof, and in certain living situations it’s not a great predictor of success, but it is better than nothing, which is all that can be said of the other two ways we’re trying to help these kids.

The question is not “is it possible to teach parenting?” or “is it a good idea to teach parenting?”, it’s “what is the best way to educate parents?”

And I don’t know the answer.

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