Who’s in Charge? – The role of the state and family in the nurture of children

19th July 2012

  • Should parents be able to determine in what faith setting their children are educated?
  • Should school supply favour parental choice?
  • Should the state attempt to compensate for parental shortcomings?

Behind the different views on all these controversies lie often ill-articulated assumptions about the extent to which parents should determine the upbringing of their children and the appropriate level of state/societal involvement.

For me, those who think parents hold the monopoly over legitimate nurture are suffering from a misguided view that parents somehow “own” their children. This is linked to an age old debate. Back in the 17th century, Locke criticised the view that, “fathers have a power over the lives of their children, because they give them life and being.”  (Locke, 1764, First Treatise, para. 52.)  but he eventually conceded that “parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them (children), when they come into the world…The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes they art wrapt up in. …age and reason as they grow up, loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own free disposal.” (Locke,1764, Second Treatise para. 55.)

My view is that this “rule and jurisdiction” does not reside solely with parents and that there are four main reasons why the state and family responsibility should share this responsibility.

1. Residuals and Deficits

We know that too often, families fail to provide for all their children’s needs. When these are not provided for, the costs to individuals, communities and society are huge. Some argue that when the state and society fill these gaps they encourage parents to abdicate responsibility further. However, this assumes that all parents are in a position to take responsibility, an idealistic but naïve view.  In many cases parents have not received the basics themselves and sadly, people do not go from being dysfunctional, ill-cared-for 16 year olds to fully capable 20 year olds simply by virtue of becoming parents. Furthermore, this approach stinks of trying to prove a point: “if we help them out then they’ll never learn a lesson.” Children are far too important to be used as a means to teaching parents a lesson. Instead, the state needs to be proactive in spotting the gaps in children’s care and filling them before it is too late.

2. Liberty and Autonomy

Parents who want to protect their children from learning about contraception in school deprive their children of the freedom to make a choice for themselves. In contrast, children exposed to their parents’ anti-contraception views at home and taught about contraception in school are free to choose whichever approach they agree with. Rather than a tyrant, an active state is therefore an enabler and a liberator. In “The Nordic Way” Berggren and Trägåardh show that in Nordic countries, the role of the state is:

to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly.”

 (Berggren and Trägåardh 2011)

Following on from Locke, Nozick argues that “Whoever makes something… is  entitled  to  it” (Nozick,  1974, pp.160) This would suggest that parents “own” their children and hence hold the monopoly of legitimate determination over them. Some liberals therefore claim that any state incursion into this sphere is an illiberal intrusion. Yet the “it’s not for the state to interfere with the way parents want to bring up their children” position is in fact anything but liberal. Firstly, the notion of ownership is undermined by Nozick himself who notes that the argument is void if we recognise that “something intrinsic to persons bars those who make them from owning them” and that something “excludes the process whereby parents make their children as yielding ownership” (p289).  Secondly, children cannot choose how they wish to live for themselves if they are only exposed to the approaches their parents sanction. Vaughn argues that “Libertarians believe that people have  the  right  to  raise  their children to  share their  values” but that this is not “a  viable  position  when we  acknowledge  that  children  must  learn  values before  they  can act  in accordance with  them.” She continues, “does  not  the  right  parents  have  to  raise  their children according to their own  values conflict with  the individual’s  right  to live any way  he pleases?”

So long as we claim that it is for the family to determine children’s upbringing we are only re-enforcing dependency and making our children less free.

3. Justice and Equality

Some would respond to the Nordic perspective by saying that dependency on the family is no bad thing but perhaps for a moment they should take up a position behind John Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” (Rawls 1971.) Imagine yourself before birth, unsure to whom you might be born. What arrangement would you pick to ensure the best possible outcome for yourself whoever you might end up being? Knowing that some families are dysfunctional, poor, ill-equipped to bring up children and lacking in cultural capital how much of a role would you give the state in your future nurture? I seriously doubt that you would keep it minimal.

To bring this to life- we all know that the biggest determinant of a child’s educational attainment is its family’s income. We therefore see that a huge amount of inequality in outcomes comes from the reproduction of families’ unequal starting points. How on earth can we reduce this inequality by further strengthening the contribution families make to these outcomes?


4. Democracy and society

Society is the product of the citizens within it. It therefore has every right to use its democratic systems to decide how it will shape its future citizens.

The democratically elected representatives of our society may decide that in order to give young people informed choices about contraception, reduce teenage pregnancy and reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, it will introduce compulsory sex education. By doing so society is shaping itself, it is making decisions about how it will bring up the next generation. What nobler ambition is there for a civilised society than to shape itself in this way and how does giving birth to a child give individual parents the right to obstruct this?


Parents have every opportunity to shape the upbringing of their children within their sphere of influence- home and family life. However it is not for them to build walls around their children and isolate them from every other influence. It is also incumbent on the state to stand up and take responsibility for ensuring that the full range of children’s needs are catered for and to ensure children develop into flourishing adults who are ready to write their own life-stories. It is therefore time that we abandon the odd assumption that parents hold the monopoly of legitimate nurture.


(This blog originally appeared as a piece for the “Policy First” blog.)

Locke. J.,(1764)Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al)

Nozick,R., (1974) Anarchystate, and utopia, Basic Books, New York

Vaughn, Karen I., (1993), ‘Who Owns the ChildrenLibertarianism, Feminism, and Property.’ Reason Papers 18: 189-200

Berggren, H. and Trägåardh, L., Social Trust and Radical Individualism, The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism, in ed. Eklund, K., (2011), The Nordic Way, Global Utmaning, Stockholm

Rawls, J., (1971),A Theory of Justice,Harvard University Press, 1971