Do the right and the responsibility to educate children belong primarily to parents, or to the state? And who should win when parents and the state disagree over educational content, methods, and goals?

Disputes about parental rights are ultimately disputes about authority. Either childrearing authority fundamentally resides in the political community (which partially delegates that authority to parents), or parental authority is natural and pre-political, based on the nature of the parent-child relationship.

If childrearing authority ultimately lies in the hands of the state, then the state’s preferences about how to educate children should usually win when there is a conflict with the parents’ preferences. But if parents’ authority over their own children is natural and pre-political, then the family is effectively a little sovereign community within the larger political community. Like any sovereign community, it has the right to direct its internal affairs free from coercive external interference, except in cases of abuse and neglect.

The Case for Parental Authority

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Any principled defense of parental authority must first consider the moral relevance of the parent-child biological bond, and of biological ties more generally. Human beings are bodily persons. Our bodies are not just external instruments of a conscious, thinking, willing, feeling “I” or self—they are intrinsic and essential to personal identity. When you vandalize my car, you harm my property, but when you break my arm, you harm me. This view of the person implies that a biological relationship is, in and of itself, a personal relationship.

Personal relationships—relationships in which the persons involved play a unique and unrepeatable role, as opposed to interactions with others in which they are merely fulfilling a function that anyone else with the relevant competences could fulfill—have moral relevance because they shape our lives and identities in deep and lasting ways. They are relationships in which one person comes to depend uniquely on another, and are for that reason the basis of special, personal obligations.

The parent-child biological relationship is a personal relationship in precisely this sense. By acting as the biological cause of their child’s existence, and by providing the genetic and biological basis for their child’s personal identity, parents establish a personal relationship with their child. This relationship gives them the special responsibility to, in a sense, finish what they started when they brought a new human person into the world. For it is important to remember that human gestation is not completed at nine months: although physical gestation is over at birth, after birth a prolonged period of psychological, moral, and intellectual growth must take place before a mature human being is formed.

The personal relationship that parents establish with their child beginning at conception gives them the special, personal obligation to provide for their child’s developmental needs at all levels until that child can take charge of providing for those needs on his own. It also makes them uniquely competent to carry out this task. Children gain important insights about their own identity through their interactions with their biological family, and, perhaps most importantly, benefit profoundly from experiencing the secure and unconditional love of those who brought them into being.

Crucial to the claim that parents have primary and pre-political authority over their children is that parents’ responsibility for their children’s upbringing is personal, and therefore non-transferable. Having a child is in this sense analogous to inviting someone for a romantic dinner—both create obligations that can be fulfilled by you and you alone. Of course, there may be valid excuses for canceling the dinner plan, just as there can be valid excuses—serious, child-centered reasons—for not raising one’s own child. In such cases, the most responsible and loving thing for parents to do is seek out a stable adoptive family to raise the child, but even the most loving adoptive family can never replace the biological parents, with whom the child retains a permanent, personal bond.

It’s important to note that although adoptive parenthood lacks the biological aspect, adoptive parents are genuine parents, and the ultimate root of their parental authority is also pre-political in the sense that it derives from the parent-child relationship and not from the state. Adoptive parents form deep psychological bonds with their children and profoundly shape their identity, giving “birth” to them psychologically, morally, socially, and intellectually. Furthermore, while adoptive parents are licensed by state agencies that act as intermediaries until a child has been successfully placed in a good home, the adoptive parents’ rights (and responsibilities) to direct the education and upbringing of their children do not have their roots in that contractual agreement with the state. Rather, they flow from the deep personal relationship that they establish with the child, a relationship that makes their adopted son or daughter uniquely dependent on them to meet his or her developmental needs.

Thus, the first claim in an argument for the natural, pre-political authority of parents over their children is, in brief, that parents, by virtue of their personal relationship to their children, have personal, and therefore non-transferable special obligations to raise those children. For biological parents this relationship, and the accompanying special obligation to the child, begins at conception, while for adoptive parents the relationship begins with their voluntary assumption of parental duties, but then quickly becomes a genuinely personal relationship in which it is the relationship itself that is the source of parental obligations and the right to fulfill them.

Second, parental rights (and authority) are the flip side of parental obligations. To be able to fulfill their serious personal parental responsibilities, parents need space within which they can make decisions about how best to raise their children. The rights of parents to fulfill their obligations in accordance with the dictates of their consciences can be understood as a kind of sphere of sovereignty within which parents have the authority to make controversial child-care decisions free from coercive state interference. That sphere of sovereignty is most extensive and impermeable in matters related to religious and moral education, because these are the aspects of child-rearing that are most important for parents to carry out personally.

Third, allowing parents to exercise broad discretionary authority in the education of their children is also by and large in the best interests of children. Each child is unique, and parents are the ones most likely to know and care about what will be best for a particular child. Further, it can be confusing and detrimental to the moral and psychological development of children to learn conflicting values at home and at school. Thus, it is important for children’s healthy development that parents be able to exempt their children from aspects of the curriculum to which they have moral objections. They should also to be able to choose schools that are in sync with the values they are teaching their children at home.

Sometimes, of course, even conscientious parents do a bad job with the education of their children, but except in cases of genuine (non-ideologically defined) abuse or neglect, the state should refrain from interfering coercively against the conscientious objections of parents. The state lacks the authority to do this, and a pattern of over-zealous state intrusion into family life undermines the social conditions necessary for the formation of the intimate and trusting parent-child relationships that are so important for the well-being of children.

The Role of the State in Educating Children

In addition to the parents’ primary role, the state does have a role in education. This is because political authority, like all authority, exists to promote the common good, which includes the individual well-being of the community’s members. In the political community, the common good also involves the education of future citizens. However, the state’s role and authority to foster the well-being of children is a subsidiary one, meaning that it is secondary to the role of the parents, and serves the function of helping parents in their educational task, not usurping or undermining the parents’ educational efforts.

The state rightfully enacts educational regulations to ensure that all children receive a basic education that will enable them to become productive and law-abiding members of society who know their civic rights and duties. The state also rightfully prevents parents from educating their children in a way that could pose a threat to the public order—if parents incite their children to violent behavior, for example. Beyond this, the state can promote certain values it considers particularly important, or foster the pursuit of higher education through non-coercive means. Coercion, however, should be restricted as much as possible in order to avoid the usurpation of parental authority.

It is helpful to think of the relationship between the state and the family as analogous to the relationship between the community of nations and each sovereign state. Within the community of nations, each state has a right to direct its own affairs. Thus, a norm of non-interference binds other states. For matters that are properly within the competence of the state’s own authority, there are limited exceptions to the norm of non-interference, such as serious human-rights abuses.

Likewise, every political community is composed of numerous families, natural communities with their own natural authority structure in the service of the well-being of the family’s members, especially the children. In the areas that form part of the proper competence of the family—the primary one being the raising of children—the state has a general obligation to assist, but to do so in a way that respects rather than usurps or contradicts the authority of parents. Coercive intervention is justified only in cases parallel to the international intervention cases, as in cases of abuse and neglect.

Determining what counts as abuse or neglect may be difficult at the margins, but the burden of proof for justifying intervention lies with the would-be intervenor. In unclear cases, the parents should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Policy Implications of Parental Rights

The argument for parental rights has crucial policy implications of enormous relevance to contemporary debates. Sexual education, for instance, is a deeply intimate aspect of a child’s education that, precisely for that reason, falls squarely within parents’ rightful sphere of sovereignty. To the extent that the state considers it necessary to offer such education in the public schools, parents should be consulted about its content, and be given generous opt-out rights.

More generally, accommodations should be made even in cases where reasonable educational regulations would prevent parents from raising their children as they believe they are obligated to do. Think of the Amish, who for religious reasons end their children’s formal academic education at age fourteen, or the plaintiffs in Mozert v. Hawkins, who wanted to exempt their children from a diversity-oriented reading curriculum that conflicted with their religious beliefs. Such accommodations should be made unless they seriously undermine a genuinely compelling state interest.

Parents should not be forced, for financial reasons, to send their children to schools in which the values taught conflict with those they want to pass on to their children. An effective voucher or scholarship program of some sort is therefore also a requirement of parental rights.

Much more would need to be said to provide a full account of the principles argued for briefly above, and all of their policy implications. Nonetheless, the above overview of a philosophical argument for parental rights can help to clarify the respective scope and limits of the educational authority of parents and the state, and to serve as the basis for a robust defense of parents’ rights to educate their children in accordance with their own values, even—or especially—when those values clash with prevailing ideologies.