It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Interview Question, Fifth and Final: Parenting License?

5. Some people say that people should have to obtain a License To Parent before they are allowed to bring a child into the world. The implication is, some kind accreditation is necessary to do the job right. You’ve worked with lots of untrained mommies and daddies. Are children at risk or otherwise held back by parental ignorance?

“Are children at risk or held back by parental ignorance?” If the ignorance is profound, yes. Most of us, however, trained or untrained, know to feed our children when they’re hungry, hug them often, and not to lock them in closets and hit them with sticks.

Are they at risk or held back if the ignorance is just garden-variety inexperience? No.

The idea of licensing parents is not new, of course, and there’s something to be said for the idea that we have to have a license to drive a car or own a pet, but not for something as life-altering as raising a child.

However, there is a right and a wrong way to drive a car. The rules for driving safely are clear and readily taught. A test can determine with reasonable accuracy whether or not a person is safe on the roads.

Pet licensing is more a public health/administrative issue than anything else – pets are licensed so they can be returned to their owners should they get lost, so there’s a mechanism to monitor that they’re all getting their legally-mandated innoculations, that sort of thing. We have birth certificates and innoculation records for our children which accomplish the same things.

My question has always been: who would dole out the parenting licenses? Who would determine the curriculum? What would make it onto the curriculum?

These things are so culturally-based. Moreover, they shift over the years. Parenting is just as influenced by trends and fads as anything else, and, fads as we all know, are mostly ephemeral dross. Pretty and appealing at the moment, perhaps, but with little lasting value.

Here’s only one of many, many examples: We believe that it’s vital that children be bathed in language, that communication be facilitated as soon as possible, that parents ease a child into language learning by interaction, simplified speech, repetition, and talk, talk, talk. Did you know that not all cultures believe this? That some cultures speak to their children as they would to adults? That at least one doesn’t speak directly to them at all until the child begins to speak? (In this latter culture, mind you, the children are always with adults or other children, so they hear language constantly. They are just not spoken to very much. Language is not cut up into bite-sized chunks for them.) And yet in all these cultures, the children learn to speak, speak well and fluently?

See my point? We believe you must speak to your children to encourage language acquisition; we believe this is a total and complete given. But it’s not. There is astonishingly little that can be unequivocably identified as “good” or “bad”, or “strong and effective” or “weak and handicapping”. It’s just not so clear-cut.

Who, then, would have the right and the authority to say “You may have a child and you may not.”? On the basis of what skill set and knowledge? Would physical health be a factor? Could a handicapped person be refused a license? Or a person whose family history makes them more likely to die before the task of raising the child was finished?

What would you do about accidental pregnancies to unlicensed parents – scoop the kid at birth to give to a more “qualified” parent?

Although it’s undeniably good to be prepared for parenting, I believe a license is at best of questionable value, and at worse, actively detrimental to parents and families. How does one prepare for parenting, then? Hang out with kids. Babysit. Volunteer at a daycare or a day camp. Just get yourself a little face-time with some children.

And you’ll do just fine. Even without a license.

October 29, 2007 - Posted by | memes and quizzes, parenting


  1. “who would dole out the parenting licenses? Who would determine the curriculum? What would make it onto the curriculum?”

    This has been my argument against censorship of any kind for years. Many people odn’t agree with me, but I don’t think I have the “right” to enforce my ideas on them.

    Comment by ktjrdn | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  2. Exactly, exactly. There are people who think if you are not providing all kinds lessons, “educational” toys, organic food, etc., you are doing a terrible job. Look at how adamant people can be about smething like breast-feeding or crying it out versus cosleeping versus something in the middle, which are each just one small part of parenting a baby. And babyhood, in turn, is just the beginning…

    Comment by kittenpie | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  3. Okay (rubbing hands together), this is a subject I feel I can weigh in on with some real experience.

    I had my first child at 16, with no parental or spousal support. The only thing the hospital staff made sure of before I left the hospital with my newborn son was that I had a CSA approved car seat. That’s it.

    At the time this was, of course, perfectly fine with me.

    Hey, I was 16 and had been on my own for nine months (do the math) and was sure that I had enough life experience to raise this child.

    19 years later I look back and cringe. The life experience I had was mostly negative, how I ended up pregnant and on my own at 16 in the first place.

    What if there had been some sort of “license to parent”?

    What if I had been required to undergo a test?

    Surely I would have failed.

    But what if failing said test meant not that your child be taken from you, but instead that you were provided with parenting classes and resources to improve your skills?

    Beyond driving though, we are required to get licenses to even marry. A commitment made between two consenting adults has to be acknowledged by either a man of the cloth or a justice of the peace.

    Yet teenagers are able to walk out of hospitals with newborn babies and no support as long as they have safety standard approved car seats.

    I’m just saying.

    Sorry for the length of the comment.

    Comment by Sheri | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  4. This subject always makes me think of how they used to operate on people with mental disabilities in order to make sure they couldn’t have children.

    If we think that the forced sterility of hundreds of people was bad, gross understatement, how far away is that from requiring that people are competent before giving birth.

    How many of us knew what we needed to know before we started parenting? How many of us even knew enough to know what we didn’t know before this journey started? How many of us found that it wasn’t until we had children to parent that we really started to become grown-ups ourselves? Who would we be if that was taken from us based on who we were before we had children?

    I like Sheri’s idea of providing support and instruction though. The hospital that my sister gave birth at had baby care classes that were voluntary that you could take before you went home. I don’t know if that is standard or not. That’s also one of the reasons they have public health nurses come and visit and provide new parents with places to go to find more information.

    Comment by carrien | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  5. Who will decide?
    Many years working in child welfare have shown me how wrong things can go.
    But also that after intervention, the state often doesn’t do a great job itself in caring for children. They often would have rather not said anything, had they known what the effect would be.
    And who would want the government to decide who is good enough?
    So Yes, I opt for giving parents the tools to be great parents over any license.
    And really, it would not just mean a license to have babies, but to have sex, too. Because however we think about it, the two are related.
    And who would deny a young woman the right to be a mother, even with a lousy date for a father, the right to give a new life a chance?
    Nope, it won’t work.
    Doesn’t work even in China with the one child rule.

    So, lets put our effort in providing education, affordable, accessible and practical training to young, new and older parents.
    So their children can have the best parents they can have:
    their own parents with the tools to be great parents!
    Wouter van der Hall

    Comment by Wouter van der Hall | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  6. When there are standardized kids, and agreement on what constitutes a successful rise to adulthood, we can begin working on training standardized parents. Until then, exhaustion and genius live side by side for the first 18 years or so. And poverty may plague you all of your days thereafter.

    My sons turned out fine, despite the fact that I was a single, custodial, Dad who started out with two boys in diapers.

    But it beats me how they turned out so much better than I did. I just hope they can show their kids their tactics for success in life because Grandpa sure hasn’t any to pass along.

    Comment by billwp | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  7. ktdrjn: Except in actions that constitute abuse — and letting a baby CIO is not abuse, nor is not breast-feeding it, nor is just about any of the multitude of things we get riled up about — no one can say that this or that should be prohibited.

    Kittenpie: When you have a baby, it takes over your world, and it’s easy to lose perspective. What seems right and necessary to you IS what is right and necessary, period. Except that, as you point out, each of these is only one tiny fragment of the whole, and babyhood is only one tiny piece of a person’s life. You can’t regiment it.

    Sheri: And THIS is a situation I hadn’t even considered as I’d written. How middle-class of me… I’m rather embarrassed!

    I wonder: though you know you could have been a more skilled parent to your son, do you think he was “put at risk and held back” by your inexperience? Or, now that he’s an adult, is he more the result of his gene pool and his own decisions?

    My feeling is that, unless the parenting is severely askew, most children can and will grow into functioning adults. We can second-guess ourselves into madness: what if I’d done this or not done that? But, at the end of the day, the child (now an adult) who decides who they are and what they’ll be.

    I LOVED your idea of giving parenting assistance/support to those who obviously need it. A single 16-year-old on her own would cry out for it, you’d think, and it’s rather shocking to think that you received none. (Were you not receiving some sort of Family Benefits? And if so, didn’t you have a social worker assigned to you? This is just bizarre to me — but obviously, it happened!)

    But I digress. What I envision, as a result of your very valid point, is not licensing, but one-to-one support and mentoring. I suspect you’d agree. Frankly, it would be far better if this mentoring and support were accomplished naturally, within the family, but I know this doesn’t always occur, (and some families, like yours was, are so dysfunctional that any “help” they might offer is damaging) so we must fall back on the need for “programs”. Such programs do exist, but we need more!

    Carrien: Who would we be if that was taken from us based on who we were before we had children? This is a profoundly compelling thought to me. Our children “grow us up”. I was ready, on one level, to be a parent when I started, but I was nowhere near as confident and capable as I would be now, starting over. (But if I were starting over, I wouldn’t have that competance, now, would I?)

    You know what? I’d totally forgotten the visits from the public health nurse until you reminded me. I loved them, I loved her. So reassuring.

    WvdH: Education, as you rightly point out, is not the same as licensing. I would express a caution, even for that, however. Parenting education needs to encompass several schools of parenting philosophies and approaches. When only one approach/set of strategies/philosophy is presented, inexperienced parents tend to believe it’s the only right one. And that just ain’t so.

    Billwp: I’m so glad you came by, because now we have balance in perspectives: the married parents, the parent educator, the single mom, and now the single dad.

    You’ve expressed something that was intrinsic to my post, but which I hadn’t quite become conscious of: the idea of standardization. And I agree 100% with what you say: When there are standardized kids, and agreement on what constitutes a successful rise to adulthood, we can begin working on training standardized parents.

    You’re absolutely right. We don’t even agree on “what constitutes a successful adulthood”. If we can’t agree on the end product, how can we ever think we can devise a satisfactory screening system to eliminate undesired results? Fascinating point. Thank you so much for adding it to the discussion.

    Comment by MaryP | October 30, 2007 | Reply

  8. There is such a thing as a license to parent in Canada. It’s called a homestudy and it only applies to people who adopt their children. It’s invasive and obnoxious and throughout the whole process, it is assumed that somehow people who apply to adopt are incapable of making good parenting choices. The single 16-year-old who gives birth is allowed to walk out of the hospital with a newborn baby and a carseat. The 35-year-old couple who have been trying for years to have a child are required to provide police checks, medical tests, proof of learning about parenting and adoption, financial statements, and no less than SEVEN references. Are we bitter? Yup, just a little.

    And yeah, we all know that it’s in the best interest of the child. But it would also be in the best interests of every child if all parents were required to go through the same thing. We let bio-parents get away without this rigamarole – why not let adoptive parents get away with just a bit less?

    Comment by Dragon | October 30, 2007 | Reply

  9. Dragon: Oh, my. Of course, that’s exactly what it is. As you say, you know why it exists: since someone is physically, legally handing over a human life to someone, they have to — for all sorts of reasons: legal, moral, ethical, for fear of litigation — do what they can to ensure that the child isn’t being put in a dangerous position.

    But if for one set of parents, why not for all? And if not for all, why not ease up on the one set?

    Now that’s a fascinating conundrum. (Well. Fascinating for me, who’s never suffered through it. I’m sure the words you use for it would be far less dispassionate!)

    Comment by MaryP | October 30, 2007 | Reply

  10. “But if for one set of parents, why not for all? And if not for all, why not ease up on the one set?”

    It is there for all in the UK, but only if the state gets involved in the first place. So adoptive parents, foster carers, and child minders all have to go through various hoops to look after children. So do biological parents where Social Services have reasons to be concerned – the parenting assessmnets we do on our clients are varied, in graet depth, include numerous professions and cost a fortune!

    “compulsory” Education/attendance at parenting classes to get a licence would be more effective and cheaper! Ante-natal classes are currently optional, and vary from a couple of weeks physiological explanations to brain-washing certainity! If the content was specified (like a national curriculum) it would be better and fairer.

    many “failing” parents are doing what they think is best for their kids. We had a client trying ever so hard to feed her baby well – she gave him pasta, vegetables and milk. Unfortunately she did this from birth! She was devastated to find out she had not been helping him grow and thrive!

    Equally, even in the “middle classes” I have seen lack of knowledge causing dangerous situations. I remember my mother going to visit a neighbour who told her how wonderful the 7 day old girl baby was (she had twins). the boy was very noisy and wriggly, but the girl; just slept like a dream. She had been asleep for nearly 10 hours. My mother immediately called the ambulance and the baby was taken to hospital with severe dehydration & jaundice. She was brain damaged. Her mother thought that she would wake when she was hungry, and left her to sleep.

    a Parenting licence should not be about deciding who does and who does not have children. It should be about equiping the people who are having children to parent them effectively. And I am totally in favour of that.

    Comment by Juggling mother | October 31, 2007 | Reply

  11. To clarify – Yes, because I was on my own with a newborn I did recieve Family Benefits and was visited regularly by both a social worker and a nurse. However, that lasted all of three months.

    For the following six months, before I was accepted into a school for teen single mothers, I had to rely on whatever support I could get.

    And as you accurately put it “…some families, like yours was, are so dysfunctional that any “help” they might offer is damaging”.

    You offer a very interesting question in that, “…do you think he was “put at risk and held back” by your inexperience? Or, now that he’s an adult, is he more the result of his gene pool and his own decisions?”

    I take that to mean, “Is he any worse for the wear” from being raised (for the first four years) by a single teenager?

    The truth is, I have no idea. But I do know that he goes to work everyday, he takes care of his responsibilities around the house and he has a girlfriend whom he respects and treats like a princess.

    Was he held back by my inexperience? If you had asked me that when he was twelve I might have said yes. But actually, now that he’s 19, I think it’s to the contrary. I think he’s learned from it.

    Or rather that he’s learned from my efforts to overcome it.

    And though Dragon may not take much comfort from this, I do truly sympathize with the frustrating efforts that adoptive parents have to go through.

    I agree that if the reasoning behind the rules were truly in the best interest of the child then they would apply more evenly across the board.

    Thanks Mary for the great topic.

    Comment by Sheri | October 31, 2007 | Reply

  12. The whole principle of giving the right to parent by licencing them is all just part of a “Eugenics program”.. What gives any one the right to dictate who can have children or not… If you think you are free then why should you be licenced, after all you get married in the eye of God but still require a licence from the goverment to say the marriage is valid…Hmmm sounds like slave ownership but now to suggest you need a parenting licence is ludicrious to the extreme… After all if you have a child and CPS takes your child from you the child is more likly to be exposed to pedophiles in the goverment run hostels rather than the security of there own family (you can check the figures yourself with simple research on google)…There is no perfect parent so to say you reach a required standard to recieve a licence is just elitism and does not allow the child to be a child just becuase the parent will dictate goverment sanctioned demands.. We are all unique and all very different and to say I raise my children better than you do because….”….”(fill in the blank) is complete tosh. We all do our best as nobody want to do harm to there children and with the current econimic climate many parent would wish they could cancel Christmas… Bahhhh Humbug.. I digress a little…
    My Point is that NOBODY has the right to say good parent bad parent… All have the right to give it a go as it is what we are on this Earth for… So NONE of this eugenics retoric and Chinese one child policy… Family is a God Given Right not a goverment mandated program…

    Comment by VeryConcerned | July 28, 2008 | Reply

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