Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 12, 2011

Big Father: The Government as Parent

By David K. Shipler

When President Obama endorsed the decision to overrule good science and put Plan B contraceptives beyond the reach of girls without doctors’ prescriptions, he cited his role “as the father of two daughters.” It was a revealing remark, because this was not the first time that government had played an immoderate part in family life—not quite Orwell’s Big Brother, but something of a Big Father, taking over a task that rightly belongs to parents to choose how to raise and guide and converse with their child.

It is conservatives, the supposed champions of limited government, who most often want government to act like Big Father. In Tecumseh, Oklahoma, parents got the public high school to do random drug testing after a mother discovered her son and friends using drugs in her house. She and other parents couldn’t cope with their own children. In Stockton, Missouri, a father enlisted a conservative pastor to get the public high school to remove a popular and powerful book, about an American Indian facing racism and poverty, because of a brief passage extolling masturbation. Some parents, unable to talk with their kids about sex, are relieved to shift the burden to the school, or to see the topic erased altogether from available readings.

Unlike most government institutions, schools do serve in loco parentis, so certain parental functions will invariably be performed by principals, teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors. What’s significant about the drug testing and book restrictions, though, is the degree to which some families have forfeited their responsibilities and have mobilized government to impose their priorities on other parents.

This confuses governing and parenting. It’s fine to bar kids from buying cigarettes and alcohol, but many will still smoke and drink unless they get good parenting. Legal restrictions are no substitute for honest discussions at home, conversations all the more urgent in a world saturated with the temptations of violence, promiscuity, and drugs. With all this swirling around children, raising them well is hard, and caring parents are often at a loss. But it’s a good bet that parents who maintain open lines of communication and can trust their children to be truthful and responsible will see better results than those who rely on government to search, censor, and over regulate. Impeding children’s access to a safe means of preventing pregnancy after sex, for example, will prevent neither pregnancy nor sex.

Drug testing and book banning also let parents off the hook. The high school in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, began taking random urine samples in response to desperate parents. Lindsay Earls, a student who challenged the testing as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, summed up their message to the school board this way: “Our kids are out of control. You fix this for us.”

So school authorities obliged by deciding inexplicably that all students in extracurricular activities involving travel be subjected to suspicionless testing. They would be called out of class periodically to give urine samples, a humiliation that sparked inaccurate assumptions that they were selected because they were using. Earls did not do drugs, but when her case went to the Supreme Court, the conservative justices mustered a five-to-four majority upholding the school. The liberals on the Court, who are stereotyped as favoring big government, opposed allowing government to get so big as to invade students’ privacy without suspicion.

And this is the pattern. The book that was removed from readings in Stockton, Missouri, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a moving account of a bright, impoverished boy leaving the reservation to enroll in an all-white school, where he is initially vilified, ultimately forms friendships, copes with death in his family, and seems eventually to be finding his way in the larger world. His fleeting, half-page praise of masturbation (“EVERYBODY does it. And EVERYBODY likes it.”) offended a few fundamentalist believers, enough for the school board to deny all students the right to read and discuss it in class.

With that edict—and others like it elsewhere involving books containing profanity, sexual episodes, or sympathetic characters who are gay—local government disempowers other parents who might want to make their own decisions. Many schools allow parents and students to replace controversial readings with alternatives. But where the book is simply removed, the choice is lost.

The Plan B decision was based on similar efforts to placate a conservative minority. The White House is reported to have been trying since 2009 to get the Food and Drug Administration to deny over-the-counter sale to minors, although the hormonal drug in question merely delays ovulation and has been judged medically safe for all ages. Unlike the morning-after pill RU-486, it does not induce abortion, but if taken soon after sex is designed to prevent fertilization of the egg in the first place, as are spermicide and IUDs. Most kids don’t have the resources to get quickly to a doctor for a prescription.

Obama is more conservative than either his supporters or detractors admit. Overriding the FDA not only subjects science to politics, it turns rightist morality into the force of law and takes a liberty from girls under 17—at least those who cannot find an older friend, sibling, or parent willing to make the purchase illicitly. Big Father is watching.


  1. Interesting piece, David. It occurs to me that however conservative the parent me by, or however helpless (or useless) a parent might be in the face of dangerous teenage behavior, I think you'd have to agree that the actions are motivated by concern for the child, and perhaps legitimate concerns. In their conservative or helpless point of view, they are using what they see as the only tools they have to save that child.

    While it may seem nutty to pointy headed liberals like me that the suggestion of the approval of masturbation is dangerous, if you truly believe that this kind of behavior will condemn your child to the everlasting fires of hell, then perhaps (to them) it is not nutty at all.

    Is there a way to balance the rights to sincere beliefs that we don't happen to believe in or agree with, and rights to privacy that we (liberals) do happen to believe in?

  2. Of course parents usually act out of concern for the child, and parents are free to monitor and manage what their own kids read, insisting if they wish that schools offer alternatives. But I don't think that parents have a right to manage what all other kids in a school read, which is what many religious conservatives want to do. Some have also tried to get books moved from young adult sections of public libraries, rendering them less accessible to all teenagers in a town or a county. Balancing the rights to sincere beliefs and the rights to privacy is accomplished, I think, by allowing individuals to make their own decisions, so long as they're not endangering themselves or others.
    I'd add that those who see such government action as "the only tools they have to save that child" are abdicating their responsibility as parents. They are also unrealistic. Do they really think that a boy who doesn't read about masturbation won't do it? Gimme a break.

  3. I'm not completely sure why the Administration made the decision it did on Plan B. It's kind of "wispy" as to what the real reasons were - so far as I could see. What was cited had to do with medical information - or lack of same. Nevertheless, you raise very important points with regard to this issue and censorship in general. Extremely important issue.
    Thank you, Dave.

  4. Isn't the conservatives' reaction here the same one they seem to have in most other social issue areas -- I don't like it and therefore nobody else should have it. Abortion, family planning, gay rights, universal health care, global warming/evolution/energy facts of life, you name it, as well as certain parts of certain books, music, artworks -- the rightists demand parental control not just over what their own children see or learn or have, but also over the entire world's access to those things. Of such attitudes are religious wars born. Keep speaking out, David...