Sounds Great, Won't Work

I AM ALL FOR PARENTING. WITH THREE CHILDREN (AGES 6, 9 and 11), homework, soccer games and car pools are the most important parts of my life. But my commitment to parenting stops well short of enthusiasm for the ""parental rights'' amendment now proposed for the Colorado state constitution. The amendment's architects regard it as a trial run. If it's approved in November, parental rights would go national in a big way. A recent poll shows voters favoring the amendment 54 to 26 percent. Too bad. ""Parental rights'' is a swell slogan, but it would make lousy social policy.

We have long debated this question: how should parents and government split responsibility in child rearing? Not until 1918, for example, did all states have compulsory-school-attendance laws. That debate echoes our own. ""We used to think that the care of our children was entirely the affair of the home,'' said one reformer of the time. Compulsory-attendance laws, she said, were a triumph over this mind-set. But another child advocate wondered whether more schooling was better, because the family ""is the mother of all the affections, the first school and the best.''

It is because these issues are so personal that social change shouldn't be arbitrarily imposed. The Colorado amendment risks doing precisely that. It would add 16 words to the constitution's section that defines citizens' ""inalienable rights.'' The new words would be: ""... and of parents to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children.'' What does that mean? No one knows. Good law promotes clarity and certainty. By contrast, the amendment would create confusion and conflict--and then consign much of the conflict to our least democratic political institutions, the courts.

Jeffrey Bell, the amendment's main author, says that its highly generalized language was patterned after the ""Equal Rights Amendment'' of feminists. ""Because of the broadness of the language, it ensures that there will be further debate about what parental rights are,'' he says. And litigation. The ERA and the parental-rights amendment share the same defect. Both exploit seductive rhetoric (women's ""equality'' and parents' ""rights'') to plug a measure whose impact would flow only from specific acts--undisclosed and impossible to anticipate--of legislatures, courts and agencies. Both invite unintended consequences.

Of course, the Colorado amendment--if adopted--might prove a sham. The new language is so vague that no state bureaucrat or school official might alter any current policy. The amendment's supporters would then rightly feel incensed that they had been misled. But it's equally likely that, armed with their new ""inalienable right,'' parents of all political persuasions might object to various policies of schools (curriculum, counseling, discipline), libraries or social agencies. Many objections might be mutually exclusive. If complaints weren't settled, the aggrieved could flock to courts.

I don't dispute the sincerity of Bell and other advocates, though (as with most of these proposals) they come with political baggage. Most of the amendment's active supporters are Republicans; Bell was a top aide to Jack Kemp in his 1988 presidential campaign. The advocates' main fear is that government--run by ""elites''--is substituting its views of children's welfare for parents'. Says the Colorado Coalition for Parental Responsibility:

""Educators have introduced sex education, distribution of condoms and propaganda for "alternate lifestyles' despite the objections of parents. The attack on parents' rights manifests itself in the reaction of social services in removing children from their homes without due process for such "offenses' as spanking a child... In the medical arena, there has been HIV testing of children [and] abortions...''

The extent of these practices--and opposition to them--isn't clear. Americans generally don't fault their school for ""low moral standards.'' In a 1993 poll, only 3 percent of respondents cited that as a problem, compared with 21 percent who deplored ""lack of financial support.'' Nor is government weakening families by somehow revoking parental rights. If anything, the process works in reverse: the weakening of families--through more divorces, out-of-wedlock births and two-earner couples--has pulled government into the breach.

Still, I don't regard complaints of government meddling as frivolous. Groups of all ideological flavors strive to advance their agendas through state power. Schools and social agencies are bureaucracies that can be silly, heavy-handed and arbitrary. The recent episode in which a 6-year-old was punished for ""sexual harassment'' after kissing a classmate is a reminder. These issues are often hard, because emotions run high, and right and wrong aren't obvious. As an opponent to schools' distribution of condoms in New York once said: ""There is no way in this city and these United States that someone is going to tell my son he can have a condom when I say he can't.''

The boundary between governmental and parental prerogative is an ongoing debate, because social conditions and popular attitudes constantly shift. But redrawing the boundaries ought to be a time-consuming process. Consider student spanking and paddling in schools. In 1970, most states (49) permitted them. Now only 23 do, and in 11 of these, local school boards have outlawed them for more than half of students. Public opinion has moved. In 1958, a poll found that 62 percent of respondents supported paddling and 35 percent didn't. By 1994, 56 percent disapproved and 38 percent approved. Does the change support or repudiate ""parental rights''? It depends how you feel about paddling.

The point is that the slogan does not illuminate most specific disputes. These need to be considered on their own merits or demerits. And debates should be channeled toward our most democratic arenas: state legislatures, city councils and local school boards. The thrashing out of differences is what democracy is all about. It can be ugly and vindictive. But it can also educate, expose areas of agreement and allow for the accommodation of minority views. Platitudes don't make good policy--or parenting.