I was very struck yesterday by a comment which somebody posted here:
'Because parents only want what is best for their child, there is never any reason to doubt their motives or doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being.'
This is a fascinating thesis and I wonder how widespread this strange idea is generally among home educators? Let's look a little more closely at this and see what we can make of it.
I am very much inclined to agree with the first part of the statement, that parents only want what is best for their child. I don't know though to what extent , if any, this statement leads logically on to the idea that there can never be any reason to doubt parents judgement concerning their child's well-being. The idea is presumably that because parents want what is best for their children, they will as a matter of course provide it for them. This is a peculiar notion indeed. Using examples from parents whom I have both known and heard of, I want to explore this a little.
Perhaps I should begin with my own child. I certainly wanted what was best for her and to that end raised her as a vegetarian and didn't buy her sweets. This seemed quite sensible to me, but some other parents thought that it was both cruel and neglectful. Cruel, because children like sweets and I did not given them to my daughter and neglectful because many people believe that growing children require meat in order to become healthy and strong. I think that they were mistaken, but already my own idea of what was good for my child had caused others to view me askance. Now I want to think about friends of mine who were strict vegans. Their child really was a bit pale and unhealthy and I have a suspicion that the family diet had something to do with it. I confess I felt a little uneasy at times and believed that his parents were not really feeding him properly.
Now I want to mention a home educating family who we got to know through Education Otherwise. This family never ate any hot food; it was opposed to the mother's principles. The consequence was that her eight year old daughter had never had a hot meal. I honestly found this awful. The child was so shy that I never actually met her. She would always hide upstairs when visitors came and only call over the bannister to her mother.
Next up are some macrobiotic acquaintances, whose diet was very restricted and who periodically ate nothing but brown rice. Their child was kept to the same diet and it showed. She was always going down with coughs and colds and I am sure that she suffered from a vitamin deficiency. All the parents we have seen so far have certainly had their children's welfare at heart and only want what is best for them. In America there have been cases of macrobiotic parents whose children have become seriously ill because of their parents' crank diet. The parents, I am sure, loved their children and wanted what was best for them, but they were mistaken. I am afraid we do have reason to, 'doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being' They were actually following a course of action which harmed their child.
Still on food, we come to a mother who thought that her children were eating too much junk food. She decided that it would be much healthier for her children to eat raw vegetables and a little porridge. She also worried that her children were eating too much and being greedy, so she would serve the food up in one bowl and all the children would have to take small portions from the same bowl. Because they were hungry, some of the kids took more than their fair share, while others got little and ended up losing weight. This mother too wanted what was best for her children, although perhaps she had a strange way of going about things. Her ideas were no different in principle from my vegetarianism or the friends who were macrobiotic fanatics. Her name was Angela Gordon and of course her daughter Khyra ultimately died as a result of the diet which her mother had imposed.
Sometimes, although parents are trying to do what they think is best for their children, their actions will actually be harmful. This is true of diet and it can be equally true of education. We cannot really judge simply by motives and intentions; it is very rare for a parent to set out to harm a child. In the case of somebody like Angela Gordon, we have to ask ourselves to what extent others should have respected her rights as a parent. When she specifically instructed the staff at her children's school that they were not to be allowed second helpings, should the staff have gone along with this? Would it have been right for the state to intervene? Should her 'rights' as a parent have been respected? Would it have been right for the state to make sure that my own daughter was allowed to eat meat? What if I had been giving her nothing but brown rice, would that have been sufficient for the state to take a hand?
The fact that a parent is genuinely trying to do her best for her child does not necessarily mean that her judgement is sound. Some parents hit their children, which I would never have done. Are they wrong? Should the state intervene? There are no clear cut and black and white answers to these questions. I thought that keeping my child out of school and in my company more than in the company of children her own age was a good idea. Others did not. The fact is that there are certainly cases when the state should interfere, but it is horribly difficult to say when this should be. Deciding this is a purely personal matter. However, my purely personal decision might very well be a wrong and ill judged one. This is why we need a little objective and impartial oversight from time to time of our actions as parents.