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When government becomes parent

Published in Blog on December 05, 2017 by Rita Peters

Some well-meaning parents have formed “Parents Against Underage Smartphones,” an advocacy group asking state legislators to legally prohibit the sale of smartphones to children under the age of 13. While I applaud the group’s motivating principles, I cringe at yet another hope misplaced in government bureaucracy.

PAUS describes itself as a “nonprofit organization of parents committed to ending the insane practice of giving children smartphones by promoting legislation at the state level.” I give these parents major points on two fronts.

First, kudos to them for recognizing that kids who spend more time posting, texting and tweeting on a screen than engaging with those around them become adults who lack basic interpersonal skills – not to mention the finer art of conducting an interesting, intelligent conversation. These parents acknowledge the inherent dangers of handing an adolescent a pocket-sized ticket to on-demand images, videos and discussions that play upon the basest human instincts.

Second, I applaud PAUS for choosing the right government to lobby with their idea. Policy advocates nowadays tend to turn toward Washington, eager to see our power-hungry federal government mete out policy for all Americans. This tendency is fundamentally at odds with the actual design of the United States as a federal system, in which the national government possess few, specific, limited powers (which don’t include smartphone mandates of any sort), and all other powers are reserved to the states and the people.

So far, so good, for PAUS. But here’s my concern. Seeking to keep kids off smartphones by prohibiting smartphone sales to minors is like seeking to limit kids’ sugar intake by prohibiting candy sales to minors. It may appear to be a shortcut to a desired result, but it comes with a long-term cost that is too high for us to pay. To wit, such policies promote the pernicious idea that government can effectively step into the role only parents can actually fill in the life of a child.

Of course, this concern reaches much, much, more broadly than the specific issue of smartphone usage by kids, and it is one I fear our society is shrugging off, to our collective detriment.

Consider the push to enroll children in government-run “preschool” programs at younger and younger ages. Or the trend of busing kids to government schools at earlier and earlier hours, so that a government institution can serve up their breakfast.

There is nothing particularly wrong about formal preschool programs or about children taking the breakfast meal outside the home, and in some cases, these programs do much good. The problem is the cumulative effect of too many of these programs and policies: a new status quo, in which government institutions and their massive, institutional programs replace the beautifully mundane experiences that cement the relationship between children and their irreplaceable parents. The toddler’s trips to the grocery store and the bank with mom or dad. The lighthearted discussions over breakfast cereal. The difficult conversations like the one in which a parent explains the dangers of technology to his pre-teen.

Human needs require human caring. The most significant human needs – to be known, understood, nourished in body, mind and spirit, and trained to love what is good and to hate what is evil – are needs that, ultimately, only parents can properly fill.

Some will say, “Sure, that’s great for kids with good parents, but what about kids whose parents don’t care?” Absentee or negligent parents are a fundamental problem for any society, and not one that is easily or quickly resolved. While there are some functions state and local governments must provide as a safety net for children, we must limit them to their proper scope, ever wary of their potential to actually exacerbate the very parenting vacuum they are intended to fill.

Opportunities for parents to abdicate their parental authority and responsibilities to government will always be an attractive temptation, because parenting is hard, time-consuming work with no tangible pay. So if we really want to help children, we must foster ever-stronger families and resist the allure of government policies that, though well-intentioned, effectively encourage parental abdication.

In the book “Repairing the Ruins,” Tom Garfield reminds us that Jesus commanded us to render to Caesar that which is Caeasar’s, and to God that which is God’s; and that while currency bears the image of our modern-day “Caesar,” every single child bears the image of God. We must resist every inducement to surrender to government institutions our sacred role in nurturing, training and caring for our children.

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