Parents and Children as Legal Adversaries

By Greg Baer M.D.

November 28, 2008

On thousands of occasions now I have listened to parents describe to me the difficulties they have experienced with their children, and often they have expressed their frustrations at how hopelessly complicated their struggles have become. Parenting often seems to become a contest of wills between the parent and child, mediated by an increasingly complex set of rules that eventually becomes entirely unworkable.

Recently I came across an article in USA Today — June 13, 2007, p. 11A — written by Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, which nicely illustrates the futility of this power struggle. Mr. Turley writes:

“All children are born with an innate sense of the law . . . You can actually track your kids’ development by the legal arguments they make. Take it from me, the best way to prepare for parenting is to take a law course at your community college.”

I understand Mr. Turley to be writing this with his tongue planted against his cheek to a certain extent, but what follows proves that his advice is mostly quite serious. He continues:

“Takings. The Constitution prohibits the taking of property without compensation by the government. Within their first two years, all children embrace this principle with a vengeance. Parents learn they must compensate for any item removed: a toy for the car keys; a cracker for the 12-inch butcher knife.”

The author actually advocates that parents participate in this practice of exchange with children. When parents fall into this practice, however, they teach their children that good behavior must be purchased and that everything in life is a trade. This is an unspeakably dangerous principle for a child to learn, and it virtually guarantees that children will turn into adults who are selfishly motivated in everything, thinking only of themselves. They learn to insist on some kind of trading in everything else and become miserable partners in marriage, in business, in their communities, and in other relationships. This parenting approach also ignores teaching the child that his or her original taking of the car keys or the knife — to use the example in the preceding paragraph — was simply wrong in the first place. Now, back to the lawyer:

“Contracts. By 3, negotiating with kids is like working with little teamsters on a labor contract. Bring a sandwich truck to the site; it becomes part of the contract. Likewise, once a parent buys a scone at Starbucks or allows cartoons in the morning, it is part of an unwritten but enforceable contract. This develops into a form of collective bargaining with the addition of another sibling: any benefit to one is instantly an expected benefit to the other. Break the contract and you’ll face work stoppages, unending protests and even sabotage that ranges from spilled milk to items in the trash can.”

The author suggests that parents become lawyers rather than real parents and that children become both litigants and their own attorneys. Imagine giving up your childhood by age three to take a job as a lawyer to represent yourself in contract negotiations? And yet that’s exactly what most children do. Mr. Turley:

“Due process. By 6, kids will insist on full due process in adjudicating their claims. Major penalties such as loss of Game Boys require something close to a full trial with two days of arraignment, jury selection and sequestration — and inexhaustible appeals.”

What a painful and utterly fatiguing way to live, both for children and adults. But I see this enacted in families everywhere I go. The attorney-author concludes:

“The final years of adolescence are filled with conflicts over search-and-seizure rules, and the monitoring of electronic communications without probable cause. Of course, by the time your child reaches the late teenage years, you have become the Alberto Gonzales of parents: continual surveillance, spontaneous searches, detention without appeal.”

Keep in mind that Mr. Turley is describing his own experience with adolescents, and it’s little wonder that he would have such experiences if he approaches parenting from the perspective of a lawyer. But children don’t need to be raised by a lawyer. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with having a parent who happens to be a lawyer, but children will not benefit from the environment of a lawyer’s office or a courtroom. What they need is to be loved unconditionally and to be taught what is right and wrong. On many occasions, loving them even involves telling them no. Children benefit enormously from that loving act.

When a child feels unconditionally loved, and when a child understands what is right and wrong, that child doesn’t need to be bribed to return what doesn’t belong to him. He doesn’t need to be forced by a contract to do the right thing, nor does he resort to work stoppages when occasional injustices arise. Children who feel loved don’t engage in endless conflicts with their parents, nor do their parents require — in the words of the article — “continual surveillance, spontaneous searches, or detention without appeal.”

Laws and contracts have never created happy people, in the same way that treaties have never created lasting peace between nations. Only love can accomplish these goals. It works the same with children. It’s our job as parents to learn to become loving ourselves first, so we can in a loving way teach our children how to become responsible and loving, the qualities that will ensure their happiness. That’s what we all really want as parents: happy children, not successful lawyers.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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