Kids need limits but so do Canada's judges
There are few things that can teach a child more than an appropriate punishment. Yet a recent court ruling put parents' power to punish in jeopardy.
In June, a Canadian judge shocked the nation with a ruling that denied a father the right to punish his daughter. In Gatineau, Que., Superior Court Justice Suzanne Tessier overruled a father's decision to ground his 12-year-old daughter and prevent her from attending a three-day school trip.
According to the divorced father, who had legal custody of his daughter and could not be named to protect her identity, the young girl chatted on Internet sites he had attempted to block and continued to do so at a friend's house after he cut off her Internet access at home. The father's lawyer said she then posted "inappropriate pictures" of herself online. It's safe to assume most adults would deem his decision to ground the girl a wise and fair choice after she deliberately broke his rules. But rather than accept her punishment, the girl fled to live with her mom and sued her dad for the right to go on the trip.
It's shocking this case even made it to court. It's even more appalling that Tessier overruled the father's punishment to side with the 12 year old. The justice ruled that denying the trip was "unduly severe punishment."
Society expects parents to rear their children with firm limits yet a judge was willing to scrap those boundaries. But the problem isn't simply the work of one lenient judge forcing her views on a guardian. As divorce remains common and some parents undermine one another's authority, judges are forced to weigh in on our private lives. Such lawsuits blur the line between the legal and private domains.
The Canadian justice system has stepped up to determine the changing definition of what constitutes child abuse, when a parent should lose access to a child and which parent should receive custody after a divorce. As judges are repeatedly asked to step in and decide where a child should live and with whom, perhaps that power has enticed a few to micro-manage families by making smaller daily decisions as well. But for a judge to limit a parent's ability to punish a child in a way that is not physically, mentally or otherwise abusive is a grave error.
When a child steals, cheats or otherwise breaks social norms, there are no shortage of adults ready to lash out at that youth's parents. It's easy to point the finger and say the mom and dad of a juvenile delinquent didn't provide the penalties necessary to help their child grow into a socially conscious, law-abiding citizen. When the power to punish is removed, how can a parent ensure this happens?
While this case at first seemed a rare example, a judgment made public last week followed the same line of thought and reversed a parent's right to name their child. A New Zealand judge renamed a nine-year-old girl to spare her the hardship of being referred to as "Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii."
Few would disagree with his argument such a name was guaranteed to get any child ridiculed at school. "The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child's parents have shown in choosing this name," he wrote in his decision. "It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily."
New Zealand law does prevent names that would "cause offence to a reasonable person" to be registered, so the ruling may not be readily duplicated in Canada. But an underlying message unites the two rulings. The right to name or discipline a child, two privileges parents once took for granted, have somehow fallen into the legal realm. In both cases, the set of parents involved were divorced, leaving grey areas of custody arrangements to contend with in the ruling.
But the shift of power from parent to court can't continue. In a perfect world, parents would be graced with naturally well-behaved children who do only good, respectful things to others, beginning at birth. In the real world, raising a child involves calming temper tantrums, lecturing about right and wrong and enforcing punishments to teach a child actions have consequences.
Parents should consider a child's feelings when they give them a name but they can't be forced to follow whatever parameters a judge has declared are in good taste. And they certainly can't raise a child to follow rules if there is no penalty that can't be reversed in court after a child breaks them.
Kids need limits and, in some cases, so do judges.
3 August 2008