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Five Things You Might Not Know about Parental Rights: An Interview with Mike Farris

December 14–18, 2015   |   Vol. 125, Week 8

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘parental rights’ and thought, “But what about the children? Don’t they have rights, too?” Tune in to Homeschool Heartbeat, as guest host Joel Grewe and HSLDA chairman Mike Farris discuss five things about parental rights that you won’t want to miss.

“There’s nothing wrong with requiring literacy and self–sufficiency. What’s wrong is requiring this particular path to achieve literacy and self–sufficiency.”—Mike Farris

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Have you ever wondered what the term ‘parental rights’ really means? Then stay tuned to Homeschool Heartbeat, as guest host Joel Grewe and HSLDA chairman Mike Farris discuss five things about parental rights that you won’t want to miss.

Joel Grewe: Hi there! I’m Joel Grewe, the director of HSLDA’s Generation Joshua, and I’ll be your guest host this week. With me in the studio is HSLDA’s Chairman Mike Farris. Mike, welcome to the show!

Mike Farris: Hi Joel!

Joel: Mike, here at HSLDA we talk a lot about parental rights and why they’re so important. But there are parts of that topic that sometimes go unspoken. One of those parts is parental responsibility—the idea that parents have a duty to treat their children right. Can you tell us about that?

Mike: Sure, Joel. In international law, there’s the idea of positive rights and negative rights. America doesn’t recognize that. Positive rights are what the government has to do for you; negative rights are what the government can’t do to you.

In the United States, we don’t recognize that. We believe that positive rights, what must be done for children—parents are supposed to do those things. Parents are supposed to make sure their children have food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and all the other attributes of life that are necessary for children. There is a duty—a legal duty—on the part of parents to furnish those things for their children. If they fail to do those things—fail to live up to their duties—there are legal consequences for that. There are gradations of consequences that ultimately can result in criminal charges if you seriously fail to do your duty.

But our system is built on a system of duties owed by the parent to their child to love, clothe, feed. Now, the government can’t sue you about the loving part. But they can enforce the feeding, clothing, sheltering, and taking good care of your child. And that’s the way it should be in the abstract.

A free society will punish people if they don’t live up to their duties, but they won’t regulate them on the front end—make parents get licenses and so on, to be approved by the government before you have the duty to feed, clothe, shelter, educate your child.

Joel: I don’t really want to have to get a permit from the government to have a family. But, you know, that is a great reminder that, as parents, we are given authority with the expectation that we will use it well. Or, to put it another way, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Mike, when we talk about parental rights, some of our listeners think, “Well, what about the children? Don’t they have rights too?” So tell us about the relationship between parental rights and children’s rights. Are they antithetical to each other?

Mike: To get oriented in a correct answer to this question, we have to know what rights are. The term “rights” describe the relationship between a government and a citizen or an individual. In a family situation, you have duties, you have responsibilities. And rights, in a legally enforceable sense, are really not the correct orientation. There’s duties that can be breached, and there’s legal consequences for the breach of duties, but a duties-and-responsibility system is much different than a rights-responsibility. The reason that the children’s rights movement wants to use the term “children’s rights” and move away from the responsibility of parents is because then it moves the child away from the orientation of the family into the zone of government regulation.

So vis-a-vis the government, children—yeah, they do have rights. If they get arrested for shoplifting, they have the right to a fair trial. They have all kinds of rights: they have the right to a parent that the government can’t take from them.

The problem that we see is that the children’s rights movement isn’t interested in protecting children from the overreach of government—that’s where rights would come in. Instead, the children’s rights movement wants to move into the zone, and invade the legitimate sphere, of the family. So it’s the rights of the parents and the children together to stand free from the government until such time as there’s a breach of those duties. And then the parents can be held responsible for failing to live up to what God and the law expect them to do.

Joel: Mike, we believe that the right of parents to direct their children’s education is a fundamental right. But even fundamental rights are not absolute—they have a limit somewhere. Can you explain what the limits of parental rights are?

Mike: The current prevailing test, although it’s a little bit in dispute, is called the compelling interest test. And I’ll just say it in more plain language than the normal legalese. Parents have the right to direct and make decisions for their children until they violate some policy that the government has created that’s really, really important—so-called compelling interest test—and there’s no other way to accomplish the government’s objective other than invading the parents’ decision-making authority. That’s called the least restrictive means test.

And so if, for example, a parent is a member of some occult religion that believe in child sexual sacrifice or something, does the government have a really, really important reason for stopping that kind of behavior? The answer is yes. Absolutely yes. And so the parents don’t have a right to such activity.

Parents don’t have a right to make decisions for their child that would deny their child the basics of life—food, clothing, shelter, basic medical care, education. So if a parent wants to make educational decisions for their child, that’s within their rights. A parent who wants to deny education to their child—that’s not within their rights.

Joel: Alright, and then—when those decisions are made, the least restrictive means for the government coming in is that they have to minimize the amount of disruption they create there, is that the idea?

Mike: Well, is there another way to accomplish the government’s objective? That’s another way of saying it.

And so, for example, it used to be that you had to be a certified teacher to be able to homeschool your kids. And that kept 99 percent of the families out of the homeschooling world. And we found that, you know what, if the goal of the state was to make sure that children were literate and self-sufficient, there’s a lot of other ways that you can make sure of that without requiring the parent to be a certified teacher. So you’ve got to find those alternative ways—there’s nothing wrong with requiring literacy and self-sufficiency. What’s wrong is requiring this particular path to achieve literacy and self-sufficiency. And so if there’s another path to achieve the child’s safety, if there’s another path to achieve the child’s well-being, and food, clothing, medicine, then the government has to allow the parent to choose that other path that accomplishes the objective.

Joel: Sounds like parental rights are rooted in a culture of freedom—the idea of choices being a good thing.

Mike, some of our listeners might be surprised to learn that the phrase “parental rights” never appears in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. If the concept of parental rights is so important, why didn’t our Founders mention it?

Mike: Well, they understood that the purpose of government was to protect life, liberty, and property, and to punish those who do evil. If you have a very limited purpose of government—they couldn’t imagine a government with a federal social services policy. They couldn’t imagine a federal government with any kinds of the policies that, day-to-day, interfere with parental rights. And so it just simply didn’t occur to them that they were creating this kind of monster, and so they didn’t put it into the Constitution.

But the Ninth Amendment implicitly mentions the issue that we’re talking about. They wrote down, “Just because we wrote down other rights, doesn’t mean we’re not preserving our other recognized rights in the law.” And if you will go to the common law rights that were recognized in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, there is utterly no doubt that the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children was overwhelmingly recognized as a basic right of life, a right of parents to do. And the government could not legitimately interfere with that.

So the Founders—everything in the Constitution was in response to something that they experienced. They had not experienced a government that was so draconian, and they couldn’t imagine that we were creating a government so aggressive as to get between a parent and his child.

Joel: Mike, tell us about the purpose of parental rights. When parents use their rights rightly and wisely, what are they aiming for? What’s the end goal?

Mike: Really, Joel, another way to phrase it [is], “What’s the purpose of parenting?” Because the right of parents is just the right to be able to make good parenting choices. And so what I have tried to do in my own life, and what I’ve encouraged other families to do, is we like to think of developing spiritual fruit in our children, and, you know, reproducing ourselves.

But the goal is not really to have good children. The goal is not to have good grown children or good adults. The goal is to have good parents. And so, if we want to use the spiritual fruit analogy, we’re not interested in baskets of apples; we’re interested in orchards. And so I think that raising children who will be responsible parents, and who will be really good in raising their own children—that’s the ultimate goal.

And good parenting, parenting done well—your kids will embrace the way you’ve raised them, and they will carry it on the next generation. If you’re too harsh, or you’re strange, or you do things that are really contrary to the loving best that you can do for your kids, your kids are going to reject that. And what they do with their own kids will not resemble anything that you did with them.

So my advice is: parent well, and then you’ll see your grandchildren being raised in a way that raises them truly in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord.

Joel: Mike, it’s so important to have a clear understanding of what parental rights are and why they exist. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us this week, and thanks for letting me host your show! Until next time, I’m Joel Grewe.

Joel GreweJoel Grewe

Joel started his life as an advocate when he was in 6th grade and convinced his mother to homeschool him. In 2007, after working on Capitol Hill for Congressman J.C. Watts and then delving into the world of demographic research, Joel started training future leaders at Generation Joshua. He now serves as the director of Generation Joshua. A graduate of his hometown college, Eastern Washington University, he travels around the United States training students to change the political world for Christ. When Joel speaks, he draws on over 15 years of ministry and 10 years of political experience to make the message relevant to a generation that he says “will change the world.”

Living in the Washington, D.C. area, Joel, his wife Christie, and their children enjoy life in the fast lane.

Mike FarrisMike Farris

Michael Farris is Chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association and a professor at Patrick Henry College. He was the founding president of each organization. At PHC, Farris teaches constitutional law, public international law, and coaches PHC’s Moot Court team which has won eight national championships.

Farris is a constitutional appellate litigator who has served as lead counsel in the United States Supreme Court, eight federal circuit courts, and the appellate courts of 13 states. He has been a leader on Capitol Hill for over 30 years and is widely known for his leadership on homeschooling, religious freedom, and the preservation of American sovereignty.

A prolific author, Farris has been recognized with a number of awards including the Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship by the Heritage Foundation and as one of the “Top 100 Faces in Education for the 20th Century” by Education Week magazine.

Mike and Vickie Farris have 10 children and 18 grandchildren.

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