A planned Utopian society, free from the ‘sin’ of individuality. Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a plan for a centralized communitarian world government. A sinister result where ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’. A dismal prognosis for the future. In sharp contrast to our multicultural world, personal identity is erased. In the name of equality and stability, freedom – in its truest sense – is sacrificed on the altar of homogeneity. Citizens are stripped of their personal responsibility.
In 21st century Europe, we are privileged. We claim to belong to a society which celebrates ‘uniqueness’. And yet, what makes us all unique doesn’t “just happen”. It is the inevitable outworking of our history, background and familial influences. Parents, in particular, play a significant role in child development. Parenting styles combine with other influences to inculcate cultural and social perceptions in every child. Human individuality starts at home.
Parents know their children best and have their best interests at heart. And so it is good for children that they are raised by their parents. At a societal level, the differing experiences and childhoods we all have contributed to the tapestry of humanity. That reality is enshrined in the legal concept of parental rights. A notion entirely lost on the Brave New World’s dystopia, but explicitly guaranteed in all major human rights treaties.
Parental rights are grounded in the idea that parents have the principal responsibility to raise their children. And these fundamental rights are expressed through decisions as to the upbringing of a child. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 18 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The list goes on. International human rights law unambiguously requires that the state is to respect the rights and duties of the parents. And so, parents are entitled to ensure that their children are taught in conformity with their own convictions. Be those religious or philosophical.
Troublingly, a new concept is rapidly creeping in through the back door. That of the government taking it upon itself to protect the child from the ‘power of parents’. Yes, sometimes there is a need to intervene, in horrific situations where children are at risk of serious abuse. Yet, the boundary of the family home has been violated too often not to notice a dangerous encroachment into the rights of parents. Families are facing a new and bewildering shift of guardianship: from children being born to parents, to children being born to governments. Hiding under the language of child protection, the state seems to be surreptitiously establishing itself as the ultimate bearer of rights and, in many cases, effectively relieving parents of their beloved children.
Claims that Norway’s child care service is excessively interventionist in the way it handles child protection cases have mired the ‘Barnevernet’ for years. Especially so in relation to foreign parents. Although the European Court of Human Rights has now accepted a number of cases against Norway giving these families their ‘day in court’ – the trauma inflicted will probably live on with the families for years to come. In 2011, the Barnevernet cited cultural practices as evidence that a couple was unfit to look after their children, and the children were taken away. The parents’ crime? To feed the children with their hands, and to sleep in the same bed as them. It so happened that the family was Indian and these practices are much more common in India. In 2015, the young Bodnarius’ couple had their five children taken away – the youngest a 3-month-old baby. Without any warning. The Bodnarius’ experience prompted legitimate fears that Christian parents could be targeted for ‘indoctrinating’ their children. Examples proliferate.
And it is not only Norway facing criticism on this front. Germany too. Homeschooling has been forbidden in Germany since 1918. Apart from Germany and Sweden, virtually all EU countries facilitate homeschooling. The Wunderlich family are a living testimony of the high price of homeschooling in German. In 2013, their four children were seized from them by a group of more than 30 police officers. The custody order – requested by the “welfare authorities” without notice to the parents – was sought on the grounds that the children were home educated. The authorities argued that this parental choice endangered the children’s welfare. Except, after the authorities had finished subjecting the children to a barrage of academic and psychological assessments, they had to accept that the children were developing appropriately.
What’s strikingly worrying is that the confiscation of children is no longer seen as an emergency measure of last-resort. Despite the clear language of international law protecting the parents, states are busy conveying a dangerous message. A message whereby they would be better suited to choose what is beneficial for the child. The dismal prognosis of the Brave New World seems to be catching up with us. But we’ve been warned. Not even the most well-intentioned nanny state can replace the family. It is the foundational building unit of society. And of individuality.