Warren Foster
Warren Foster

Probing parenthood

A decision by the Cape High Court has sent concerned parents into a huff as they question the competence of courts and fear the infringement of their own rights to raise their children as they see fit. While newspapers “umm” and “aah” their way around the wording (bouncing between “divorce”, “pseudo-emancipation” or “separation”), the short of it is that a Cape teenager (16 years of age) applied for emancipation from her parents and has been granted “semi-independence”, meaning she will stay in the care of a host family while the parents are still under obligation to take financial care of their child. Her parents are allowed to meet with her for a few hours daily at a neutral location and may call her twice a week.

The decision has been met with strong detraction from parents (as far as I’ve managed to glean from various internet message boards). Some argue the girl’s parents should not be forced to pay for their child’s “semi-independence”, even going so far as hoping the girl suffer and learn a lesson out in the cold cruel world, while others argue the court has infringed on basic rights that should be afforded parents.

It’s hard to say if the court’s decision is fair based on the meagre facts presented. Apparently the girl was stripped of her cellphone (and one can assume access to the home’s landline), to read books of her choosing (really? shouldn’t we be grateful they’re reading at all, even if it is Stephanie Meyer?), to have a boyfriend or socialise without their supervision.

When a message from a boy was found on her phone (which means the parents actually rifled through her phone), her father struck her. In his own words, he had reached his “tether”. To me, that’s enough to support the court’s ruling.

On the contention that the courts should not have a say on such matters, detractors should first consider that there are two rights in question, those of the parents and those of the child. A line does need to be drawn between these rights and the courts are the only available authority in drawing that line. That much should be self-evident. Children cannot decide it and parents may not either. So right there let’s end the probing on whether or not the courts have jurisdiction on this matter.

On the contention that the girl should be left to fend for herself, unfortunately parents have a legal duty to care for their children for as long as they live or their means allow. Indeed, I’m told there have been rulings imposed on parents to care for children who are well into their thirties.

Courts rulings have always, always and, I cannot stress this enough, always, been bound to the best interests of the child. Here the court felt that what was best for the child was to be granted a relative independence from her overbearing and arguably abusive parents. Abuse can take forms other than the physical and sexual variety and here people opposed to the decision may have some leeway for debate. Does this treatment constitute abuse? I’ve seen far worse, certainly. I know girls (not surprisingly, it’s always the girls who are most heavily restricted) who have pretty much been imprisoned. Girls who’ve had the restrictions above along with other controls such as strict bedtimes, zero socialising, no CD players or computers … and yes, they were hit for breaking the rules of the house. Really the question is: at which point is the control of a parent considered abusive?

Surely there is no absolute either way. Various platitudes will tell you that the role of a parent is a tough line to traipse: you hold a butterfly too tight and it dies, too gently and it flies off; the tighter you squeeze water the faster it slips from your hands, etc, etc. What controls, if any, should a parent be allowed to impose? And the relative age of the child is also critical here. Maybe a 12-year-old is too young for a cellphone, but a 16-year-old? Maybe. Maybe not. This may be the first time a court has taken on the house rules as dictated by parents (bear in mind that until you’ve read the documentation yourself, it’s impossible to say for sure what the court’s motivation is, litigation is extremely complicated … and ridiculously verbose).

To me, the notion that a 16-year-old may not date, socialise out of her parent’s line of sight or read books of her choosing is borderline barbaric and certainly abusive. But you’re entitled to your opinion. I think we’ve come a long way from that antiquated “seen-not-heard” brand of parenting. The adolescent years are when a child really starts to venture out into the world and begins considering their options for the future as individuals. It goes without saying that it’s a trying time and I feel that the most important thing a parent can do is act as a guide, someone the child does feel they can approach (when they so choose) and trust.

Lastly, I applaud the youngster on taking this brave decision. She did not run away in a fit of anger or other upset, she took a considered and rational decision. While many in her shoes have resorted to running away, marrying young, drug abuse and even suicide to escape the situation, she approached the courts to decide on the fairness of her situation.

Parents are concerned that Pandora’s Box has been opened and that children will all soon be seeking such freedom (so that they can binge drink and have filthy filthy sex) — I don’t see it this way. What I see is perhaps an awakening to what constitutes responsible parenting and measures to curb the abuse of parental rights.