Who Determines the Best Interest of the Child?

This guest post is by So Heon Park, Regent Law 2L and current Family Law student:

"Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them." - Proverbs 13:24

     Parents who love their children discipline them, and parents who do not discipline their children hate their children, at least according to Proverbs 13:24.  As I learned in Family Law class this fall, parents have the constitutionally protected fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children. Simultaneously, it is also a parent’s duty to care for the best interests of their children. (See e.g. Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary where the Supreme Court determined that parents (rather than the state) direct the education of their children). It is generally understood that parents have the right and the duty to discipline their children for the best interest of those children. Who decides, however, the right way to discipline a child? Barring abusive conduct, do parents have total liberty to decide how to discipline their own children or should parents be told how to discipline their own children by the government or other authorities?

     Some cultures in East Asian countries allow spanking as a form of child discipline. When parents come from those East Asian countries to the United States and try to discipline their children following their own culture, one can often find a conflict between parents’ culture and children’s culture, particularly for those who were born and raised in the United States. Children are often confused or they resist that parental discipline because spanking is not always a part of American child discipline. Those second generation children of East Asian immigrants often find it difficult to understand their parents’ culture - a misunderstanding that can often create a gap between parents and children. In the United States, nonetheless, children are under their parents’ protection until they reach the age of majority, and parents have a duty and right to discipline their own children.

     As I was studying child abuse statutes in Family Law this fall, I learned that parents are subject to investigation when people who have reason to suspect that a child is abused or neglected make a child abuse report. Moreover, many individuals around children have an obligation to report possible child abuse and are considered mandatory reporters. What if some parents believe that spanking their children is not abusing the children, but rather an effective way of disciplining their own children for the best interest of those children? Should they be told that they cannot spank their children because they should follow the culture of the United States? I am not suggesting that parents should not have any limitations on disciplining their children – indeed, violence is never acceptable child discipline. On the other hand, parents’ rights or duties to direct the upbringing of their children can be violated when parents think that spanking their children is the best way to discipline but find themselves subject to a child abuse investigation because they followed their own culture and beliefs.

     Good parents want to do their best to perform their duty in the best interest of their children. A parent's way of disciplining his or her children should be respected unless parents hurt their children in an unreasonable way. A good parent will always make decisions in the best interest of their children.

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