Who's in Charge Of the Family?

NOT so long ago, ``Father Knows Best'' served not only as the title of a popular TV show but also as a guiding principle of family life. Fathers and mothers were judged to be the people usually most capable of deciding what was best for their children.

In recent years that assumption has weakened as schools, courts, hospitals, and law-enforcement agencies have exerted increasing power over the family. Cases involving such issues as contraception, birth, adoption, and education have forced parents to cede control to outside authorities. The troubling new approach seems to be: The State Knows Best.

What would Robert Young say?

Now, in one of the first reversals of that trend, an appellate court in New York has reaffirmed the right of parents to make decisions regarding their children's behavior. Last week the court ruled that New York City's public high schools cannot give condoms to minors against the wishes of parents. The decision overturned a two-year-old program offering condoms on demand to teenage students.

The court ruled that the policy violates the constitutional rights of parents. It also held that the program violates state laws requiring parental consent for health services for minor children. Many cities with similar school-based condom-distribution plans allow parents to opt out of programs.

Supporters are hailing the New York decision as a victory for parents' rights. They believe it is the first major appellate court ruling involving condoms in schools.

A second parental-rights success story comes from Chicago. Last month authorities in Cook County, Ill., ordered a pregnant woman to undergo a Caesarean section because her doctor feared a natural delivery would endanger her baby. The woman refused, citing her fundamentalist religious faith and personal reasons. The Illinois Appellate Court refused to order the surgery, and the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Last week the woman delivered an apparently healthy son without any surgical intervention.

``In the best interest of the child'' is a noble concept that can protect some vulnerable children by removing them from abusive or negligent parents. Yet it can also lead to levels of legal intervention unimaginable a decade or two ago - involvement that sometimes puts parents in a double bind. At the same time that laws and policies attempt to limit parental authority in certain situations, other policies hold parents ever more accountable and responsible for their children's actions in other circumstances.

Last year state authorities in New Jersey threatened to arrest parents of teenagers who stole cars. In Wisconsin, welfare officials have punished parents for their children's truancy by reducing welfare payments. And in Florida, a gun law holds parents and other adults criminally responsible for leaving a loaded gun in the house. If a child is accidentally shot, an adult gun owner can be fined $5,000 or imprisoned for up to five years.

As child-rearing becomes more complex, and as working parents find themselves with less time to spend with children, some may welcome help from outside authorities. Gone in many families is the predictable youthful obedience to parents that was a staple of family sitcoms in the 1950s. Getting children and teenagers to return home at a reasonable hour, for instance, can be easier when local authorities, not parents, are the ones imposing the curfew. Later this month Miami expects to become the latest city to institute a curfew, joining Atlanta, Milwaukee, Newark, N.J., Hartford, Conn., and Phoenix.

Yet as the long arm of the law reaches more frequently into the nursery and the family room, a question arises: Who's in charge of the family? The answer cannot be delivered in rigid either-or terms. Rearing children has always been a cooperative enterprise, traditionally involving such mentors as schoolteachers and ministers. The state is merely the latest player in what has always been a partnership undertaking.

As with any form of democracy, power has to be negotiated as a matter of checks and balances, not excluding an input from the children themselves as they grow up. As long as the state contributes practical assistance rather than legislating morality, welcome to the team. But as more and more authorities continue to impinge on childhood, parents need to remind themselves (and everybody else) who has the first joy and the final responsibility of caring for their children.

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