Why it's none of your business

by Russ Roberts on May 20, 2008

in Family, Health, Nanny State

In an earlier post, I expressed dismay that when my 13 year-old son went in for his annual checkup, the doctor asked my son if he wanted his mother to leave the room so that the two of them could talk privately.

A number of the comments on that post took issue with my dismay, so I thought it might be worthwhile to make it clear as to why I found the doctor’s behavior so disturbing.

I understand that there are many topics that my son might not want to talk about in front of me. Sex. Drugs. What happened in school today. It’s probably a pretty long list. Some of the things on the list are important. Some less so. It is surely essential for children to talk to people other than their parents. It is essential for children to have privacy of various kinds.

But as a parent, I try to choose who my son gets advice from and who influences my son. Not completely, of course. His friends and teachers influence him all day without any oversight or input from me. So not surprisingly, many parents choose their kids’ school with some care. We can’t control our kids’ friends. But many parents try to steer their kids away from friends who we think might push our kids to do unhealthy things.

Thoughtful parents can disagree on when one’s role as parent ends, if ever. Some parents behave as if it never ends. They desire to control and influence their kids forever. They try to influence who their kids marry, what jobs they take, where they live, and so on. Most parents stop at some point. They let the bird leave the cage and fly around on its own. So in some sense, it’s only a question of where you draw the line.

I don’t draw the line at thirteen. My thirteen year-old has some autonomy in his life. But I control a lot of it. I don’t let him watch 24 or CSI or R-rated movies. I try and get him to do his homework. I have various ethical guidelines that I expect him to live up to with respect to his siblings and to his parents and to his friends.

You might think I’m wrong on some of these. You might applaud me. But I certainly don’t want you to have the right to influence my son without my permission, especially when I don’t know much about you. And I assume you don’t want me to influence your children without your permission, or without knowing much about me.

If my son is in crisis, I might want him to talk one-on-one with someone other than my wife or me–to a doctor, a rabbi, a family friend, a teacher, or a classmate. But who should make that choice? My son? Me? A stranger?

But I don’t want my doctor talking to my kid about sex or drugs, just to take the two most obvious examples. If I were uncomfortable talking to my kid about sex, I would encourage my wife or someone else to have a conversation with him. But his doctor? Sex isn’t just about anatomy and physiology, which are the doctor’s strong suits.

You might disagree. Fine. Encourage your son to talk to the doctor without you being in the room. But why does the doctor presume to have the right to talk to my son without my approval?

I assume the doctor presumes to talk to my son without my approval so that my son can get help with a problem (drug use, sexual curiousity, sexual experience, sexually-transmitted disease) that he’s uncomfortable discussing with a parent. It seems like a good idea. But my preference would be for the doctor to talk to me about it first. I have this quaint idea that my doctor works for me. Even my son’s doctor works for me. The doctor does not work for my son. My son’s doctor doesn’t work for you, either. You might be worried about my son. But the incentives aren’t there for the doctor to do a good job carrying out your mission.

Of course, I might be a bad parent. I might be encouraging my son to believe in God. And my son might be able to ask the doctor privately if God really exists. The doctor could explain to my son that the whole religion thing is a fairy tale. Or I could be encouraging my son to be an atheist. And my son could ask the doctor if there was something to this "God" thing that his friends in school talk about. And the doctor could explain to my son that religion and belief in God are a wonderful thing that he was missing out on.

Is either of those scenarios attractive? Would you want anyone proselytizing your son on any topic—religion, atheism, sexual practice, hygiene, fashion, diet—without your approval?

Let me make it clear. I can imagine lots of scenarios where I would want my children to have the opportunity to talk to people without me being there because my presence affects the outcome. But why would the doctor presume to have that conversation without my agreement?

If a doctor suspects that a parent beats his or her child, the issue gets murkier. But my guess is that many doctors ask all children if they want to talk privately. I think this reduces the power of families and expands the influence of the culture at-large on our children. This itself is part of a larger cultural trend to increase the autonomy of children and to push children toward adulthood at earlier and earlier ages. I think that’s a bad thing. You disagree? Fine. Raise your children as you see fit. Just don’t presume to raise mine for me.

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Emily May 20, 2008 at 2:55 pm

Good for you. Even if the doctor is trying to have the child's privacy in mind, I would not want my child having a conversation about certain topics with someone who may feel differently than my husband and I feel. For example, I would not want my son or daughter encouraged to have "safe sex." I realize the accepted thought of our culture today is that teens will have sex and we should find ways for them to experiment "safely," but my husband and I feel differently. We have a higher standard for our child's self-control.

Chris Meisenzahl May 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm

>> "I have this quaint idea that my doctor works for me. Even my son's doctor works for me."

Well-said. I agree on all points.

PaulD May 20, 2008 at 3:28 pm

My wife and I were fortunate to find a pediatrician who shares our basic values. I would not have a problem with him talking to my children in my absence about sensitive issues.

scott clark May 20, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Russ, is that how you see it? That there is a push to increase the autonomy of children and push them into adulthood sooner? It seems more like a push to seperate children from their folks but drive them into the arms of the state, not make them autonomous. Lots of decisions are not just taken away from teenagers, but are taken away from adults too. Even if 16 year olds are legally allowed to drop out of school, they still don't have the same work rights as adults, they can't enter binding contracts for the most part, they can't buy a pack of smokes, their ability to drink a beer in a bar is still 5 years away. If they were being pushed to be adults faster, I think they would be encouraged to actually be around more adults more often, rather than being kept with their peer age group for hours and hours everyday. Why then, if there is some societal push to make kids be adults faster, did the state just lock up that father because his over 18 year old daughter, whom the dad doesn't even live with, didn't finish her GED?
I think your larger point is correct, the Doctor works for you and your wife, and the Doc should have discussed the counseling style with you first, unless he/she had good reason to suspect you were abusing the kid somehow. Absent that, it should have been your call. I just don't think the rise of the nanny state is about granting autonomy to anyone, especially children. I think it has more to do with inculcating collective values and dependence on, and therefore obediance to, the state, which may often (I hope) run counter to parental values.

My wife and I are expecting our first child in December, so don't have first hand experience yet, but I fully expect to have to fill in the blanks of the daily school lessons, to show the child the seen and the unseen, in Bastiat's words, when my kid gets older.

Me May 20, 2008 at 3:44 pm

Well, first, what if a parent was sexually abusing a child? The idea is that this would give the child some avenue to discuss this travesty.

That being said, my son's pediatrician happened to lose his license to practice medicine because he was caught with child porn on his home computer.

I'll stick with me deciding to whom my son talks as well.

jmp May 20, 2008 at 4:06 pm

I have one example that might show a less intrusive possibility, though I share your basic tenet and do expect more can go wrong than right in this situation.

In a few states hospital nurses in maternity need to ask the soon to be mom if she feels she and the baby will be safe at home, either due to abusive husbands, boyfriends, step-fathers, fathers, or whatever.

It is clumsily done because the father is typically in the room, but to me it is a less troubling scenario than the one that you paint.

john May 20, 2008 at 4:09 pm

Good for you, Russ, and good for your son. What got to me about this incident was the example of the state using the medical profession which has become dependent on it to trespass on your rights as a parent–rights that have been recognized as natural for centuries. In another time, the doctor might be deserving of a bop on the nose for even making the suggestion. Instead, you felt the need to explain and defend your motives. What should we read into that?

Brad Hutchings May 20, 2008 at 4:11 pm

This kinda makes me long for the days when muirgeo used to comment — a little. Russ, this sounds like bad customer service. For whatever reason, the doctor has forgotten that your wife was the customer there.

In a lot of customer service situations, you just have to go with the flow sometimes. This is one of them. Raising an objection as a parent with your kid there makes you the bad guy, and perhaps that's the dynamic doctors who do this seek to create. Who knows? But it's a learning moment too. Switch doctors and specifically ask prospective doctors about this before making an appointment.

Your quip in the original post about teaching the doctor's kid economics is hilarious. As Scott Clark said, the doctor should have informed you of the process, and given you options to opt out without putting your kid in the middle. I'd bet if it were explained before hand, you wouldn't have had a problem with him asking your kid.

Sam Grove May 20, 2008 at 4:20 pm

You send your kids to school?

I hope it's not a gov't school.

KC May 20, 2008 at 4:25 pm

I have to say, I've followed you for a while, but this is one of the most mind-numbingly horrendously reasoned out pieces I've read from you. You are, to be blunt, being irrational. Further, especially for urological issues, the ability for young teens to feel free is of paramount importance. What if they /do/ have an urological issue? It's not something young boys feel comfortable asking their /mothers/ about, god knows. And that age is when urological issues begin to manifest. For slightly older age groups what if a teen has an STD? Yet again, it's more important to get that, and the previous example, treated, than to satisfy some entirely inane desire to stand there and hear everything right that moment.

This whole gobbly gook about 'the expanse of the power of society' is just utter non-sense.

Chris May 20, 2008 at 4:28 pm

So, I'm a lawyer. When I have a child as a client (My clients are generally corporate, so this is theoretical), I have an ethical duty to that child, not to his parents, even if those parents happen to be paying my bill. That means that if the child tells me something in confidence, I cannot tell it to the parents, with a few narrow exceptions. The idea is that the child won't come to me, or any lawyer, for help if he knows that we're going to repeat everything to his parent.

I suspect that doctors are in a similar position. What happens if the kid whispers to him, "Can you test me for herpes? I was doing something I don't want my mom to know about and now I have this cold sore…." If the doctor refused to keep that confidential, will the kid be willing to go to him the following year when it's syphilis?

Where's Muirgeo when you need him?

jorod May 20, 2008 at 4:35 pm

When I was 14, my doctor did the same thing. He asked my Dad to leave. Big deal. You know, some kids are inhibited with parents in the room. Just ask a police officer. A kid will never admit to wrong-doing in the presence of parents.

Cliff May 20, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Yes, this post is very puzzling. The doctor in fact does not work for you but for his patient- your son. Furthermore, this is not about "rights." If your wife didn't want your son to talk to the doctor alone she could say so and that would be that. But the doctor is in my opinion absolutely obligated to ask your son if he wants to speak with him alone, which is of course the doctor's "right".

Furthermore, I find your assertion that our culture is trying to push children towards adulthood at earlier and earlier ages incredulous. Throughout the vast history of our species adulthood came much earlier than it does now, when children are babied all the way up until college and beyond. Evidence shows this treatment affects the development of children's brains, causing children in societies such as our own, with little responsibility placed on teenagers, to be very irresponsible and vulnerable to influence.

A poster above makes a good point about the increasing number of laws limiting the behavior of those under 21. Even driver's licenses are getting pushed to older and older ages! I think adulthood is being pushed back into the thirties, when people are finally expected to being to take responsibility, maybe even get married, quite the opposite of your conclusion.

Helder May 20, 2008 at 4:59 pm

"Raise your children as you see fit. Just don't presume to raise mine for me."

Where do I sign?

I guess almost everyone who are against your position are not parents anyway. No doctor will be allowed to say that to my son without my permission ( he might get a punch in the face) although things are a little different here in Portugal, a little more traditionalist if I may say so.

My son is a 13 year old and he doesn't tell me everything. Nor do I expect him to.

jb May 20, 2008 at 5:05 pm

Just wanted to follow up – as I said in my comments in the previous post – I think the doctor should have gotten clearance from your wife, and established the ground rules with her first.

As far as the "client-attorney privilege" argument – it's an interesting argument, and not without merit, but up to a certain age, I don't think the child qualifies as an independent rational actor who can interact with a legal or medical professional autonomously.

Now, I'd probably say that 15-16 is the borderline there, but that's just me.

scott clark May 20, 2008 at 5:07 pm


The circumstances do matter, if your client is the child, why is that child your client? Did the court appoint you as the kid's attorney because of some child protective order, or did the parents hire you to defend that child in a juvenile criminal case? If the latter, you do need the kid to share with you everything that happened, even stuff that the kid would not want the parent to know. But the best strategy to get that information would be for you and the parent to sit down with the kid and explain that you needed all the information, that the parent would leave the room, and that nothing the kid would say would get back to the parent, if the kid did not wish it so, the kid would see that the parent is onboard with that plan, that hte parent was encouraging the kid to be as honest as possible with the attorney and it might just be easier for the kid to share the facts. Now, the parent may be smart enough to get some insight into what really went down by the way you prepare the defense or argue in court.
Same with the doctor, if the doc wants to encourage the kid to be a forthcoming about their health situation, the best way to get open dialouge I think would be for the doc and the parent to be on the same page, to have both tell the kid that if there is something they don't want to talk about in front of the parent, you can. A smart parent may be able to figure out what's going on though, what the kid might have said, by the method of treatment prescibed for the secret issue.

Cliff May 20, 2008 at 5:18 pm


I find this comment extraordinary: "up to a certain age, I don't think the child qualifies as an independent rational actor who can interact with a legal or medical professional autonomously." And that age you think is 15 or 16?? Common law essentially treats children above 7 as independent rational actors, which I think is about right. I don't see how anyone could seriously say that a 15 year old is not an independent rational actor.

Daniel May 20, 2008 at 5:23 pm

I normally enjoy reading this blog.It is usually fairly thoughtful and well written. This time, however, it was a complete waste of time. The column is boring, badly written and goes on and on talking about a trivial uninteresting topic in a very disorganized and badly articulated way. Not to mention that the author seems to be making a storm in a glass of water. Find something worth writing about or don't write at all.

Blutskralle May 20, 2008 at 5:31 pm

Complicated issue. There are arguments both ways. But I would ask this to Russ, or any others here:

What is the cost of allowing a doctor to do this?

What is the cost of NOT allowing a doctor to do this?

I see an argument here about not allowing a doctor to do this because they might influence your children, and I will grant that is a potentially valid argument. But if we ban or restrict this, as a result, what is the impact? Will we have more unreported STDs, drug use, child abuse, and the like?

I don't have a good answer, of course, but I find it concerning that both sides of the issue were not discussed. Economics is about trade-offs, no?

To the attorney client privilege issue, yes, that virtually all depends on context.

Bret May 20, 2008 at 5:36 pm

I believe that the doctor was performing a valuable service for all clients, especially since the parent can veto the doctor's request and has full access to his or her child's medical records":

"Parents have the same rights to see and amend their children's medical records as if they were the patients, according to the medical records privacy rule."

Since Russ's wife (and everyone else who doesn't want their child talking one-on-one with a member of the medical profession) could veto the doctor's request (or at least look at the medical records afterwards), for the rest of us who aren't paranoid that the doctor will engage in some deep philosophical conversation about god or communism or something, and that potentially serious medical issues aren't overlooked because of our children's embarrassment, the doctor spending a couple minutes alone with our child is a great service.

If children need medical help for something that they won't tell their parents about, is there a better solution? Or is it better that they suffer? I'm still missing what the down-side is?

grunyen May 20, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Let me put my cards on the table first: I agree with 99% of your position. I am explaining minor differences, not staking a different position.

Your son is not your car, and the doctor not a mechanic. Your assertion that you are the one paying means little or nothing. Should you be able to pay the doctor to do anything you say to your son? Of course not. And the doctor didn't hire you to tutor his child in any fashion. There isn't a reverse case of where to draw the line on a slope.

From an economic view, I suspect lots of doctors do this because they have found that it works. If not, they wouldn't be doing this. Surely Surowiecki would agree.

I think there's a lot more gray area to when your kid becomes autonomous. Your doctors #1 concern is the health of your son. If you being in the room impedes him from asking "What are these red bumps in my private area?" because he is embarassed, he might be dead or lose his testicles to cancer because of your moral outrage.

Why don't you calm down and actually have a conversation, when it's not appointment time, with the doctor. Perhaps it's worth a podcast. You could ask deep and extensive questions about how this came about and what the trade-offs (costs and benefits) have been for so many doctors. I'm sure you could suggest the doctor check with the parents long before the issue comes up, but wouldn't that preempt many of the reasons the doctor would want candid disclosure from your son? If you sexually abused him, surely you would check the box for "No".

Your anger is pretty evident, when you compare this to the ticket scalping podcast. Curiousity would probably better serve you and all your listeners, since you chose to dump it on our collective plate.

Dr. T May 20, 2008 at 6:50 pm

First, I'm surprised that you want annual physical examinations for your 13-year-old son. It's unnecessary unless he has a chronic illness.

Second, you are correct to be suspicious of a physician's motives for asking for a private conversation. Most pediatricians and family practice physicians are strongly paternalistic and believe that they know more about what's good and bad for kids than parents do. They ask kids about their parents' habits (booze, smoking, drugs), about guns in the home, about seat belt use, about sexuality and sex, about risky activities such as bungee jumping, etc. They believe (with strong support from their professional societies and the CDC) that physicians should do risk assessments and not just health assessments. They are Hillarys with MDs.

Dr. T May 20, 2008 at 7:07 pm

Previous commenters were concerned about the child's rights or the doctor's rights in these situations. Since I am a licensed physician, I have the knowledge to respond.

This child was getting a check-up. He was not getting urgent or emergent care. Therefore, the parent or guardian has the right to specify exactly what will or will not be done. If the physician believes the restrictions are too onerous, he can negotiate or decline to do the exam. The child has no right to the most comprehensive physical possible, the child has no right to privacy (from parents) during the exam, and the physician has no right to perform only fully comprehensive exams.

Having dealt with overly intrusive or compulsive pediatricians with my own kids, I agree with Dr. Boudreaux's concerns.

Joshua May 20, 2008 at 7:35 pm

"I can imagine lots of scenarios where I would want my children to have the opportunity to talk to people without me being there because my presence affects the outcome. But why would the doctor presume to have that conversation without my agreement?"

This seems to me a sensible way to look at it. Commenters have given a lot of good reasons why the doctor may want to talk to the child alone, and no doubt Roberts agrees with a lot of them. The point is that the doctor presumed to spring this on his wife unannounced. A better doctor might have pulled the wife aside, explained his rationale, given her a rough list of topics he was going to cover, asked her permission and, having gotten it, then asked for some guidelines on groundrules (i.e. how much of what the son says does he have to report back, etc.). If the AMA or whatever agency is encouraging these kinds of tactics, then they would be well-advised to hand out guidelines to doctors on the proper procedures for suggesting them, etc. Roberts isn't the only parent who isn't going to take kindly to this (and, for what it's worth, I am not a parent but am sure I would feel the same way as Roberts in the same situation).

student May 20, 2008 at 7:38 pm

I disagree. Your son's autonomy and privacy should not be denied, just because he is a minor. He should never be forced to speak about his medical issues with his parents. He has the right to know that he has access to a medical or mental health professional regarding any of his concerns. If you feel this doctor is a bad influence, fine, then maybe not with him. But you are obligated then to find a replacement, someone who is will respect his privacy while addressing personal concerns related to his health. If your son wants to talk privately about condoms with someone and not tell you, it's not your business, and you have to ensure that he has someone to do that with. If your son decides that he doesn't want to talk to a doctor in private, that's his prerogative and you both win. But you don't get to make that choice.

Constant May 20, 2008 at 7:43 pm

This article from the Boston Herald may be closely related to what's going on behind the scenes.

Excerpt from the article:

“The doctor wanted to know how much you and mom drink, and if I think it’s too much,” my daughter told us afterward, rolling her eyes in that exasperated 13-year-old way. “She asked if you two did drugs, or if there are drugs in the house.”

“What!” I yelped. “Who told her about my stasher, I mean, ‘It’s an outrage!’ ”

I turned to my wife. “You took her to the doctor. Why didn’t you say something?”

She couldn’t, she told me, because she knew nothing about it. All these questions were asked in private, without my wife’s knowledge or consent.

“The doctor wanted to know how we get along,” my daughter continued. Then she paused. “And if, well, Daddy, if you made me feel uncomfortable.”

Great. I send my daughter to the pediatrician to find out if she’s fit to play lacrosse, and the doctor spends her time trying to find out if her mom and I are drunk, drug-addicted sex criminals.

We’re not alone, either. Thanks to guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics and supported by the commonwealth, doctors across Massachusetts are interrogating our kids about mom and dad’s “bad” behavior.

We used to be proud parents. Now, thanks to the AAP, we’re “persons of interest.”

The paranoia over parents is so strong that the AAP encourages doctors to ignore “legal barriers and deference to parental involvement” and shake the children down for all the inside information they can get.

And that information doesn’t stay with the doctor, either.

Debbie is a mom from Uxbridge who was in the examination room when the pediatrician asked her 5-year-old, “Does Daddy own a gun?”

When the little girl said yes, the doctor began grilling her and her mom about the number and type of guns, how they are stored, etc.

If the incident had ended there, it would have merely been annoying.

But when a friend in law enforcement let Debbie know that her doctor had filed a report with the police about her family’s (entirely legal) gun ownership, she got mad.

Bret May 20, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Dr. T wrote: "…you are correct to be suspicious of a physician's motives for asking for a private conversation."

Hold on. The doctor did not ask for a private conversation. The doctor asked if the patient would like a private conversation. That's quite a bit different and not nearly so sinister.

Dr. T also wrote: "Most pediatricians and family practice physicians … believe that they know more about what's good and bad for kids than parents do…"

I would hope that after umpteen years at medical school and practicing medicine that a doctor would know more about what's good and bad for my kid from a health perspecitive than I do. Otherwise why would I bring my child in for a checkup in the first place?

Dr. T also wrote: "They [the doctors] ask kids about their parents' habits (booze…"

Let's say that my wife and I were serious alcoholics or something and I brought my child to the checkup. First, as noted above (by Dr. T and myself), if I didn't want my child to have a private conversation with the doctor, I could put a stop to it and that'd be the end of the story.

But let's say I said okay to the private conversation. And let's say my child said something like, "Dr. Smith, my parents are drunk all the time and I'm terribly worried about them and the rest of my family and there's nobody else I can talk to about this. Is there anything I can do?"

The information is still confidential. The child might get some good advice. So what's wrong with that?

student May 20, 2008 at 7:49 pm

And it is not reasonable that you suggest that that person be someone other than the doctor. You must find him another private doctor, if you don't like this one. What if a girl wants birth control and the parent can't think of any doctor that the girl is allowed to talk with privately? Then the girl's out of luck. What if a boy wants to discuss any given bodily abnormality or physical dysfunction or mental health issue he was too embarassed to bring up with you, but he wants addressed? Since you have to choose for him a doctor he can speak to privately, I don't think it's unreasonable for the doctor to whom you actually brought your son presumes that he is the doctor you think your son can speak to privately. Getting 2 doctors, 1 for checkups, the other for father-approved medical concerns, is unusual.

Ray G May 20, 2008 at 9:27 pm

I've been coming here to this blog for some time and I have never seen this amount of knee-jerk animosity to the professor.

He's a big boy and very intelligent so I'm not presuming to take up for him, but since I've not visited much in the last few months, I'm wondering what has changed.

Russ, did you come to someone's attention on the Left and now you're getting "seminar" posters?

This basic issue – parents' rights and an intrusive state – is a ready-made litmus test of ideology.

The classical liberal view as expressed already by Professor Roberts.

And then the textbook collectivist view that the community has a right to children that supersedes the parents'.

shecky May 20, 2008 at 10:00 pm

I appreciate your explanation, Russ. But I still think you're out to lunch on this one. Do yourself a favor and find a new doctor you trust. You will be happier, and your doctor will be happier without a patient who believes his practice is sinister.

piperTom May 20, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Sir Russell is entirely correct and the doctor is, at best, a bonehead. The first thing the doctor must learn is that he-who-pays is the Customer. On top of that, any child living under the authority of his parent cannot make independent decisions. Got that, Doc?

After recognizing the above, the doctor may still have legitimate reasons to interview the patient in private. Here's the plan: explain this to the Parent! Pledge (and honor) to limit questions described to the parent. A VAST majority of parents will agree. For those who do not (unless there is evidence of a crime), that's the end of it.

Chris May 20, 2008 at 11:01 pm

Student –

I think the idea that an adolescent should be able to get birth control (or an abortion) without a parent's permission is nuts. Those are moral issues into which it is wrong for some third party to intrude — the ability to make up your own mind about such things comes at adulthood, or earlier _with_parental_consent_. Teenagers are simply too immature to make such choices for themselves, and a parent needs to be involved.

piperTom — that can't really be the principle, can it? he-who-pays is often an insurance company, an employer or the government, even when the parent is present.

Ray G May 21, 2008 at 1:06 am

As for the pushing of early adulthood, that much I think Russ is perhaps thinking along the right lines, but he missed the real crux of the situation.

The village isn't trying to make adults out of our children (that would require the teaching of self-responsibility) the village is trying to insert itself where the parents naturally belong.

So children are told that abortion, sex, homosexuality and other such issues are not moral issues, but they are perfectly natural to everyday life, even adolescent life. Anyone who says otherwise is simply trying to "force" their morals on society, and so children are being raised – as much as possible – apart from the anachronistic ways of their parents, and more by the culture at large.

Gil May 21, 2008 at 2:54 am

Whoa!! When reading some of the posts here I almost forgot this was a Libertarian site! This is sure a far cry from Rothbard's belief that a parent is free to abandon children as the child has no positive rights that any other person can have towards the parent. But then didn't ten year olds, in the height of the Industrial Revolution, leave home and made their own way in the world or if men and women didn't have their first child by twenty then every one else presumed something was wrong with them?

babinich May 21, 2008 at 5:57 am


For what it's worth I am behind you one hundred percent.

As was mentioned before, the child was getting a check-up. This was not an urgent care event.

Simply put, this is an intrusion on parental boundaries.

richard May 21, 2008 at 7:16 am

One of the things you expect the government to do is to protect the people who cannot protect themselves.

Children qualify for that.

i.e.: You would expect the state to protect children. They obviously cannot do this themselves.

This can be done through the parents, of coarse, but I don't think that this dismisses the state from making sure the child is protected.

Difficult question. I don't really have an answer.

richard May 21, 2008 at 7:20 am

Let me add a note, because if I read back what I wrote, it sounds silly.

If the parent is responsible for protecting the child, who protects the child from the parent?


If the state is responsible for protecting the child, who protects the child from the state?

It still remains a difficult question.

vidyohs May 21, 2008 at 7:50 am


I am blown away by the wussie ignorance I see written above by some cafe visitors.

Russ you are one hundred percent correct in being concerned, and I for one thank you for blogging on the subject. You have not blown it out of context, and your suspicion that your son's doctor's activities are more than just a one time one doctor random incident is also one hundred percent correct. Reason magazine and Liberty both have reported on this trend in the medical profression.

I can't believe that I read some people above say that the doctor is not your employee.

Seeing the responses above makes me more afraid of the state than I already am. Look what they have done to my people.

A young couple I am friendly with had a child some three years ago here in a Houston Hospital. When it came time to check the mother and child out of the hospital included in the paperwork was an application for an SSN in the child's name. My friends refused to fill it out and the hospital told them that they would use security to prevent them from removing the child until the SSN form was filled out.

At that point my friends escaped the hospital without law confrontation by asserting that since the child had not been named yet and that wouldn't happen until the christening then the form couldn't be filled out. They escaped with their child and never went back.

And, you people out there think that the state isn't constricting around you like an Anaconda? Wake up. How many people were as educated to reality as my young friends and would just kneejerk fill out the form? Virtually all would because "the state" in the form of the official medical community is telling them they "have to".

No thought, no questions, no arguments, just do it, even though you have no clue as to its legality.

Bah, I get disgusted reading the words of statist ninnies. I am going to go make some money so I can pay my employee, the dentist, on Thursday.

save_the_rustbelt May 21, 2008 at 8:26 am

Physicians are trained to take these actions these days, for a wide range of reasons.

Parents, however, still should maintain firm control of the situation.

Some of this comes from both real and (over) perceived problems of child abuse.

One really irritating school of thought is that the pediatrician should ask the kid if there are any firearms in the house. Not all docs buy that line of thinking though.

Having moved on to grandparent status, I now realize that we have created a society that heaps lots of stress on kids, and they all need some kind of safety valve. What that is I'm not really certain (school counselors are often the very worst – yuck).

Richard Sprague May 21, 2008 at 8:32 am

I'm just one datapoint, so take it for what it's worth, but my wife sees no problem with this when the doctor asks to speak privately with our 10-year-old. Part of it is because we know the doctor well.

Russ, sometime I want to know what you think of the writings of Judith Rich Harris, who points out why parents don't really have much direct affect on their kids outcomes anyway (after accounting for genes of course).

Sam Grove May 21, 2008 at 9:27 am

I want to know what you think of the writings of Judith Rich Harris, who points out why parents don't really have much direct affect on their kids outcomes anyway

Because they send their kids to government schools where they are socialized by other kids and teachers of a progressive bent.

cpurick May 21, 2008 at 9:47 am

Sorry, I thought the doc was trying to do your son a service. As far as I see it, the burden is on you to work out with your son what he'll talk to others about.

I saw no evidence that the doc was going to give your son any instruction or advice that your son didn't ask for; he merely offered your boy an opportunity to ask it in private.

Unless you honestly think your 13-year-old doesn't have a private life that you don't know about — sexual, or otherwise — I think the doc was only offering him more service than he might seek in the presence of his parents.

Do you not think the doc is fully on your side??? Where did you get the adversarial position from? You sound pretty jaded, Russ.

If you don't think the doc is on your side, then get another one. Otherwise, you might trust your son with a man whom you'd allow to probe your prostate or stick a needle full of who-knows-what in your (or your son's) arm.

The doc, AFAIK, is not an agent of the state, and I didn't take it as if he's gathering any information "against you."

In this case, the doc's intentions are probably good enough that he'd be a little offended to see it put this way, even if he didn't say so.

What did the doc say when you talked to him about it?

Keith May 21, 2008 at 9:54 am

Quote from Russell Roberts: "Raise your children as you see fit. Just don't presume to raise mine for me."

I think you've hit the crux of the problem. There are too many people who do presume to raise your, and everybody else's, children. They always seem to "know better". The whole "it takes a village" mob of academics, medicals, and "law enforcers" (religious and civic) can never seem to mind their own business.

Keith May 21, 2008 at 9:57 am

Qoute from jmp: "In a few states hospital nurses in maternity need to ask the soon to be mom if she feels she and the baby will be safe at home, either due to abusive husbands, boyfriends, step-fathers, fathers, or whatever."

Funny, since statistically women are far more likely to abuse children than men.

Ben May 21, 2008 at 1:31 pm

You folks might want to look in to state law before jumping to conclusions. For example, the state of Washington grants autonomy (and privacy) to minors for medical decision making on a variety of issues (birth control, treatment of STD's, substance abuse, etc.)starting age 14 and up.

You may question the wisdom of such law, but don't disparage the doctor for trying to follow it.

GumboFilé May 21, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Physicians are agents of the state. They are required to gather and report private information to the state.

Russ Roberts May 21, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Isaac Crawford and others,

I do not think this is a problem of the state though I think it is a related trend.

But, one of the reasons doctors don't treat me like a customer is because in general, most patients aren't the customer at least in the sense of being the one who pays the money. That is mainly due to the extensive government subsidies of education.

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