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Why it's none of your business

Posted By Russ Roberts On May 20, 2008 @ 2:37 pm In Family,Health,Nanny State | Comments Disabled

In an earlier post [1], 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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