How important is the biology of parenting?
Here’s an example from Shakespeare: Audiences and critical scholars have long struggled to understand the insane rage that suddenly overcomes King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” At first, the king is good-naturedly encouraging his queen, Hermione, to beg their mutual friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, to stay another week.
She does so, but not with the result she expects: Within a few lines, Leontes becomes blindly jealous, crying: “Too hot, too hot!” I’ll spare you the spiral of tragedy that ensues (and is only partly redeemed at the end) to focus on a big reason for Leontes’s rage: He suddenly thinks that Polixenes, who has been around for a span of nine “wat’ry stars” –nine moons, or roughly nine months — is the father of the child Hermione is soon to bear.
Well, it was certainly possible (although not true in “The Winter’s Tale”) that Leontes had been cuckolded. Until the recent development of DNA testing, husbands never knew for sure that they were the fathers of their wives’ children. Yet, as Jared Diamond discusses in “The Third Chimpanzee,” from an anthropological perspective fathers were only interested in devoting themselves to the support and raising of their own biological children — they wanted to pass on their own genes, and not those of another man. (As an example of how strongly this impulse is felt, he discusses one tribe in which the women have sex with many men serially, so that determining paternal parentage was impossible. In those cases, men raised the children of their sisters — at least then 1/4 of their genetic make-up would then be passed along.)
Thus, patriarchy was both strongly enforced and inherently unstable: Men held the legal power and the physical strength, but only women knew with confidence the identity of their children. Yet that biological identity was of vital importance.
The question is whether biology should continue to be so central today. Undoubtedly, there are good effects to making biological fathers responsible to their children, however difficult that responsibility may be to enforce: Men will take responsibility for potentially procreative sex more seriously if they know that they are “on the hook.” And to the extent that the primal urge to pass on one’s genetic attributes still imbues men with an urge to provide for their offspring, there can be benefits to the child and the mother.
But note that I’m talking here about biology and “urges.” Maybe it’s time to develop a more sophisticated approach that recognizes these brute facts but isn’t enslaved to them. In this regard, consider the broadly different ways the law treats natural, as opposed to foster or adoptive, parents.
When my spouse and I wanted to adopt children, we became well-acquainted with the rigor of the process for ensuring that any kids we might adopt would be safe, secure, and well-cared for. There are home visits, probing questions about your life and your reasons for wanting to adopt, embarrassingly intense examination of your relationship, exploration of your parenting style (useless in the abstract, as any parent knows), and a quiz on the 50 state capitals. Then there are required training sessions and certification; additional sessions are required if you’re also interested (as we were) in qualifying as foster parents. Oh, and you also undergo background checks for state and federal crimes of all kinds — not just those including child abuse. After all this, you wait — and wait — for a match.
OK, let’s compare the process for reviewing the suitability of biological parents. Are you ready? I’m about to start now….. All done.
As everyone reading this surely knows, there isn’t any such process. It’s true that the law and society have evolved so as to get better about removing kids from abusive or neglectful homes, but the barriers to doing so are high, and (legal standard aside) the parents really don’t have to do much to get the kids back — often, their return leads to tragic results.
But such removals from the home are rare. In most cases, kids are left to fend for themselves in some dismal situations.
I’m not suggesting that biological parents undergo the same kind of comprehensive process that is in place for foster or adoptive placements — it’s probably practically impossible, anyway. But I think that the model for screening non-birth parents has lessons for the treatment of all families: Why not offer (require?) state-funded parenting classes? Does the state have a right, even a responsibility, to identify risk factors for children and then to intervene in some way before those risks materialize in injury of some kind? Efforts to address some of these questions might lead to clumsy governmental snooping — a real risk. But doing nothing has its own perils, as we know.
In short, once we start questioning the continued preeminence of biology, the questions start tumbling forth. I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.