Published in June 2007
Fatherhood is the one job that you can get without the slightest degree of experience, knowledge or talent (despite what you may hear to the contrary on Father’s Day). For that reason, when a friend had his first child recently, I quickly rattled off the most important things that I have learned as the father of three boys and a girl: Don’t wear white shirts while changing boys (they consider it a type of canvas); the easiest way to extract material from noses is a hot bath (except for cheese sticks); always check your briefcase for toy guns before entering a courthouse; and always check the children for captive animals before leaving a forest.
But the most important lesson is that all children are born with an innate sense of the law. Indeed, when the Framers spoke of natural rights, they might have hit on the same discovery in their own children. You can actually track your kids’ development by the legal arguments they make. Take it from me, the best way to prepare for parenting is to take a law course at your community college.
Takings. The Constitution prohibits the taking of property without compensation by the government. Within their first two years, all children embrace this principle with a vengeance. Parents learn they must compensate for any item removed: a toy for the car keys; a cracker for the 12-inch butcher knife.
Contracts. By 3, negotiating with kids is like working with little Teamsters on a labor contract. Bring a sandwich truck to the site; it becomes part of the contract. Likewise, once a parent buys a scone at Starbucks or allows cartoons in the morning, it is part of an unwritten but enforceable contract. This develops into a form of collective bargaining with the addition of another sibling: Any benefit to one is instantly an expected benefit to the other. Break the contract and you’ll face work stoppages, unending protests and even sabotage that ranges from spilled milk to items in the trash can.
Cruel and unusual punishment. By 3, children have defined what they view as cruel and unusual punishment. Denials of favorite foods or toys are considered to be measures that “shock the conscience” and require immediate redress.
Privacy. As soon as a child goes through potty training, privacy becomes an increasingly important right — reaching its apex in the teen years. The same parents who spent two years changing them and bathing them must now sequester themselves in a distant room to avoid the “chilling effect” of surveillance.
Equal protection. By 6, all children put themselves in what the Supreme Court calls “a suspect class” — any different treatment based on their identity as a sibling can be enforced only after parents show a compelling reason that they are using “the least restrictive means.” Otherwise, a difference of only 10 minutes in television time is enough to unleash demonstrations reminiscent of the march on Selma.
Due process. By 6, kids will insist on full due process in adjudicating their claims. Major penalties such as loss of Game Boys require something close to a full trial with two days of arraignment, jury selection and sequestration — and inexhaustible appeals.
Free speech. By 10, children have developed an almost unlimited expectation of free speech. Indeed, since they have now concluded that your views are worthless and out of date, it increases the necessity of your listening to them. Parents are forced to change their content-based regulations from the toddler years to “time, place and manner” restrictions for teens.
Free association. When you object to a boyfriend with more body-pierced metal than a tank, your child will discover the right to association. With the acquisition of a learner’s permit, she will add a claim of free travel (which also involves your car).
The final years of adolescence are filled with conflicts over search-and-seizure rules and the monitoring of electronic communications without probable cause. Of course, by the time your child reaches the late teenage years, you have become the Alberto Gonzales of parents: continual surveillance, spontaneous searches, detention without appeal. You can then wait for your little litigators to become parents in their own right. It is then that you can undermine their authority by plying their children with unlimited sugar-based products and allowing them to live as anarchists under your roof. Your children will then learn the meaning of James Madison’s observation that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”