If your first reaction to the title of this page is to go to another one because you either don't have children or don't have any problem with your parents or your spouse's parents, I would advise you to think again. This issue affects everyone, and should be something that everyone who values individual liberty ought to keep a careful eye on.
Grandparents' rights. It's a relatively new area of dispute, and something you probably haven't heard too much about. But it is like many other important, fundamental issues that are regarded as harmless. Unfortunately it is not harmless, and if this issue isn't properly addressed and dealt with, it could be the beginning of that proverbial "slippery slope" that everyone is so fond of mentioning.
It goes something like this: grandparents all over the country, and even organizations for older people, have become alarmed by what they see as a threat to their natural "rights" in relation to their grandchildren. Divorces, remarriages, children born out of wedlock and the general "decline" of the traditional family in our modern society have resulted in the fracturing of the extended family unit, so that now it's not at all uncommon for grandparents to never see or actually be denied access to their grandkids.
A common example involves a divorcing couple, one of whom gets full custody and then moves out of state or country with the kids, leaving behind the bewildered parents of the non-custodial mother or father. Overnight, it seems, the mother or father can whisk the kids away and never return, leaving a gaping hole in the grandparents' lives. The other parent is often afforded court-ordered visitation rights, but the grandparents are left out in the cold, so to speak, and resent having to rely on the generosity of the custodial parent.
Other cases involve active animosity between a still-married spouse and his or her parents-in-law. It's not uncommon for a wife to hate the interference of her husband's parents or for a husband to completely disagree with the views and opinions of his wife's mom and dad. And it's not uncommon for the animosity to become so intense that the disgruntled parent insists on moving or cutting off all contact with the grandparents altogether. These grandparents feel that their adult child's spouse shouldn't be able to wield that much power and influence, since the grandchild or children involved are "theirs too".
In some extreme cases, grandparents insist that one or both parents are "unfit" and that they want either full custody or at least visitation rights because they fear their grandchild is suffering. They may feel that their former daughter- or son-in-law, who now has full custody, is abusing or neglecting the child and that someone, preferably a close relative, should be allowed to step in and rescue the kids.
Even aside from situations like the above, many older people's organizations insist that, even in the absence of any problem or concern, they have a god-given right to visit with "their family", regardless of that family's wishes. I can't help wondering what groups like this would do if the tables were turned on them, if a parent petitioned the court that, since they're "family", she should be legally entitled to drop her kids off at her parents' place every weekend and four weeks during the summer, even if they insisted they didn't want to see the kids that often. Would these groups be so quick to remind everyone that "family" means you have the right to intrude unwanted into someone else's life? Or would they hire lawyers to protect their right to privacy and self-determination? I don't think many of these people have considered what a double-edged sword this issue is, and that by striving to enact laws regarding grandparent visitation they may be in for far more "visitation" than they ever wanted - or can do anything about.
On the other side of the issue, many parents groups like parentsrights.com passionately oppose grandparent interference and cite countless horror stories of their own childhoods and why they don't want their own kids anywhere near their abuser. Tales of litigious grandparents - of grandparents who interfere or bully their way into the grandkids' lives, who ignore the parents' wishes and take the grandkids to church and fill their heads with religious nonsense, for example - abound on sites like these, as do testimonials from heartbroken parents who were declared "unfit" by a vindictive in-law and had their children taken from them. Parents on these sites point out the inequity of state laws (currently in place in all fifty states) which grant grandparents the right to see, visit and basically interfere, in their grandchildren's lives and what a miserable, costly time they've had trying to fight these unjust laws. And everyone finds that they have to spend a great deal of time fighting the avalanche of "moral superiority" that comes from the grandparents, who seem to have public sympathy on their side when they become weepy-eyed and say they just want to love their grandkids. Many parents have to battle against the absolutely bullet-proof concept of "family" that so pervades our culture and go against popular opinion that declares "blood" to more important than anything. These grandparents want to be respected as an important part of the grandkids' lives, but do not want to afford any kind of respect to the parents of these kids at all.
So what does all this amount to? Some well-off grandparents spend their considerable resources on lawyers and law suits to forcefully intrude into their grandchildrens' - and therefore childrens' - lives, claiming abuse, neglect, unfitness or the sanctity of "the family". Parents spend their often limited resources trying to fight off these invasive law suits, firing back accusations of childhood abuse and trying to establish the sanctity of their own families. And so it goes, round and round, with the media and everyone else taking only a passing interest in these "squabbles". At the end of the day the grandparents generally win, both in court and in the court of public opinion, but nothing ever really gets resolved and the feuds go on.
The only way this issue is ever going to be resolved is if each individual in our society understands the fundamental principle in this issue and acts on it. The essential truth in this area may not be popular with some people, but it is a truth nonetheless: grandparents, even good, well-meaning ones, do not have "rights" to other people's children. They have no more right to insist that they be allowed to visit with your kids than your next door neighbor does, or your cousin does, or a stranger does. No one, grandparent or not, relative or not, has the right to your children or to interfere with how you raise them. Period.
This is an incredibly important concept that must be embraced by any free society: your children are yours, as much as any property you may own, and provided you care for them adequately, you are entitled to raise them however you see fit. No other person, no relative, no state or church or other authority, has any right whatsoever to interfere with your parental sovereignty, however you choose to express it. This absolutely must remain an unimpeachable concept - to let it slip through our fingers would open us up to all manner of interference and the complete abandonment of an individual's right to raise his or her child. If your neighbor didn't think you should let your daughter wear nail polish, if your sister thinks that your son shouldn't stay up past ten at night...if the government doesn't think you're old enough/rich enough/smart enough etc. to even have children in the first place...you can see where this kind of attitude might lead.
Each person must be confident and even smug about their absolute right to their own children. If you decide to take your children and move to the Australian outback, that's your business, whether anyone else likes it or not. If you decide you don't want any of your family members influencing your children, that's your business, and your right. If your parents are religious and you don't want your kids to be, you have every right to insist that the grandparents not involve themselves in your child's life. If your brothers and sisters are career criminals or live a lifestyle you object to, you have every right to insist that they don't see your children. In fact, the bottom line is that you are entitled to decide whom your children can associate with and whom they will never see, without having to explain your choice to anyone. You may have "no good reason" for keeping your parents away from your kids (in their opinion), but keep in mind that you don't have to give them any reason at all if you choose not to. If you don't have to answer to them as an adult, you don't have to answer to them as a parent either. This is your sovereign right as a parent and absolutely no one has the right to interfere with that - a right that the grandparents enjoyed when they were raising you, by the way, and a right they wouldn't have wanted to give up either.
This is yet another reason why it's crucial to view marriage as a private matter between two individuals, not as some family experience that must involve every relative you have - once you allow that marriage is a family concern, it's not hard to imagine that your children won't be seen as strictly yours either. It can't be overstated - your marriage, and your children, are yours and yours alone.
Unfortunately, most the laws of most states don't agree, and up until very recently every state in the union provided for mandatory grandparent visitation "in the best interests of the child", visitation that could follow you from state to state and would superceed your express objection to such visits. Only one state has amended this law slightly, and the trend seems to be towards even more legal interference, even more laws passed in favor of petitioning grandparents who defend their "rights" like they would defend the American flag. Many grandparents' rights advocates herald these decisions as a vindication of family values or a way to stem the tide of unfit and irresponsible parenting, but what they either don't realize or don't care about is that their actions are undermining the very freedoms that they depend on.
When a government steps in and overrules the express wishes of the parent, it is effectively destroying parental rights altogether, and therefore chipping away at an individual's right to self-determination. Taking away one freedom takes them all away. If a parent can no longer decide whom their child will associate with, it's not hard to imagine that every other decision could be questioned then as well, since it's been established that they don't have absolute authority over their children.
It is staggering that so many states have ruled in favor of petitioning grandparents and ruled against the express wishes of the parents. It must be heartbreaking to be required, by law, to drop off your daughter at your father's house when you know he'll hit her and call her stupid like he did to you at that age, or make your son pray to some god you don't believe in, or take him hunting when you have raised him to respect animals and not kill them for sport - and to know that he's allowed to do this and you're not allowed to stop it because some judge decided that your father's wishes superceed yours when it comes to your daughter's life. It must make you feel so impotent, so helpless, so bullied and so much like a child yourself. Rich, powerful Grandad can swoop down and plant himself in your life because you had a child and he feels he has the "right" to intrude. You, as a parent, as a mature adult who takes on all the momentous responsibilities and challenges of parenthood, are rendered completely irrelevant because someone with more money and more time and the trump card of "blood" on their side wants to usurp your rightful position as the only decision maker in that child's life. It's truly astonishing that in the United States, where freedom is supposed to be the cornerstone of the country, parents are routinely pushed aside and denied the right to raise their children as they - and they alone - see fit.
Imagine if parents were allowed to decide whom their grown children could marry, where they could work, whom they could consider friends - imagine the outrage if a law was passed saying that adults could no longer make decisions without parental permission. There would be protests and indignation about the violation of rights, there would be rebellion and dissent and an insistence that each adult is in command of his or her own life, and that no parent has the right to interfere in that. So why then do we ignore the concept of rights just because an adult has a child? We shouldn't. It has to stop. Law makers must restore the sanctity of parental rights and refuse to allow relatives the "right" to intrude where they are expressly not wanted.
The Supreme Court of Washington made steps towards this end with their 2000 decision in Troxel v Granville, a case in which a mother had to fend off the visitation demands from her deceased boyfriend's parents. In the end the court sided with her, declaring that allowing the grandparents to interfere would amount to unconstitutional "state interference with parents' fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody and management of their children." And when the grandparents had the resources to appeal this to the United States Supreme Court, rationality still prevailed and ruled in favor of the mother. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor explained the reasoning behind state third party visitation laws, but went on to explain the the Court's traditional hesitation to interfere with parents' right to raise their minor children. In 1923 the court concluded that the Constitution protected the right of parents to "establish a home and bring up their children", and in 1944 the Court found that "the care, custody and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder." Her overall remarks concluded that a parent who cares adequately for his or her child must be entitled to decide with whom that child will associate, and for a judge to remove that right would conflict with the parent's constitutional rights. Let's hope Justice O'Connor's wisdom will spread to other courts of appeal and put an end to these intrusive law suits.
Before I leave this issue, there is one last thing that bears mentioning. Good grandparents are a blessing in your child's life; their wisdom and experience, their gentleness and patience and outright fun that they show your kids is invaluable. I believe that many kids could greatly benefit from having multi-generational influences and that many parents could certainly benefit from having a trusted, loving babysitter to watch over and teach their kids from time to time. I believe that close-knit families are an important part of a child's development and I certainly believe that older people, who have lived through a lot more than our generation has, ought to be valued and respected for their opinions and expertise far more than they are now. I believe that, in general, the vast majority of grandparents are kind and benevolent towards their families and want only to enjoy the presence of a new little life without the burden of actual parenthood, something they're entitled to want if they've been successful at raising their own kids for so many years. And those grandparents who do step in when a parent is unfit, or when the children are orphaned, deserve our praise and admiration for caring about the kids enough to go through parenthood again with someone else's kids. Lastly, it is up to each individual parent to take their responsibility seriously, and not depend on their parents for financial support or a place to live, excessive babysitting, etc - in other words, the respect goes both ways. Grandparents don't have the right to invade your privacy, and you don't have the right to invade theirs.
I don't think this issue should ever turn into a question of disrespect or animosity towards grandparents in general or towards those grandparents who are a welcome and valued addition to the new family - it is merely a question of making inviolate a parent's right to parent, and an individual's right to determine how and with whom his or her child will be raised. Thankfully there are relatively few undesirable grandparents plaguing the courts and their families, but it is up to each one of us to make sure it is not their wishes that get drafted into law, but ours.
For more detailed information on this issue, please visit parentsrights.com.