Friday, May 22, 2009

Full Consent

A couple months ago, we talked about the sad case of Alfie Patten, the British 13-year-old who was thought to have fathered a daughter, Maisie, with his 15-year-old girlfriend. More recently, we've talked about Daniel Hauser, the 13-year-old Minnesota boy who's been court-ordered to undergo chemo for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

There have been updates to both stories. Alfie Patten is most definitely not the baby daddy. Fourteen-year-old Tyler Barker is.

And Daniel Hauser, as you may have already heard, is on the run. He and his mother disappeared two days ago and may be in Mexico.

Daniel's story has received a lot of media attention, not the least because it's heart-wreching and extremetly complicated. As a nation, I think, we're very sensitive to government intervention into private lives. (Sorry, Republicans -- Democrat or no, I still think most Americans agree that the government has no business treading into personal matters) And yet...the idea of a boy dying when medical treatment could well forestall such an ending is almost too sad to comtemplate. It stimulates our "somebody, do something!" centers like nothing else.

But as Daniel's story received more attention, additional details about the boy and his family leaked out. Words like "homeschooled." And "illiterate."

Great. Just what we need. The word "homeschool" attached to another extreme case. Because trust me, I've been around the block enough to know exactly what kinds of thought this news inspires. Listen to Greg Laden:

"I really have nothing against homeschooling, but it must be admitted that among the homeschoolers, there is a disproportionate share of crazy people that should not be allowed near children. And, the way homeschooling operates politically, the children of homeschooling families are less likely to be rescued from their abusing parents (when there are abusing parents) than other kids. That is a simple fact, and all the homeschoolers who are not abusing their own children but who maintain that society must simply turn away are part of the problem, not the solution. "

Yes, please -- lump us all together. Make blanket statements that are virtually impossible to prove. (Because really, if I had to argue it, I'm pretty sure I could argue persuasively that there are plenty of non-homeschooling parents who don't belong near their children or any others as well.) Muddy the waters further by debating homeschooling when a child's life is at risk.

And yet, I see the concern. While I'm not at all sure that court-ordering chemo is the right thing to do, I understand that at this point, most Americans are wondering if the boy has enough information to decide if he wants to undergo chemo. They question his understanding of the disease, treatments and available options. They wonder if his parent's beliefs are interfering with his access to information.

Which brings up the issue of consent -- the common thread, if you ask me, between Alife Patten, Tyler Barker and Daniel Hauser. Do these kids fully understand their situations?

Watching the video of young Alfie, it's completely apparent that this kid, well-intentioned though he may be, has no idea how to be a father. Yet that's the kind of thing he (and Travis, and all other young boys comptemplating sex) need to know. If you're going to have sex, you darn well better know what it is and how it works, what the consequences are and how you'll handle them. That's full consent: when you know all possible facts and make an informed decision.

People are concerned about Daniel right now because they're not sure he's given full consent.

I don't know. I don't know what Daniel knows. And I truly don't know whether he's best served by being left alone to die or by being forced into an oncology clinic.

I do know, though, that I consider it my job to inform my sons about the world. We homeschool, but we don't homeschool to limit the flow of information; we homeschool to expose our children to the wide world of ideas. In my opinion, the whole world would be a better place if we stopped sheltering our children from uncomfortable ideas, reality or even beliefs that conflict with our own, and instead listened to them, answered their questions and helped them develop full consent.


  1. Hi Jennifer,
    Great, thoughtful piece. You know, I almost regretted having mentioned the homeschooling aspect when I first posted on FLX about this, for the very reasons you mention here--I'm not a homeschooler, because I'm the world's worst teacher and should not be teaching anyone's kids! :-) But there are fabulous homeschoolers out there, no doubt about it. But the fact that the boy can't read the most basic of words is really troubling at age 13--but I hope I didn't offend anyone on FLX. I meant there is something specifically wrong with this particular case, not with homeschoolers in general.

    If it's any consolation, another Minnesota writer recently wrote a column lamenting the fact that our state is now publically represented by Michele Bachmann, the never-ending Senate seat battle between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, and this case. Sigh. We're not really a state full of freaks.

  2. I was trying to leave a comment on the person's blog, but it wasn't giving me the correct link. I think there are just as many disproportionate share of crazy people in the public school system. The only reason they aren't sought out is public school is what most people do. It's not thought of as weird. What about all those kids that have entered public schools with guns and shot up the place. I would consider that a bit more of a problem that some family who doesn't wish to submit their child to some med.

  3. Oh, yes, we homeschoolers are a bunch of crazies. It's a good thing that the public schools are such safe places, free from teachers who mentally, verbally, and sexually abuse the children in their care. Whew! What a relief that is.

    Seriously, where does this guy get his information?

    As always, another thought-provoking, well-written blog post, Jennifer. It makes you wonder what the next five or ten years is going to bring, doesn't it?

  4. My experience has been that homeschooling parents are mostly (a large majority) very much opposed to any kind of scrutiny from the outside whatsoever. The Hauser case is an example of why some is needed: Homeschooling in and of itself is not intended as a means of hiding what we would all agree to be extreme behavior (on the part of parents) but it is very easily used as such.

    It is really up to the homeschooling community to do something about this, but by and large the homeschooling community won't, because, I believe, most individuals in this community prefer their own political purity over the protection of children in their community overall, and do not care, and perhaps even relish, if they are viewed as intractable in this matter by the rest of society.