Daniel Hauser and the Limits of Private Parenting

Carla: Here in God’s Country, the story of Daniel Hauser has been leading the news for several weeks. If you have the misfortune of living somewhere other than Minnesota, you might still recognize that name as that of the 13-year-old boy with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that doctor’s say is 90 percent treatable with chemo and radiation treatments. Daniel and his mother have refused this treatment for what she is calling religious reasons. You can read more about the case, well, everywhere.

This sad story points to a deeper question, one that I think resonates with what we’re about here at the Mommy Revolution. To me, the case of Daniel Hauser begs the question of just how private parenting ought to be.

Caryn and I have talked a lot about how we want every mom to feel the freedom to parent in a way that makes sense to her, to be the kind of mom God made her to be rather than forcing herself to fit into some prescribed mold of motherhood. But the Hauser case represents what happens when we assume that freedom means no one gets to have any input into our lives.

I know that for you, Caryn, this story pushes your libertarian buttons and gets you nervous about government interference in family life. But to me, this is a case of child abuse and someone needs to step in. Daniel Hauser has a tumor in his chest that will suffocate him in a matter of weeks. His mother is willing to take a chance that her son will die a horrific death. I don’t think that’s a choice she gets to make, especially when her husband, her friends, even the guru of the type of natural healing she follows, are begging her to reconsider her decision.

(Side note: To me, it’s one thing for a family to decide that they want to forgo treatment for a child when they have tried and tried and it isn’t working, when the chances of recovery are almost non-existent, when the pain and suffering of the treatment will be far worse than the death that is imminent. There is a time to let go. But this boy is not in that place.)

I am a big believer in community, in the power of relationships to sustain us and heal us and help us be the people we were created to be. And I believe that community is essential to a healthy family life and a healthy personal life–the responses our posts on friendship speak to the deep need we have to feel connected. And yet when it comes to parenting, the cultural assumption is that it is an individual pursuit, that we can and should close the circle and do it alone.

I had a friend ask me once if I believed in that “whole ‘It takes a village’ crap.” Well, yeah! While I believe we have some say in who is in our village, I don’t think we get to pick and choose how we access that village. When the village speaks in a loud, unified voice, we need to listen. We might disagree, we might still choose to go another way, but we have to listen to those we trust and be willing to change our course. If I am doing something that all of my friends believe is harmful to my children, I pray they will tell me. And I pray I will hear them and have the strength to make a change.

Because raising children is not something we do for ourselves. We raise children to be part of the world, to be active, involved participants in the lives of other people. Daniel Hauser doesn’t belong to his mother. He belongs to a family, to a community, to God.

Caryn: So you have to end with the belonging to God, stuff… You are right, though, on many points here. I do believe that since God gave us our children we have the duty to protect them and nourish them and provide for them and love them and “heal” them where possible.

And I agree that this mom’s choice is nuts—and wrong. Totally. She is making the wrong choice. And will potentially allow her child to die a horrific death.

I’m actually okay with the state stepping in to protect this child. I guess I started getting nervous when they started talking about removing Daniel from his home. This is especially wrong if—as you say—the dad if pro-treatment. No sense taking a child away from his family (even if they are a bit off) during this horrible time.

That’s the line that starts worrying me about government intrustion because honestly, where will it end? Couldn’t someone argue that I’m molesting my 2-year-old because I still nurse him (like the weird psuedo-hippie mama I am)? I mean, what if I can’t wean him until his three (will you all PLEASE pray for him that this boy stops!!!)?

And I do worry about the rights of those who choose alternative meds—which is weird because I’m very PRO Western medicine. I get my kids flu shots. But I feel uneasy, say, about that HPV vaccine. What if refuse to do it—and my daughter contracts HPV at 15 and develops cervical cancer at 16? Will she be taken from me? Was that abuse?

I realize I may be going too far down the “slippery slope” thing here, but I get worried. Because sometimes the village is all wrong and only one person is right. Villages like Noahville and Ninevah come to mind.

I don’t know. I feel all wishy washy about this. But something just feels wrong.

Carla: The slippery slope is always a danger, in everything. But I’m not sure it’s helpful to limit or permit something because of what it might lead to. To me, we always run into problems when we try to put blanket policies or ideology around unique circumstances. That’s why law books are enormous and always changing–the law isn’t a blanket declaration that stands firm in all times and all places and in all circumstances. There are exceptions, nuances, situational adjustments.

And yes, the village can be wrong, but in general, group think tends to lead to better decisions–read this for more on that–than individual decision-making. Your nursing example is a good one. You made that decision based on what works for you, but you’ve also read about extended nursing, asked other moms about it, weighed the pros and cons. In other words, you’ve used the village to help you with your decision–not just to keep nursing but to nurse in the first place. Even if you were simply basing your decision on your own intuition, you’d be doing so because the village affirmed the rightness of you doing so.

Okay, this has turned into a philosophical discussion. So what do you think friends? What are the limits of private parenting? When do we step into each other’s lives? When do we dig in and push back at the village?

Update from Carla: I talked about this post on my friend Doug Pagitt’s radio show this morning. You can watch/listen here.

Update #2: This just in–Daniel will begin chemo.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Amy on May 26, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Carla, I completely agree with every thing you said. And we do have to take it one circumstance at a time. And in this case, yes, the boy should get treatment no matter what. Should they take him from his home? NO! Children need to be with their parents when at all possible.

    The limits I think are fairly clear. Unless harm is being done to a child, (that is what is laid out in the law) a parent needs to be able to parent their own way. And sometimes the laws need to be changed. 150 years ago, medicine and parenting and the laws were different. So as time changes, so does the way we raise our families.

    I try not to “step in” to anyone’s life, but I do give advice when asked. And I also believe a foolish parent doesn’t ask for advice or research when making decisions in parenting. But bottom line is what you as a parent decide. Do I think nursing a child until they are 2 or even 3 ok? Yes. Did I want to do it? Yes. Did I? No. The first time I was young and was given advice that I took that later I disagreed on. The second time, I would have loved to but with twins it was all I could do just to get in the 4 months worth. So as we change and get older even our opinions and decisions change.

    I am for the “it takes a village” to a degree. Again, I try to only give advice when asked. If there are no other adults around and a child is doing something that could hurt themselves or another, I will intervene. If I see a child causing damage to property not their own, I will intervene. But if my “neighbor” spanks their child in public and swears at them, I really can’t say much. (they will get a seriously dirty look from me) But somehow we have to learn to respect one another and let the laws work for us and them.

    I really hope this Daniel gets the treatment he needs and that his mother would become supportive. I don’t know what religion she is, but I believe God gave these doctors a gift of healing. As long as we don’t abuse it, we need to be thankful for it and use it.


  2. Posted by Colleen on May 26, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I think when death in emminent, we can all more easily agree on what should happen with this child. But what about when parents make decisions that impact their children’s health, and death will come later as a result? If the government were allowed to take custody of Daniel and require he get chemotherapy, what prevents them from doing the same thing with children who are being fed so poorly by their parents that the children become obese and have type 2 diabetes? Death will come, just not at soon. What is to prevent the government (or, the village if you will) from deciding that these children also should be removed from the home?

    This boy is 14 and does not want chemo. In this case he is a child and his parents get to decide. But, if he killed someone, he would be likeley tried as an adult. Something to think about.

    Personally, I agree with you all and think this boy should receive chemo. But, if his parents were persuing an alternative treatment for a different kind of cancer that was more likely to respond well, and didn’t belong to a wacky religion, it would less black and white.


  3. Posted by Bookgirl on May 26, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Blogs abound about this case, and it’s clearly an extreme and complicated one. This link is outdated at this point, and it’s one columnist’s research and opinion, but it’s evidence that this isn’t just about medical care.

    The point about him being 13 and making his own medical decisions is addressed here.



  4. That was a sad article, Bookgirl. It makes this whole issue more sad and complex. And I’m feeling a bit bad for the mom now, too. Need to sift this through, “There’s always more to the story…..”

    But I’m SO glad he’s getting treatment!!!


  5. Posted by Bookgirl on May 27, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I’m glad he’s getting treatment, too. The whole story has made me sad. I think all of Minnesota (and beyond) is pulling for Danny. I’m sure the whole family is very scared and overwhelmed right now.


  6. […] Continued here:  Daniel Hauser and the Limits of Private Parenting « The Mommy … […]


  7. Posted by Jennifer on May 28, 2009 at 6:07 am

    Perhaps parents benefit from checks and balances as much as governement does. Ideally, “the village” would be made up of trusted family, friends, and neighbors. However, Americans generally seem to be leaning more and more toward isolation and independent individualism (blame technology or our transitory society or whatever). If parents like this mother are not taking the responsibity to be held accountable, maybe the government has no choice but to intervene.


  8. Posted by Becky on May 28, 2009 at 7:38 am

    I appreciate the voices I hear from different “village” communities that challenge my assumptions or default parenting. I have been hugely helped by them– both in being challenged to consider something related to parenting I wouldn’t have even thought of, modeling healthy parenting to me, and in affirming choices I have made (or even intuitions I have). There’s some inherent danger in this reasoning, though… like, if the natural “village” of friends around me disagree with me on something, and I feel like just because I don’t know anyone else who does it I shouldn’t either– I could miss out on something valuable for me or my children (like ALL the people who told me not to do infant potty training with my son, some of whom were later converted to it themselves after seeing my 5-month-old pee in the toilet!).

    But on the flip side, you can always find a “village” of people who agree with you, no matter how crazy your ideas (like an online parenting group I’m part of where pretty much every person who’s responded to the posts about this boy with cancer have been totally against the gov. interfering and are really angry and scared about it… and this from women who have taught me a LOT, in general, and who I am very grateful for!) I think it takes careful consideration, prayer, intuition and wisdom to make parenting decisions, especially those that are not mainstream or are going against what those around us are saying. But maybe we should be that careful about ALL our decisions, instead of just trusting that the “village” around us is necessarily right.

    I might not be making any sense… I feel like I’m talking in circles a bit here…


  9. Posted by Robyn on May 28, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Well, I definitely believe “it takes a village” and “no one is an island.” I’m sure I could think of more cliches. Human beings were created for community. We need each other. No denying that. But I think there are different paradigms in the case of parenting for believers and non-believers.

    For sure, as believers we need to listen to our “village,” which is the Body of Christ. Isn’t that why we do baby and child dedications? To enlist the help and support of our fellows in the adventure of raising kids? I don’t suppose that means that we are bound by every person’s individual opinion. Otherwise, chaos. However, I do think that we should use our own wisdom and judgment in accepting the *respectful* advice of others, even when we determine that we won’t follow it. We needn’t be afraid of requesting help when we need it. And we should be ready and willing to offer help to those who are in need. Yet, we should also acknowledge that there are legitimate parenting choices that are different from ours and respect each parent’s autonomous right to make such decisions. (Ex: homeschool vs. private school vs. public school)

    For Christians, I view the church as the primary place from which we would seek and receive support, rather than the government. We should be “taking care of our own” so to speak. Not to say there’s not a place for government help (WIC, housing assistance, whatever) if it’s warranted, but we have the privelege of being the support and safety net for our brothers and sisters. Sort of like how I think that taking a brother or sister to court should be one’s last option after seeking mediation for an issue through the body of the church…

    For non-believers, on the other hand, I fully think the government has both the right and responsibility to ensure that children are not abused. Absolutely. As a mandated reporter, it’s my legal responsibility to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect, and I have done so several times. I’ve been well trained as to what does and does not constitute abuse under the law. At least in California. (Of course, being a mandated reporter, I am legally obligated to report abuse in a Christian home just as much as any other…) However, I must say that, should the law ever declare something to be abuse that I consider part of my God-ordained role as a parent (going to church or reading the bible to my child, for example), I would obey God over Caesar. But that is true of anything the government may or may not do…


  10. I too struggle with the tension here…where do we draw the line? One issue not brought up here, though, is what happens when parents follow the “accepted wisdom” and norms of society and harm comes to their child. It seems that in those cases the harm is then explained away as something that “happens” and no one is to blame.

    For example, if I choose to vaccinate my child according to the CDC’s and my state’s schedule. I’m told to do so because it will be better for my child and for the “village” around me. What happens when my child is injured as a result of following those recommendations? Most often those parents are told that they’re crazy or it’s just a coincidence. It’s explained away, an acceptable result in a “public health” campaign where the needs of the many are valued about the needs of the individual.

    And it’s not just vaccinations, what about court-ordered cesareans because the “expert” thinks the life of the baby is in danger and the mother believes another route is safer? Where do we draw the line? Who’s perspective really has the best interests of the individual child in mind?


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