The concept of stewardship is the model of the parent/child relationship that best reconciles the rights of children and the science of human development. The major competing models of the parent/child relationship — the child as property of the parent, mutuality, and liberationism — are fundamentally flawed. The following short paper shall detail a few of the arguments for the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship and expose the flaw in the primary arguments against the stewardship model posited by adherents of the competing models.



What is the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship? As of March 15, 2016 Dictionary.com defines stewardship in the following manner:

  1. the position and duties of a steward, a person who acts as the surrogate of another or others, especially by managing property, financial affairs, an estate, etc.

  2. the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving … .

Thus, in my view the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship deems a parent (or guardian) as a person entrusted with the duties of overseeing and protecting a child in a responsible manner.



Possibly the first modern argument for the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship was proffered by the political philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As detailed by George H. Smith in the “Children’s Rights in Political Philosophy” chapter of his 1991 book titled Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies, Bentham asserted that the parent/child relationship is a guardian/ward relationship in which the parent-guardiaan:

exercises power … for the benefit of the ward, rather than for himself.

Bentham also insisted that both the parent-guardian and the child-ward have rights and duties in the relationship.

A legal argument for the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship derives from English criminal law idea of “duties arising out of a relationship”. English criminal law generally has not sanctioned a person for failing to assist another person, except in very particular circumstances. The “duties arising out of a relationship” idea was validated in the 1919 case of R v Gibbins & Proctor (13 Cr App R 134), in which an English court ruled that the principle that a parent owes a legal duty to a child to ensure the child does not suffer unreasonable risks to health or safety is self-evident and requires no comprehensive analysis or cited authority.

A second, and my favorite, legal argument for the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship derives from the English criminal law idea of “creation of peril”, sometimes also referred to as “creation of a dangerous situation.”   The logic here is that a parent creates a perilous situation for a child by proceeding with a pregnancy after the time period for legal abortion ends because the child at that point in time emerges as a rights-bearing individual that developmentally CANNOT provide for itself basic life necessities. Because the parent is the proximate cause of this perilous scenario, the parent has the legal duty to extricate the child from the dangerous situation by providing the basic life necessities.

In the 1999 book titled Moral Matters, Jan Narveson delineates a consequentialist argument for the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship. The key paragraph is the following:

Our rights against each other, as adults, are the proper sources of rights for children. Children are potential adults. To treat them well is to set them on the road to being the sort of adults we want to have around; to treat them badly is virtually to invite them to become the sort of people we don’t want around. Parents who fail toward their children are parents who fail their neighbors and fellow humans, as well, of course, as the adults those children become when they grow up.

Narveson further argues that parents must provide a minimum of socialization and education to meet the obligations of the stewardship model.

Economist Steven Horwitz provides a plethora of arguments for the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship in his 2015 book titled Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. His essential claim is the following:

… parental obligations come when parents engage in the positive act of treating the child as theirs by asserting their parental rights and thereby accepting the corresponding obligations. “Treating the child as theirs” is a kind of public declaration of the exercise of parental rights, and those rights come with corresponding responsibilities and obligations.  … In this sense, taking a child home from the hospital is analogous to homesteading: the parents are declaring to others (not to the child) that this child is theirs and that they thereby accept the responsibilities to care that come with exercising those parental rights. If people bring a child into the world and do not wish to care for it themselves, they have an obligation to arrange for its care by finding someone else who wants to acquire those rights. Children must be cared for, and they are unable to consent to who becomes their caregivers. Therefore the agreement parents enter into is not with the child directly, but with the “rest of us” by engaging in de facto exercises of parental rights that then create de jure obligations to care for (or to arrange for the care of) those children.

Horwitz also hypothesizes that the endurance throughout history of religious rituals such as baby-namings, namakarans, and baptisms is due to their role in the public declaration/recognition of parent/child stewardship.

Finally, in a 1992 book titled In Their Best Interest?: The Case Against Equal Rights for Children, Laura Purdy cites empirical evidence that the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship is the best approach to maximize the development of functional adults. For example, one study:

comparing Danish and American families supports the hypothesis that learning self-control early is beneficial. Danish families are strict with young children but permissive with adolescents. Yet the adolescents are more self-disciplined and autonomous than the more consistently permissively reared American youths.

Additional studies consistent with the superiority of the stewardship model of the parent/child relationship have only accumulated in the years since the publication of Purdy’s book.



Proponents of “the child is property of the parent” model argue that the stewardship model absurdly equates the rights of children and adults when children and adults are objectively unequal in all domains of human development.   The problem with this claim is that it is merely another version of the naturalistic fallacy, in which a clumsy thinker attempts to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Basically, the normative determination of the rights of children cannot be derived from a scientific analysis of children.

Proponents of the mutuality model argue that the stewardship model, (nicely described by Thomas Murray in The Worth of a Child):

connotes disinterestedness, selflessness, a sort of benign but emotionally distant concern for the welfare of the child. This fits poorly with the intensity, love, and intimacy we prize between parents and children.

The problem with this claim is that it is another version of the red herring fallacy, in which a clumsy thinker tosses out a seemingly plausible but ultimately irrelevant diversionary argument that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual issue at hand.   Thus, even if nearly all advocates of the stewardship model behave in the “emotionally distant” manner abhorred by Murray, such an “emotionally distant” behavior pattern is not a core feature of the stewardship model itself and, therefore, must be critiqued on its own terms and cannot be counted as legitimate evidence against the stewardship model.

Finally, proponents of the liberationist model argue that the stewardship model unjustly recognizes different rights for children and adults even though there is no morally relevant difference between children and adults.   The problem with this claim is that there ARE morally relevant differences between children and adults (experience, reason, decision-making capacity, etc.). Thus, universalizability is not violated if one treats children and adults differently because children and adults are different in ethically important ways.



The stewardship model is the best model of the parent/child relationship. Strong arguments for the stewardship model have been proferred by philosophers, economists, and legal experts. Objections to the stewardship model offered by advocates of competing models are easily debunked.