“We do not co-parent with the government” read signs raised by the self-dubbed “happy warriors” of Moms for Liberty, a 2-year-old, ostensibly grassroots, nonpartisan activist group that advocates for the elusive idea of “parents’ rights.”
Formed in January 2021 during a mask-panicked fury by two Floridian former school board members, depending on your perspective the group is either on a worthy mission to “reclaim our schools” with a Founding Fathers-like “righteous fire,” or they are theocratic-fascists out to censor every book they deem inappropriate for a grade-school Republican.
But in the battle for America’s future, there’s a bigger issue, an unchecked assumption. If the choice is between conservative parents with a political agenda or the unfeeling, intrusive power of the state—has anyone thought to ask the kids what they want?
From legalized abuse, to draconian treatment in the justice system, to their lack of suffrage, America loves the authoritarian mollycoddling of its children. And yet commentary on Moms for Liberty—even by its most ardent critics—rarely questions this as thoroughly as is deserved.
Do we consider people under the age of 18 to be citizens entitled to inalienable rights? Both legally and culturally, the answer is “not really.”
WHOSE KIDS ANYWAY?
Moms for Liberty and their allies repeat a false dichotomy that kids are either parental property or government property. But minors are both sovereign individuals and growing people in need of help and guidance.
So what does the law say about their rights?
Various Supreme Court decisions have danced around an overriding category of “parental rights.” Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) held that “[the state’s] authority is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child’s course of conduct on religion or conscience.” That is, parents can’t justify everything simply because of religion.
However, in 1971, Wisconsin V. Yoder allowed the Amish to remove their children from school after eighth grade. The reasoning was that the religious and social rights of the children’s parents superseded the state’s interest in continued education.
The 2000 decision Troxel v. Granville—which involved the visitation rights of grandparents and a Washington state law that allowed non-parental people to sue for visitation—said that the 14th Amendment protects the rights of parents to “the care, custody, and control of a child.”
The conclusion, if not the inferred constitutional foundation, seems obvious. But what if the Granville-Troxel kids wanted to see their grandparents more often? Shouldn’t something protect those children’s preferences, their rights?
“Moms for Liberty and their allies repeat a false dichotomy that kids are either parental property or government property…minors are both sovereign individuals and growing people in need of help and guidance.”
Homeschooling has been legal in every U.S. state since 1992, and the number of children educated outside of school grew from a few thousand in the 1970s to more than two million in 2019.
I was happily, irreligiously homeschooled. But not everyone shared my experience. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), which self-describes as “homeschool alumni who were raised in… regressive systems” wants to counter “parental rights extremism” coming from Moms for Liberty.
Samantha Field, the head of government relations at CRHE, wrote in an email, “Parents already have rights, and those rights are balanced with a child’s right to a safe home environment. What the current Parental-Rights Extremist movement wants to accomplish… strips children of their rights.”
And Moms for Liberty? Field says, “They have learned their organizing tactics from some of the worst leaders of the far right.”
WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE WE DOING?
Who actually uses the word “rights” with regards to children?
Typically, it’s leftist or anarchist radicals, though sometimes it’s international human rights groups like UNICEF and Human Rights Watch.
The United Nations has also backed the concept, beginning with its Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, a fuzzy and optimistic intranational document that says children have rights to safety, food, and special protection due to their unique status.
In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child said that kids have rights such as free expression and privacy, albeit with potential exceptions thanks to local law and customs. Some 170 countries ratified this as of 2023. (Notably, this does not include the United States, which signed, then failed to ratify it.) This not-so-radical declaration stresses parent and child togetherness, yet still uses the word “rights” and implies that someone besides their own parents should consider children’s welfare.
And yet, in all 50 U.S. states, the only human beings adults are allowed to hit are their kids. Though a parents’ chances of being sanctioned increases if they use an object or leave a mark, common law and specific statutes accept the rightness of physical discipline.
And this isn’t even controversial. As of 2014, 70 percent of American of parents agree that “sometimes kids need a good, hard spanking.” In 2008, the Minnesota state Supreme Court declined to articulate specific rules that might hinder a father’s ability to hit his 12 year-old 36 times with a paddle.
Even apparent “rights” for minors can be abused.
Children under 18 with parental and/or judicial consent, can get married in 41 states. Far from being a “freedom” afforded to children, this is often a handy way to disappear the shame of a pregnant teenager, or prevent a call to the authorities about statutory rape.
In the last several years, in multiple states, attempts to raise the age of consent for marriage to 18 have been impeded mostly by Republican state legislators. However, in California it’s (oddly enough) the American Civil Liberties Union that objects.
To cite just one example, Missouri Republican state Sen. Mike Moon clarified—after receiving justifiable pushback—that he was not in favor of 12-year-olds getting married—or of child rape. In his telling, he merely relayed an anecdote about two middle schoolers getting married with parental permission four decades ago, which was fine, because, he said, “It’s a parents’ decision to make; it’s their right to make that choice.”
Some of these same politicians who are happy to allow child marriage are also happy to lessen restrictions on child labor. To some degree, I agree. We should open up work opportunities for minors. But in the interim, while they are practically property, 13-year-olds working in slaughterhouses doesn’t benefit them so much as it does corporations and potentially abusive parents.
Similarly, letting minors get married is not choice, it’s a legal loophole for parentally-pressured rape, forced pregnancy, poverty, and abuse.
Furthermore, children and teens under 18 can’t vote, but they can be tried as adults—according to the ACLU, some 250,000 kids are each year, and in two thirds of states they can be sent to adult prison.
In short, depending on political convenience, young Americans are seen as innocents who need to be protected from library cards and “the transgender in our culture,” or middle schoolers are mature enough to be tried as adults (even ones suffering from schizophrenia).
We need to change this perspective, and that starts with accepting that kids are people every bit as deserving of their own civil rights.
The state isn’t your parent, but neither is every parent an unimpeachable good. What Moms for Liberty and their allies ignore is the fact that even moms and dads acting within the bounds of the law are not necessarily safer than strangers.
Opening up voting rights would help young people gain a civil rights foothold. Certainly it could make them a demographic that could no longer be ignored by politicians. (Opponents of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century argued that giving women the vote was just giving a double vote to socially dominant husbands—just sayin’.)
Children are a paradox. They’re not property, but they’re also not ready to decide everything for themselves. The answer is a radical rethinking of the balance of powers between society, parents, and children.
“Parental rights” and the culture war driving them will only confirm that kids never get the rights that are theirs just by virtue of being human beings.