Household Tyrants

Angry parents and community members protest after a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia last year. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

To empower parents, Florida Republicans would put children in danger. If passed, their Parental Rights in Education legislation, known more commonly as the “don’t say gay” bills, would prevent public-school districts from “encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity,” CBS News reports. A proposed amendment would have required educators to report a child’s disclosure about their gender identity or sexual orientation to parents within six weeks.

Republicans haven’t been shy about their rationale. The text of the bills says they allegedly “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.” Last year, Senator Josh Hawley introduced a federal Parents’ Bill of Rights, which would include the right to review curricula and to visit children during school hours. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott announced his own Parental Bill of Rights last month. “Parents will be restored to their rightful place as the preeminent decision-maker for their children,” he said at a campaign event held, fittingly, at a charter school. On Wednesday, Abbott told Texas state agencies to investigate reports of gender-affirming care for transgender children.

Parents don’t lack rights in the U.S. They already enjoy the wide freedom to educate their children as they wish, including at home or in private schools. They can raise their children to be Christians or witches or both; the state does not interfere. Liberals are generally satisfied with this state of affairs: There is no appetite to prohibit parents from raising their children in even the most hate-filled churches. Yet the right behaves as if parental rights were under sustained and serious attack, as if the parent has been dislodged from a high place and, as Abbott said, should be restored. The GOP’s position on parental rights isn’t entirely coherent. Any attempt to ban gender-confirming therapy for transgender children theoretically infringes on the rights of the parent, but this hasn’t dissuaded the party from its attacks on trans rights. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton had previously issued an opinion defining gender-affirming care as ‘child abuse.’ Trans children and their families must now fear the long arm of the state, which will reach into their most private and personal affairs

The right’s real ambition isn’t restoration, though, but expansion; they want to create new rights on top of the privileges parents already enjoy. In the party’s view, parental rights both supersede and exist in conflict with the rights of the child. The right insists that what’s good for parents is good for kids. This is not necessarily the truth, as any queer person can say in return. The idea that children are already people, with thoughts and needs independent of their parents, never factors into the party’s position at all. The parental-rights movement isn’t new. As journalist Kathryn Joyce has observed, the concept is associated historically with some Christian homeschool activists, who lobbied for a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the right of a parent to teach their children at home. The language might sound familiar. “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right,” it states. But why parental rights, and why now?

The right’s war on so-called “critical race theory,” and its push to shed COVID-19 caution and reopen schools without masks, created an opening that Republicans are eager to exploit. Ever eager to privatize education, the GOP perceives an opportunity. Public schools must conform to the party’s ideological strictures, or else: Parents can avail themselves of charter schools or use vouchers to attend private school or to homeschool. Yet conservatives are capable of strategic innovation. The GOP has updated its playbook, as Republican legislators provoke voters to rage over the prospect of “The 1619 Project” in curricula or examples of multicultural education in schools. In a particularly extreme example, the 11-point plan released by Senator Rick Scott and the National Republican Senatorial Committee calls for the closure of the Department of Education, along with the introduction of “school choice,” which typically means charter schools and vouchers for parents.

Whatever the fate of Scott’s document, it is an artifact of its time and place. As the conservative fringe gathers the party into itself, movements like parental rights move from obscurity into the mainstream. The GOP is turning to parental rights as it tilts headfirst to the far right. The two trends are linked. As Republicans long for a strong figure in power, they imagine the same figure in every home. Subject of a household tyrant, the child has no freedom. They had little enough at all: Their right to an education, to independent thought and action, has historically been secondary to their parent’s preferences. The GOP, with the Christian right behind it, would restrict them further, even if it places them in danger of neglect or abuse.

To the GOP, the parent exists to enforce the party’s will, as though the parent is simply the local arm of a national entity. Parents who fail to obey may find their powers restricted by the state. Authoritarianism is inconsistent in this way; rights granted to followers are not extended to dissenters. For the latter there exists only punishment, a fate that extends to their children. The GOP is the party of parental rights because it is increasingly anti-democratic. It has become the party of ruthless, cynical power, and children aren’t exempt from its schemes. In fact, they’re key.

Household Tyrants