Children Are Not Property

The idea that underlies the right-wing campaign for “parents’ rights.”

Photo: Amanda Voisard/REUTERS
Photo: Amanda Voisard/REUTERS

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” the Book of Proverbs says. To certain right-wing Christians, the concept is simple: A child can be broken, or stamped into shape, much like any domesticated animal. Though all parents hope they’ll pass their values onto their children, for some that hope is more of a mandate. My own parents believe that Proverbs is the word of God, and they believed, too, that a righteous upbringing would produce an adult in their image. Who can blame them? The idea that a child should replicate her parents does not belong only to conservative Christianity or to religion at all. A proverb is common wisdom, and lately this one is hard to escape. Authoritarianism is gospel to modern conservatives. Nowhere is that clearer than in their assaults on children.

The “parental rights” movement is not new, but it is enjoying a resurgence. Adherents say they’re protecting children from harm, broadly defined. After an art teacher at a Florida charter school showed students a picture of Michelangelo’s David, parental complaints forced out the principal. Members of Moms for Liberty call for book bans across the country; books with LGBT content are at special risk of removal. The architects of state bans on gender-affirming care for minors say, falsely, that children are at risk from predatory physicians and activists. A “gender cult” destroys families, claimed conservative commentator Matt Walsh. “The child they held as a baby and raised and gave their lives to and loved and still love becomes, suddenly, unrecognizable,” he said. “I would rather be dead than have that happen to my kids.” The real sin isn’t that trans youth will suffer but that the parental grip might loosen.

Conservative interest in the child extends beyond a traditional hostility to LGBT people. In March, Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, signed a bill into law that makes it easier for companies to hire children under 16 years old. More states may follow, as Terri Gerstein, the director of the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program’s State and Local Enforcement Project, pointed out in the New York Times. Bills that would allow “14- and 15-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants and other dangerous jobs in Iowa as part of training programs and 16- and 17-year-olds to take jobs at construction sites in Minnesota are under consideration,” Gerstein wrote, noting that the bills coincide with a rise in dangerous child-labor violations. Not long after Republicans sought to put more children to work in Arkansas, Republicans in North Dakota killed a bill that would have expanded a free-lunch program for children from low-income families. “I can understand kids going hungry, but is that really the problem of the school district? Is that the problem of the state of North Dakota? It’s really a problem of parents being negligent with their kids,” said State Senator Mike Wobbema. His message was clear enough. A hungry child is not a collective responsibility but a private failing on the part of the parents.

It’s possible to draw a line between Wobbema’s remarks, the push for child labor, and the right’s attacks on trans children. In each case, conservatives betray a conviction that a child is the property of parents. Because parents own their children, they can dispose of the child as they see fit. They can deny them evidence-based medical care. They can put a child to work. They can make sure a child is sheltered from the dangers of a serious education. When a child goes hungry, that’s because a parent isn’t caring for their property — and what a person does with their property is their right.

Like any piece of property, a child has value to conservative activists. They are key to a future the conservative wants to win. Parental rights are merely one path to the total capture of state power and the imposition of an authoritarian hierarchy on us all. So it’s no surprise that children have long been a fixation to the right wing. The late Christian reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony was a prominent advocate of Christian homeschooling in the 1960s through the 1980s. To Rushdoony, all education was religious, as Dr. Clint Heacock observed in a 2021 piece for Public Eye magazine. So-called government schools are churches in their own right, Rushdoony believed, indoctrinating students in the religion of secular humanism. He thought parents ought to be solely responsible for the care and education of their children instead of relinquishing them to an anti-Christian state. That fear of state influence, and belief in total parental control, isn’t limited to Rushdoony. At Salon, the journalist Kathryn Joyce reported that Michael Farris — a Trump ally who is the former president of the Alliance Defending Freedom and the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association — launched a parental rights nonprofit in the late aughts that sought to amend the Constitution to read, “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right.” Farris also objected, strenuously, to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the U.S. still hasn’t ratified. In his mind, the treaty threatened the parent’s right to homeschool and to use corporal punishment. No intermediary may come between parents and their property.

Taken to extremes, the concept of parental rights can be dangerous and even deadly for children. Proponents, like Farris and Rushdoony before him, ignore the basic fact that the home is often no refuge but a place of domination and abuse. The National Children’s Alliance says that over 600,000 children were documented victims of abuse and neglect in 2020. In 77 percent of substantiated cases, a parent committed the abuse. The language of parental rights can become a license to torture, as it did in the case of 13-year-old Hana Grace-Rose Williams. In 2011, officials found her “face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard,” the New York Times reported. An investigation later reported malnutrition and hypothermia as her causes of death. Her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were reportedly followers of Michael and Debi Pearl and their book, To Train Up a Child. The book, named for that verse in Proverbs, urges corporal punishment with a switch and says that “a little fasting is good training.” By the time of the Times report, three children, including Williams, had died in homes with the Pearls’ book on the shelves. The Williams parents are now serving decades in prison for the girl’s murder.

State laws passed by conservative Republicans have made LGBTQ children in particular more vulnerable to abuse at home by practically requiring schools to out them to their parents. The denial of gender-affirming care is another act of violence. Far-right activists invent tales of wanton surgeries on minors and irreversible hormonal treatments. In doing so, they obscure the high suicide rate among LGBT youth who need gender-affirming care as a matter of life or death. Children who work may be exposed to adult dangers, like workplace injury or sexual harassment. In the home and at school, children must also fear gun violence in the name of the Second Amendment. Adults who encourage the proliferation of guns do so knowing well that children will die. In their hierarchy, the adult right to a gun is worth more than the child‘s right to live. Reduced to the level of a collectible or a beloved pet, the child is not a person to the right.

Only the unborn are spared the right’s cruelty. Conservatives claim personhood for the fetus, who cannot disobey and requires nothing but a womb. The fetus is more valuable than the child because the fetus is a means to an end: the subjugation of women. Once born, a child’s value depreciates. The parental right to “train” the child takes precedence over the child’s basic rights. There are ways to circumvent a child’s established right to an education, as conservatives know. Homeschooling laws are so lax in the U.S. that thousands of children have essentially disappeared into an academic void. Even if a child goes to public school, chronic underfunding deprives many children, especially in poor areas, of a sound education. In much of the country, trans youth aren’t treated like people with medical needs but political targets. This is ownership, and the U.S. rarely interferes. There is one exception to the right’s belief in absolute parental rule: trans-affirming parents. A defiant parent is a threat to the right. They’ve stepped out of place and must be subdued.

In this perspective, rights aren’t innate. They’re determined instead by a person’s place in the conservative hierarchy. The opposite view — that everyone has rights by virtue of their humanity — requires us to change the way we commonly think of children. Liberals aren’t immune to the belief that children are property. The mainstream fearmongering over trans youth tells us that much. Yet combating the power of the parental rights movement requires an answering conviction in the rights of children. We can see them as people: uniquely vulnerable, yes, but nevertheless people who have independent minds and will develop private lives of their own.

There is no way to control a child forever. My parents learned that much. I hid books from them and discovered different ways of thinking through literature and furtive online searching. In relatively short order, I became an atheist and a socialist, a fate so dire that a former trustee at my Evangelical college told me he hoped my parents died before they knew the truth. (They did not share his sentiment.) If my example means anything, it’s this: Children are not dogs to train but adults in formation. They will learn, someday soon, that the future belongs to them. What they do with that knowledge matters to everyone. Children aren’t private property, then, but a public responsibility. To expand our democratic project to children is to grant them the security the right seeks to deny them: education, health care, shelter, food. A better America begins with the child.

Children Are Not Property