Thursday, December 9, 2021

Are Parents' Rights The Only Ones We Need To Worry About?

Being a parent is a scary business. Suddenly you've got these tiny humans to take care of and you don't know what you're doing and you try to make the best choices you can even though you're worried that you may be scarring them for life but you invest your heart and soul into trying to keep them safe and smart and growing up to be good people. And then just as they're starting to turn into real people and you're even starting to feel like you're getting a handle on things, you reach a point where you have to start handing their care and safety over to other people--people you don't even know--and you discover whole new levels of fear and anxiety. 

All of this is real. It's important to remember that. It's important to remember that no matter how many times the concern is exploited by charlatans and opportunistic demagogues, the concern is real. 

Parents rights is a hot political ticket right now, and like the best political opportunities, it has some basis in reality. Parents do, and should, have rights when it comes to their children. 

But--and this is a huge, important but-- any system that recognizes and supports parental rights must also recognize and protect the rights of children.

Right wing folks are fond of saying, "My child does not belong to the government" That's true. Your child is a human being. They don't belong to the government or the school or you--they belong to themselves. And because they lack the power and agency to fully protect their own rights, they need a champion, a person with power and agency to stand in their corner.

Ideally, that person would be a parent. But any responsible system has to recognize the reality that there exists a non-zero of bad parents out there. Some of them are spectacularly bad (like the parents who held their twelve kids captive); some of them even make news

Every teacher has stories. Kid thrown out of the house after a big argument with his dad about sharing drugs. Kid's drunken mom tries to purposefully run them down with the family car. Girl's dad punishes her by shaving her head; sends her to school with instructions to the school not to let her try to hide it with a hat. Kid falls asleep because Dad spends the utility money on beer, so there's no heat at home and it's hard to sleep. Kid's father leaves town to start life in new town with new wife and baby, and tells kid not to bother trying to visit because he's got a new life now.

This is over and above the more pedestrian stuff, like the parent who sits in a parent-teacher conference and berates the child for being stupid and lazy "like always." The parent who is never home. 

To be clear, these parents are not even close to the majority of parents. But I don't think you can find a school anywhere, regardless of race, wealth, or any other demographic marker, that does not have a few of these stories every single year. 

So any time you start talking to me about upholding parents rights, I will want to hear about how your "solution" will involve protecting the rights of young humans--not just from the school, but from their peers and their own parents. I don't want distrust of parents to be the default any more than I think distrust of teachers or schools should be the default--but there must be mechanisms in place to protect students rights when they are threatened and that must take precedent over parental rights.

If talking about parents rights, we also need to discuss rights of other stakeholders. Some parent "rights" cannot be honored without damage to society. Those parents who believe they have a "right" to raise their white children in a segregated environment. Parents who believe they have a right to place their child in a school where Those People's Children are not allowed to attend. Now we get into a different conversation, a conversation not about whether parents have the right to make that choice, but whether or not taxpayers have an obligation to fund it. Do parents have the right to make choices that are bad for society--and do they have the right to have society pay for those choices?

It is easy to demand that parents be in control of their child's education, that you shouldn't have to co-parent with the government--which is just another way that you should be allowed to make your own way and that your child should be totally dependent on your capabilities as a parent--when you are confident that you personally have the resources to navigate that challenge. Not everyone does, and a non-zero number of parents are not even trying under the current system, even with all its built-in supports and assistance. 

Parents must be partners with the schools that educate their children--but when they are incapable or unwilling to hold up their half of the partnership, schools need to step in. Parents' rights are important--but when they clash with the rights of the child, the child's rights must take precedence. Waving the parents right banner is swell for politics (must be, because it keeps coming back time and time again as a cover for other activities), but it's not a great way to put students first in education.

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