Thursday, March 23, 2023

Children Are People

During his town hall on education, far-right-light Governor Glenn Youngkin was pressed on various issues of trans children, and in response, he echoed a sentiment that keeps appearing in these parental rights debates (though not always quite so clearly):

Children belong to parents. Not to the state, not to schools, not to bureaucrats, but to parents.

Well, no, Children are human beings, not chattel.

But the humanity of children often seems at question in much of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation from culture warriors these days. New Hampshire is yet another state considering legislation that could require school staff to out LGBTQ students to their parents. Meanwhile, the well-funded advocacy group, Parents [sic] Defending [sic] Education [sic] has released a list of 6,000 schools that, they charge, have policies to "hide" trans student status from parents. And the hot new wave in anti-LGBTQ student bills are Birth Name bills, requiring schools and school staff to address students by the names and pronouns on their birth certificates without written parental permission. 

What all of this has in common is a disregard for the agency and independence and humanity of the students themselves. 

The scenario often darkly hinted at is one in which school staff somehow convince a student that they are LGBTQ, and tell them they had better not tell anyone at home about it. 

But the far more likely scenario is one in which a student comes to a trusted school staff member to talk about their identity while begging the staff member not to tell parents. This conversation may occur during the highly charged time when the student is struggling with a new understanding of themself, or it may occur in a more standard school drama context (the girl who asks for advice dealing with her girlfriend but "I can't talk to my folks about this because they would freak").

Anybody who pretends that these moments are easy to navigate and can be handled by a cut and dried set of rules is kidding themselves. Students, especially teens, play with their sense of identity an awful lot, and sometimes it's temporary and sometimes it's not. Students are sometimes terrible judges of what they can expect from parents and sometimes they are excellent judges. Parents are sometimes great at supporting their children's growth into independent adults, and sometimes they are not, at all. 

As with many hot button issues, folks are dealing from different premises. If you believe that LGBTQ identities are unnatural, that LGBTQ identities are made, not born, then you will react to news of your own child's LGBTQ identity by wanting to know who made them that way, and schools are the most obvious place to look. If you believe that LGBTQ persons are born, not made, then your main concern will be how to protect and gird them for a world that is often hostile--and that hostility can start at home. We know that LGBTQ children go through a lot. It seems simple enough to want them to go through less, but different premises yield different solutions to the problem ("stop being LGBTQ" versus "put protections for the child in place").

The ideal situation is parents who are loving and supportive of the child, though that situation can be less ideal in states where the parents of LGBTQ persons are stripped of their legal rights to make certain decisions for their children (because parental rights apparently involves only certain parents in some states). A school can't hide any of this information when the child is loving, accepted, and open with their parents. 

Put another way, there is no situation in which the school hides information about LGBTQ students from the parents; there are only situations in which the school and the child keep the information from parents. 

The school's decision has to be based on two factors. One is the question of possible abuse of the child. Some commenters say, "Well, the law doesn't have to worry about that because the laws already require school staff to report abuse." But that's abuse that has already happened. "We're going to tell your folks, and if they beat you and throw you out, then we'll just report it," is not a great plan. But figuring out what possible abuse may or may not happen is not an exact science.

The other factor is that schools must balance the rights of the parents with the rights of the students. The disturbing part of so many of these laws, so much of this rhetoric, is that the rights of students are absent from the debate. This has become an ugly part of the new idea that schools serve families and not all of the community--the notion that teachers are simply hirelings whose primary purpose if to extend parental reach in exerting their will over their children. 

None of this is simple to sort out, and there is no doubt that sometimes schools get it wrong, that staff, well-meaning or not, make some bad judgement calls. 

But any solution that treats children as property rather than people is not going to help. Any solution that enshrines parental rights but ignores students' rights and safety is not a real solution. Students are trying to figure out who they are, and they are trying to figure out how their identity is going to affect their relationships with the people around them. The people around them can help by being mindful, thoughtful, and extending grace to the students and to each other. 


  1. Well, hell, we still treat women as property, And lots of women tret their kids as their property. Kids are the last to be treated as human. Any child deviating from the norm is damaged property

  2. Have you ever been to an orphanage? Imagine, if you will, a child who was abandoned for 16 months, living in two rooms, being picked up by an adoptive parent who says, "Mama is here...Mama loves you"...and a group of little children looking on through a window begin call.."Mama! Mama!! Mama!!!"
    Non stop. No, children aren't chattel. But they want to belong in a way that is impossible to describe....They want to belong to their parents, their families.