The target that they've selected is schools and the apparently huge cadre of socialist indoctrinators hiding there, but the real source of their frustration is their own children who refuse to be the person they're supposed to be. They are deeply alarmed about parental rights; they are not nearly so concerned about the rights of their children. "The government does not own my child," they say, and in case you miss the implication, Rand Paul is one guy who finished the statement:
“The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul said in an interview with CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” “Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health.”
I often think of one woman who responded to the North Carolina tip line set up to report public school indoctrination. She wrote:
My daughter was raised with sound Biblical values, but just three short years [in]) public school has turned her into a full-blown socialist...even to this day, I cannot have a rational discussion with her regarding anything significant.
Her daughter had graduated fifteen years before this was written. Fifteen years and this sound Biblical mom had not found a way to bridge the gap that was totally created by schools and in no way a result of any parenting choices she made.
This gulf between parents and children is everywhere in the culture war skirmishes. For instance, the many requirements that school districts must not keep secrets about the children, as if there were any secrets the school could keep from parents if the parents and children were talking freely and openly at home. Yesterday, my sons had a special program at school that I knew nothing about ahead of time, but we talk about the day's events every afternoon when I pick them up, so they told me about it, we talked about it, and life went on. It's that easy.
Except, of course, for some folks it is not. And we have studies to illuminate the issue, sort of.
What's out there is spotty, inconsistent, and (surprise) sloppily reported by some news outlets (though given the absolutely frustrating and expensive hoops one needs to jump through to read the actual research, it's understandable).
There's an oft-cited statistic from a 1997 study (that you have to really dig to find) finding 7% of adults are estranged from mothers, 25% from fathers. In 2013 we find mainstream outlets like Today talking about a "silent epidemic" of "cut off kids." Nowadays the study of estrangement is a "young field of research" of a "surprisingly common" phenomenon.
In 2020, Karl Pillemer (Cornell) gave the topic a bump with his book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, -- but that book came out in September of 2020, and as you may recall, we were all a bit preoccupied with other issues at the time. Pillemer found that 27% of over-18 people-- 1 in 4--had cut off contact with a family member. That's around 67 million Americans.
What's going on? Joshua Coleman, author of When Parents Hurt, suggested in a 2022 article that families view their lives through different lenses:
However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes. Estranged parents often tell me that their adult child is rewriting the history of their childhood, accusing them of things they didn’t do, and/or failing to acknowledge the ways in which the parent demonstrated their love and commitment. Adult children frequently say the parent is gaslighting them by not acknowledging the harm they caused or are still causing, failing to respect their boundaries, and/or being unwilling to accept the adult child’s requirements for a healthy relationship.
Coleman further notes that "Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century." And he quotes historian Stephanie Coontz:
For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.
So where families used to argue about what one was supposed to do or how one was supposed to act, we're now fighting over who we're supposed to be.
Other writers point to a constellation of the usual suspects, heightened in our current atmosphere. Different values. Different politics. New approaches to mental health--Coleman says that the idea of cutting off a family member as a step in personal growth is "almost certainly new."
Coleman also argues that our increased valuing of individualism, which puts greater stakes on parents who try to control children's behavior--their friends, their activities, their jobs. Children, once they're old enough to do it, seek to set boundaries, make their own choices, define their own identity.
Much of what I'm reading makes me wonder if the helicopter parents of 20-ish years ago haven't spawned a break-away generation of children.
Being cut off from your own child, having them reject your guidance and values, watching them deliberately break from being the person that you invested so much time and effort and self in can be a tough and painful thing. It doesn't have to be, especially if your parenting goal has been top raise an independent, functioning adult. It doesn't have to be hard if, in fact, you raised them on the premise that they are a separate individual and not a parental possession. You also have to face up to the realities of parenting; is there anything more hilarious than a first time parent telling you exactly what their child will or will not be like? But even if you've managed not to parent based on control and possession, it can be rough to realize that the child that you once rocked in your arms is a stranger to you.
It's unsurprising that folks suffering through this hurt or anger will look for someone to blame. One 2021 study of 1,000 estranged mothers found most of them blaming ex-husband's or their child's partner.
Add to all this ideas like "Race stuff was fixed in the sixties and anyone who's still talking about it is just making trouble for political gains, or they've been tricked into going along by someone who's looking for political power." Add to all this misguided biases like the idea that LGBTQ persons aren't born, but have to be "recruited." You get a bunch of older parents saying, "Who stole my child from me" and a bunch of younger parents declaring, "Well, by God, nobody's going to take MY child away!" It's a very human thing to ask "who did this to me" instead of "what did I do cause it?"
These waves of generational angst always end up looking for culprits, and schools always make the list, so it should come as no surprise this time. Schools are targeted, and all that parental fear and frustration is harvested for societal and political clout.
Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post convincingly argues that the parental rights movement is actually about avoiding parental responsibilities, that the various reading and subject matter restrictions are a way to shield parents from having to talk to their children about anything difficult or uncomfortable, or more to the point, shielding parents from having to explain themselves, their values, their beliefs. Maybe, the reasoning seems to go, if my child never hears anything at all about any of this, they will be the person I want them to be. But that trick doesn't work, has never worked, will never work.