Children Are No One’s Property

Children “belong” to no one, says Lynn Beisner, but it’s a parent’s role to shape them and society’s job to provide parents with the resources to do that.

In the year 2013, this should go without saying, but apparently some people have not gotten the memo: No human being is entitled to own another human being. And at this point in human history, no one should receive support and attention for complaining on Twitter or Facebook that some liberal has the “unflipingbelievable” idea that a particular class of humans belongs to another class by virtue of biology. 

But that is exactly what I heard this week when Sarah Palin succinctly echoed conservative’s harsh criticism of a promotional video made by MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. In it, Harris-Perry made the case that we as a society are responsible for all children, not just our biological offspring.

On one hand, I agree with those who are reassuring parents that Harris-Perry does not want to “steal your children” and those who have said her idea should be completely “uncontroversial.”

What’s missing from the responses to Harris-Perry’s critics is a recognition that the word “belong” is what is at dispute here. When Harris-Perry said that children belong to all of us, she was urging us all to take responsibility, to not write off a generation along with our bad debt. When Palin used the word “belong” she meant it in the sense that I grew up with: “free to do with as you please.” 

What we all seem to be taking for granted is the very idea that children “belong” to someone. Children are human beings who have been temporarily placed in our care. They are not belongings that can be possessed or discarded.

The word “belongs” brings with it all the entitlement of ownership. If my house and my car belong to me, then I can treat them as I will unless my treatment harms someone else or is obviously egregious. Even if the bank owns all or most of both, I can do just about anything short of setting them on fire or crashing the car into the house and no one will hold me accountable. 

So why do we use the language of possession when talking about children? For starters, like the elderly or people with developmental disorders, children are very vulnerable. But what sets them apart, what makes people want to claim them as their rightful possessions, is that they are uniquely impressionable. As Neil Postman wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

While we have an obligation as a society to protect children because they are vulnerable, Americans take very seriously parents’ “right” to mold their children. So when we talk about who our children belong to, we are talking about two very different agendas. The first is parents’ rights, and the second is responsibility for children.

My experiences as both a child and a parent give me some rather unique insight into these issues.

Let me start with the story of how parental rights worked when I was a child, and how they still work in many corners of our country. When I was in pre-school, a neighbor of ours became very concerned. (Her name was Lynn, and it is in her honor that I adopted my pen-name.) She heard the sounds of my mother beating me, and saw the welts, bruises, and scars that covered my back and sides. As an emergency room nurse, she was alarmed at the extent of my injuries and felt compelled to intervene. Her first step was to have a private chat with my mother, explaining the permanent damage that my mother could do, and even asking how she and her mother might help ease my mother’s stress. 

My mother walked me out of the door of Lynn’s house, and went straight to our pastor. Our church and others in the area took up the case as a parental rights issue. If the State was allowed to tell my mother that she could not follow her religion’s mandate about child rearing, what was to stop them from taking away the children of every Christian? The churches took us into hiding like we were in witness protection, and for more than two weeks, we were shuffled from town to town.

While we were gone, our neighbor took her concerns along with pictures of my battered body to the police and to social workers. They contacted my mother through the church, not to question her but to assure her that they would never dream of interfering in how a mother raised her child unless that child’s life was at risk. 

What few liberals realize is the extent to which many conservatives are like the churches that sheltered my mother—perpetually paranoid about parental rights. They believe what I was taught as a child, that the State is in a godless and relentless quest to take children from their parents to be raised as liberal atheists. 

In fairness, it is not an entirely irrational fear. No, we will not come in with armies of communist social workers and take away their children or make it illegal to give them chocolate chip cookies. But what they are fighting for is the right to shape children, which they see as key to the very survival of their way of thinking and living. And to the extent that we all want our children to carry on our values and traditions, I can understand where they are coming from.

However, the idea that children are their parents’ to do with as they please is a hold-over from patriarchy when fathers were the head of the household and everyone—wives, children and servants—were theirs to command. The notion that children belong to parents sanctions the type of behavior toward children that we no longer tolerate toward any other segment of society. 

The next time you hear someone justify hitting a child, replace the word “child” with “a person suffering from dementia” or “developmentally disabled.” We would be outraged if the caregivers of those people demanded the right to hit them because it was what their religion taught or because they believed it was the only way to ensure cooperative behavior. The only logic that justifies allowing parents to make the same truly inhumane claim is that we give them the rights of ownership over another human being. 

As I mentioned earlier, there are two sides to the issue; the second is of parental versus social responsibility. And here is where my experience as a parent becomes relevant and serves as an example of what happens when we as a society abdicate our collective responsibility for children.

In the last couple of decades we have declared that parents are solely responsible for keeping their children safe and making sure they get physical exercise in their play. Rather than doing even the simplest things to create safe neighborhoods, like installing and maintaining sidewalks, we required parents to keep children in their sight at all times. At the same time, we have cut funds to parks and recreation so that the cost of enrolling children in sports is prohibitive to many low-income parents, and things such as well-maintained and safe playgrounds are an “amenity” available in only certain neighborhoods.

This leaves working parents with few options for giving their children the space and the opportunity to run, jump, slide, and interact with other children. I faced this dilemma when my children were in their critical pre-school years. I was a poor, single mother. After a frustrating search, I finally found a place that had safe, well-lit, stimulating playground equipment with plenty of other children: McDonald’s. 

I was the mother who made her own baby food and kept her children’s diet entirely free of sugar for the first two years of their lives. But I made the considered choice to take them to McDonald’s twice a week. I found ways to minimize the cost and encouraged them to make the healthier choices on the menu. But I believed then as I do now that it was more important for my children to get away from the television and computer and to be active than to completely avoid fast food.

While I felt horrible about taking my children to McDonald’s a couple nights a week, at least I didn’t have to contend with our current penchant for shaming parents who frequent fast food establishments. Not a week goes by that I don’t see something telling parents that they are lazy or just plain stupid for taking their kids to McDonald’s, which likely has the one safe playground in their neighborhood. 

It is a radical notion to say that children do not “belong” to their parents. But what is an even more radical idea, is the idea that they “belong” to no one, not even society. Children are people who happen to be both vulnerable and impressionable. Of course we want parents to retain the privilege of shaping them. But we have to take responsibility as a community for protecting children and giving parents the support and resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, and a feminist living somewhere East of the Mississippi. She is a regular contributor to Role/Reboot. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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