In some ways, our society loves to cheer for parents. Dads can go viral just for styling their daughter’s hair or making birthday cakes. Especially if they are celebrities who pose on-set with their kids or Olympians who alternate swimming laps and breastfeeding, moms are celebrated. We adore the idea of successful parents with photogenic progeny.
Yet at the same time, we are witnessing a drastic erosion of public support for the idea that ordinary parents are the people most likely to know what is best for their children. We no longer trust the dad and mom next door. This leads to a culture that not only undervalues what parents do, but is also increasingly willing to take away their ability to do it.
Sadly, the belief that children must be protected from their families is difficult to combat. Why? It makes perfect sense in a cultural framework like ours that routinely encourages parents to objectify their own children.
Attempts to limit parental control of their children’s lives and upbringing are visible in many spheres. We’ve all heard about folks who call the authorities because a neighbor has allowed children to play in their own fenced-in back yard without adult supervision. More examples abound. For instance, if your child is older than 12, it is illegal for your child’s doctor to tell you if your child is receiving mental health care, being treated for drug or alcohol abuse, or being given contraception or an abortion, unless your child agrees to share this information with you. It is startling to realize that we assume children are more likely to be harmed by fear of parental interference than by making important decisions about mind and body-altering drugs without parental guidance.
Go Away, Mom and Dad!
In the realm of education, parents who want to control or at least influence the values taught to their children—especially in health and literature classes—often meet accusations of censorship and bigotry. Discussions of young adult literature regularly affirm the idea that parents must stop trying to protect their children from violent and sexually explicit material. The tension can even reach heights of comic proportion, as when the Idaho School Board Association issued a resolution plaintively calling on the state legislature to stop increasing “parental rights in regard to education,” lest parental demands interfere with schools’ attempts to comply with state and federal mandates.
Opponents of traditional parental rights claim the old ideas treat children as parental property instead of free human beings. The practical implication is that the state is a more trustworthy guardian than parents—or, at least, that state intervention can place parent and child on equal footing with each other. This is in stark contrast to a 1925 Supreme Court declaration that parents have the right to direct the education and upbringing of their offspring because children are not “the mere creature[s] of the state.”
Today’s opposition to parental rights is misguided, but it stems from an unfortunate truth: our society is not kind to children. This may sound surprising. At first glance we appear to have a child-focused culture. We fill our homes with pint-sized furniture. We hesitate to make even toddlers obey us. We are so prone to buy our kiddos whatever they request that advertisers target them directly. Yet beneath the abundance of material possessions heaped upon our children lies a darker story.
It is not that today’s moms and dads don’t care—of course we do! Yet our understanding of love has been so warped by hyper-individualism that we find it difficult to nurture our children’s humanity.
Acting Like Consumers Instead of Parents
The old-fashioned view is that babies are a routine part of life. Because sex is an inherent aspect of marriage and children are an inherent aspect of sex, children become the natural result of the human desire to pair off and form families. Like sunshine and rain, they come, are received, and prevent the annihilation of the species.
Nowadays, fewer people view getting married and having children as the default. It might seem as though children are better off in families that have consciously chosen to seek them out. Yet when the primary reason for having children is the quest for personal fulfillment, children are objectified. Parents become consumers with the right to shop and choose.
Thus, it is “cute” when a celebrity selects the sex of her child. It is natural that parents selectively reduce multiples or abort a child with a disability. It is perfectly acceptable for adults to intentionally use surrogacy, sperm donation, or in vitro fertilization to create children who will never know one or both of their biological parents.
Such consumerism deadens our ability to think about our children’s long-term human needs. Unlike pets or stamp collections, children are human beings with souls. They need to be treated as such. They need to be taught self-control, wisdom, love for truth, and the ability to care for others. Instead, we tend to pacify and “manage” them while focusing primarily on their material needs.
When we do spend time teaching our kids, we often focus on visible, measurable achievements. We are at risk of acting as if it is more important that our children make us look good by getting into the right college than that they grow into better human beings.
We Objectify Children by Subjugating Their Needs to Our Happiness
We say we would do anything for our kids, and we mean it. Yet we think we have a moral right, if not a duty, to prioritize our personal happiness over their needs. Just look at our cultural determination to routinely shatter children’s homes through no-fault divorce.
In a similar manner, public discourse about motherhood tends to revolve around the unspoken assumption that women who adapt their lives and careers to better raise a family are being robbed of the chance to reach their full potential. We bewail the reality that mothers often prefer to work fewer hours even when doing so decreases their opportunities for promotion. We warn about the “hidden cost” of interrupting a career to stay home with kids, and call for government childcare subsidies so women won’t decrease their future earning power by putting their jobs on hold.
The problem is not that some women work outside the home. The problem is that it is culturally anathema to suggest (a) that it makes any difference to the wellbeing of small children whether they spend the majority of their time with their parents, versus in a roomful of peers and a rotating staff of strangers, or (b), that the needs of a child ought to weigh more heavily than a parent’s desire for professional success.
What does it say about our society’s view of children that we routinely and publicly talk about them as impediments to financial prosperity? Children become objects we have the right to possess rather than beloved ones for whom we serve and sacrifice.
We have gone so far down this path of objectification that we grant unborn children the right to be human only so long as their mothers desire them to be so. Some ethicists, in fact, argue that until children can think like adults or contribute meaningfully to society, there is no objective reason to grant them human rights at all.
No Wonder We Despise Parents
Recently, I saw a Facebook post intended to demonstrate that choosing to have children is just as “selfish” as choosing to live a childfree lifestyle. The poster claimed that when asked why they have kids, most parents make some form of an “I wanted…” statement. The implication is that, just as some people skip kids to enjoy the lifestyle they desire, so others choose kids in order to enjoy the lifestyle they prefer. Parenting is simply one way among many to seek fulfillment.
This poster displays a lack of understanding of what parenting is all about. Sacrifice. Love. Giving to others while perpetuating both social security and the human race. Parenting can be a lot of fun, of course, but that’s a mere side benefit. Its real purpose is much larger.
Tragically, however, the Facebook post is actually an accurate description of the way that many people approach their own offspring. No wonder we despise the work of stay-at-home parents. No wonder it is hard not to see the choice to give up a career for one’s kids as anything more meaningful than another form of empty and conspicuous consumption.
A society that encourages parents to behave with the selfishness and self-absorption of children is in danger of forgetting what parents even are. It should not be surprising that when a large percentage of parents are guilty of objectifying their children, society loses trust in all parents and decides that the child’s only reliable advocate is the child himself (aided and supported by the power of the state).
Thus, we live in a time in which it is argued that, to protect the human rights of kids, we must take away the rights of their parents to raise them. People who have grown up seeing children objectified by their own parents find it easy to believe that the solution is a restructuring of the family. Sadly, the end result of this is to leave children at the mercy of the state, an institution less capable of loving them than even a flawed and moderately selfish parent.
We Need to Be a Different Kind of Parent
I am concerned about the erosion of parental rights because my husband and I have been entrusted with children. It is our responsibility to grow in knowledge as we teach them what is true. It is our duty to become more fully human as we learn how to sacrifice for their good. It is our job to pursue wisdom as we try to parent well. It is our task to protect them to the best of our abilities, especially when that means fighting against cultural values that would objectify them and teach them to objectify others. It is our job to be people they can trust.
All of this is hard to do. It will become far harder if our legal right to direct our children’s upbringing and education continues to erode. I hope very much that good and faithful parents will be able to show our culture that the best way to care for children—the truest method of recognizing and embracing their humanity—is to trust the ordinary mom and dad next door.