Children’s Rights?

Do children have rights? If the do, should the state step in to guarantee these rights? Or, in contrast, do children belong entirely to their parents, who can do as they please with them?

My dad believes that the state has no right to step in and force families to have their children treated for medical problems such as cancer. To him, that is an infringement on the parents’ rights and an overstepping of governmental authority. He is not alone in this. Many families involved in Christian Patriarchy believe that children belong solely to their parents, and that these parents should have total say over them.

And indeed, in Ancient Rome the head of the household (called the paterfamilias) literally owned his children. They were his property to be disposed of as he saw fit, and so was his wife. The paterfamilias literally had life or death control over every member of his family.

Today we as a nation clearly believe that children do have rights. Yet we also believe in adults’ freedom to choose the religion and lifestyle they desire, and to do what they think is best for their children. The problem is that sometimes these come in conflict.

In fundamentalist Mormon circles, daughters are told that the only way they can get to heaven is to marry and have many children, and they generally grow up to spend their lives as the third or fourth wife of a man much older than them. In Amish communities, children are kept home from high school, which parents hold to be both subversive and unnecessary to their lifestyle. Instead of going to high school, they spend their time working for their parents. In some fundamentalist Christian groups, parents withhold medical treatment from their children, saying that it is against their religious beliefs, and rely instead on prayer. In families involved in Christian Patriarchy, children are homeschooled and separated from “the world,” and daughters are told that their only goal in life should be to be a homemaker, wife, and mother. Cases like these abound, and they make it difficult to determine where parents’ rights end and children’s rights begin.

In any discussion of children’s rights, it is important to remember that there is actually a triangle of interests involved: that of the parents, that of the children, and that of society. The idea of parents’ interests and children’s interests are fairly intuitive, but society’s interests needs some explanation. Society has an interest in having children grow up to be healthy, stable, and productive adults. For this reason, society has an interest in protecting children’s rights from intrusion by their parents. This is why the state steps in in cases of educational neglect, physical abuse, or the withholding of medical problems. In some sense, the children’s rights are protected and guaranteed by the state, which serves as a check and balance against intrusions by parents.

Families who follow Christian Patriarchy, though, ignore the interests of society, calling them illegitimate state intrusion, and subsume the interests of the children within those of the parents, completely destroying any form of balance.

We now know what society’s interests are, but we have yet to discuss children’s. What rights to children have? Here is what I have come up with so far:

1. Children have the right to food, clothes, and shelter. They should not have to worry about where their next meal comes from, and they should not have to work to contribute to the family finances.

2. Children have the right to an education. The way education is provided may very, but in the end the amount learned should meet the standards of the general society. If parents limit or handicap their children’s education, even in the name of their religious beliefs, that violates their children’s rights.

3. Children have the right to not have to work. While children can certainly be asked to do chores and help out around the house, there is a limit. Working for long hours without pay, whether in the family business or as a second mother, or working outside the home in order to contribute to the family finances, violates children’s rights.

4. Children have the right to medical care. If parents deny their children medical care or seek to use unproven “natural” methods instead of legitimate care, even in the name of their religious beliefs, that violates their children’s rights.

5. Children have the right to not be hit, slapped, or physically abused. If parents beat children, even in the name of their religious beliefs, that violates their children’s rights.

6. Children have the right to not be emotionally abused. If parents tell their children they are stupid or inadequate, or seek to guilt them or shame them or otherwise use emotions to manipulate them, that violates their children’s rights.

7. Children have the right to dream big. If parents tell the children of either sex that they can’t be doctors, teachers, or scientists, or otherwise try to step on their dreams, even in the name of their religious beliefs, that violates their children’s rights.

8. Children have the right to grow up. If parents tell their adult children that they must still obey them, even in the name of their religious beliefs, that violates their adult children’s rights.

So there you have it, that’s my current list of children’s rights. As it turns out, fundamentalist Mormons, the Amish, fundamentalist communities that reject modern medicine, and families who follow Christian Patriarchy all violate at least one of these eight rights. How do parents in these groups justify violating their children’s rights? They argue that it is part of their religious beliefs and that they should have the freedom to practice their religious beliefs. Well yes, people should indeed be allowed to practice their religious beliefs – unless this practice of religion violates someone else’s rights. And in these cases it does.

Why do I think children have these rights? Well, each of these rights contributes to children growing into happy, well-adjusted, productive adults with fulfilling lives. Violate any one of these rights, and this result is called into question. This is also, as I have said, why the society as a whole has an interest in protecting children’s rights, using the state as its agent. And finally, this is why I believe it is important to reject Christian Patriarchy’s idea that parents for all intents and purposes own their children.

This list is still a work in progress. What would you add or remove?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Katy-Anne

    I think this is a great list! On the medical one, I do believe that sometimes parents can get different treatments for their kids. I'm not completely conventional, we do some natural stuff, but it's in conjunction with our doctor. We have a doctor, she knows my preferences, and when possible, works within them. I in turn know that sometimes it's not possible to do what I prefer for my child to get better, and I allow her to do what she needs to do. For us this arrangement works great. She believes that children need medical care, but also believes that parents aren't (usually) stupid and that we actually know a lot and tries to accommodate what she can. I love our doctor.

  • jemand

    My thinking is, every legal right the parent enjoys, and every legal right the parents are granted even if they don't want to use it– they have a duty to raise their children in such a way that they may enjoy them too, on becoming adults.So it's less a list than an attitude, but it's one certainly missing in many fundamentalist religious circles, ESPECIALLY ones in which the parents are so happy to be able to buck their parents religion and society in general, but then decide that such freedom of religion should never be extended to THEIR children, not if they can FORCE the issue.So, parents are adults, they enjoy (as already stated), freedom of religion. To an extent only determined by the child's comprehension, the child should ALSO be granted freedom of religion. Parents have a right to criticize their government, and petition redresses. So should children, if they don't understand or appreciate a parental rule, be entitled to a hearing, to be listened to and have a principle explained to them, without retaliation. Parents have the right to be free from physical assault, so children should as well. We don't even use corporal punishments on adults, it has no place in raising children. Adults have a right of personal representation in their choices of clothing, and food, children, especially when they reach their teen years, deserve a measure of that same freedom.Adult tenants have rights on their landlords not to be summarily evicted– similarly children should never be thrown out in a day for any reason. (not even upon turning 18, or getting pregnant, or whatever.) And some other rights tenants have that prove that "owning the house" does not equal "now I get to dictate your entire life" and this lesson is one parents ought to take to heart.Etc.In a fantastic number of small, day to day, common interactions, it's ground into children's understanding that they are less human than adults, because of the above examples, and that needs to stop.

  • Anonymous

    I would be very careful with governmental intrusion into a parent's decision with their child's medical care – which isn't to say I don't see it as a basic right. It's just insurance companies often say that the care required for rare and orphan illnesses like mine are illegitimate and fraudulent, and the government often listens to them. My parents were terrified the state was going to take me away and say I wasn't sick. Thankfully, they don't like to do that to upper middle class white people. Basically I want to see a kid's right to necessary medical care protected both from the govt./corporations, and from their parents.

  • bluebleakember

    Formulating these admittedly desirable freedoms and opportunities as rights seems a bit problematic, because what do you advise should be done with the countless families who would refuse to comply to one or the other of these concepts?Should their children be taken from them? Flooding the foster care system in this way would be extremely expensive, for one thing. For another, I think the emotional damage that is done to a child on being torn against their will from their family and surroundings and sent by the state to live with strangers is much worse than the damage they would sustain by staying in many less than ideal environments, where they have at least experienced nurturing (of a sort), family, and connection. Formulating our parenting preferences as the rights of children and seeking to impose them on other families just seems like another form of oppression and leads the way to totalitarianism. This scares me. Suppose the fundamentalists took over the world and declared that children had the right to learn about God and be taught the Bible? Would you like this imposed on your family? I think a child should be known to be in actual physical danger, not merely disadvantaged, before the government has any right to step in and remove them from their home.

  • jemand

    There are many possible steps that are far less than removing children from a home– requiring parenting classes that expose parents to the latest scientific research on neuroscience, child development, social science, the actual real outcomes of their actions rather than what they'd just prefer to *believe* will happen, would help a LOT.Many times, it is simply the parents are not KNOWING the harm they are doing, and this could easily be treated or fixed WITHOUT splitting up families, but instead, providing extra resources and making families stronger!

  • jemand

    Oh, and for some stuff, like stealing a teen's earnings, or tossing them out in a day (something I think should be illegal on similar grounds as those that give tenants rights– owning a house doesn't mean you can dictate the lives of all that are in them), could be treated by a monetary judgment against the parents and given to the child (even if they just reached the age of majority), similar to the child support system *already in existence* for noncustodial parents of minor children.It wouldn't really cost the government much of anything, since the money is coming from parents and the program already exists for another purpose. (and the children would be less likely to be forced to rely completely on welfare)And haven't truant officers generally had success in forcing more compliance in getting education for children without relying mainly on separating children from their parents? It usually just takes the situation being noticed, and authority figures showing up and telling the parent the situation is unacceptable and it improves somewhat. I don't really have any data on this, but this is how I think it works the majority of the time in this case.I really think the "but then we'll have millions of kids in foster care!" is not a realistic, and especially not a necessary, result of taking these rights of children seriously as a society and attempting to enforce them in a fashion.

  • Libby Anne

    Bluebleakember – I do think keeping the child with the parents is indeed the best option, and as Jemand points it out there are many ways for the government to work to protect children's rights without removing them from their family. The problem is that today children are frequently not seen as having rights. This is what needs to change, I think. Simply stating that children most emphatically do have rights and laying out guidelines would help, I think. As to the other thing you mention, regarding what would happen if fundamentalists took over and mandated that children must learn about the God of the Bible, this is something I have thought about. It is tempting to say in the face of this possibility that my children are mine and mine alone to do with as I see fit. But then I DON'T believe that children belong to their parents to do with as they see fit – children are people and they have rights of their own – so even if tempting I can't and won't say that. I think I would say that if what you describe happened, I would fight it tooth and nail. See, I believe that children have the right to choose their own religious beliefs, and that no one – not fundamentalist Christians, not atheists, not anyone – should indoctrinate their children, and I would fight for that belief. I don't really have a better answer than that, I'm afraid!

  • bluebleakember

    "I really think the "but then we'll have millions of kids in foster care!" is not a realistic, and especially not a necessary, result of taking these rights of children seriously as a society and attempting to enforce them in a fashion."So, if I understand you correctly, you are recommending "enforcing" these rights through increased public awareness and social pressure, rather than through actual laws with actual consequences? If so, I think I agree that this could be desirable and probably efficacious in many instances. So long as we aren't talking about a "1984" scenario. :)

  • jemand

    well, partly through increased public awareness and social pressure, but I think that the government will need to take children's rights seriously to help change cultural attitudes.But simple things like requiring yearly academic testing for all students, INCLUDING homeschoolers, and interventions to help students falling behind would help. Sometimes parents even are in denial, and wouldn't stand in the way of extra help if they truly knew how bad the situation had gotten!Financial judgments against parents who kick out a child upon reaching majority without notice (like a tenant) or having confiscated the child's belongings or income, etc.Ensuring children get needed medical care, getting a yearly physical is something that can usually be enforced without removing children from their parents homes, and even cases where the court has had to order life saving treatment, often the children can return home after.Just showing up to say, spanking infants isn't effective, it isn't acceptable, you must now attend a short parenting class on alternative discipline methods and child development, also would result in a great deal of good without having to *actually* remove a child from the parent in the vast, vast majority of cases.Etc. None of these result in removing children from homes they aren't currently removed from, but they DO serve to underscore children's rights in society, and extend education on the fact that children are people with rights that deserve to be respected to the community.Parents are generally the best caregivers for their children, but I am NOT convinced that they are better on their own than if there is some occasional outside oversight and influence, even if mandatory, and I don't think requiring that is going to cause the great social harms that actually removing children would– I even think it would be better than mostly staying out of parent's way, as is done now.

  • Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    " They argue that it is part of their religious beliefs and that they should have the freedom to practice their religious beliefs."Just as the parents have the freedom to practice their religious beliefs, children have the same right. Unfortunately, in the QF/P dynamic, children aren't allowed to have any religious belief except their parents and to me, this is a violation of that child's right. A child has the same right to religious freedom.

  • Naomi

    Great post, Libby Anne! The concerns about the state overstepping its bounds are based on a problematic understanding of totalitarianism (1984, etc.). As the French philosopher Foucault argues in one of his lectures, totalitarianism does not result from a particular style of government or state apparatus, but from the dominance of a given party. As I interpret it, totalitarianism is the result of ideological purity (one party/ideology dominating a system) rather than, say, a particular set of laws.The example of how the above set of laws might be enforced if fundamentalists (Christian Reconstructionists) came to power is terrifying not necessarily because of how they might interpret children's rights, but because their ideology is inherently anti-democratic, rejecting any sort of alternative viewpoints. As Sharon Crowley says, “The achievement of dominion is not exactly a democratic process” (Crowley 156).Unfortunately, in the U.S. today, political conservatives have managed to frame the debate to suggest that their party is the only hope for freedom. It's a faulty premise that gets them lots of votes, but "promoting the general welfare" (socialism) is not a path to totalitarianism; one-party rule is.

  • Anonymous

    What scares me is the ideas of the government pushing popular ideas on parents which are not universally agreed upon. If I had cancer, I would choose chemotherapy as a last resort – because it is poison, and I've seen the damage it does. If my (one year old) daughter had cancer, I would do everything in my power to save her – but I would want to look into more natural treatments before killing her immune system with chemo. I guess my queation is: who gets to decide what is the best thing to do? What if there is disagreement over this issue? Unfortunately, the government can be just as wrong as parents.

  • Anonymous

    ditto to other anonymous up there. Much as people would like to, we cannot stamp out every emotionally manipulative parent out there. Plenty of parents (including my own) stamp out their kids dreams for reasons other than religion. How many parents truly think they are pushing their kids in the right direction and "helping them live up to their potential" or "be more practical" while in fact they are crushing their spirits??? We won't even go into how many kids are abused in foster care. OFten by other foster children. I echo the concerns about the government deciding for me what medical treatment is best. For every freak out there who doesnt believe in doctors at all that you stop, I'm betting there are probably about ten others that choose alternative treatments or go against doctors advice whose lives would be made a living hell. I have TWO, count 'em TWO lifelong medical conditions as a result of my mother obediently and unquestioningly following mainstream doctors orders. I cringe to think what could happen if the right of people to question their doctors was suspended out of an attempt to fix another problem. What's that saying about "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"??? Think carefully before you try to remedy your own past by trying to control other people Frankly, people who are reacting to one extreme by now going to another instead of seeking a balanced approach scare the bejeekers out of me.

  • Anonymous

    And if you think some doctor with wounded pride at being questioned wouldn't turn someone in for "denying medical treatment to a child" then you are living in a cave. There is nothing like a doctor who has had his/her professional judgement questioned. Ditto on a public school teacher. There are certain professsions that seem to think that because they have the degree then they have all the answers. Think long and hard about the real life ramifications of your attempts to create a utopia here on earth.

  • Libby Anne

    Anonymous – My word, you think asserting that children have rights is the same as "remedying my past by trying to control other people"? You think asserting that children have rights is an "extreme"? You say I "scare the bejeekers" out of you, but personally, the idea that children having rights is some sort of extreme and dangerous position scares the bejeekers out of me.

  • Aemi

    About the "medical rights" one: Why call conventional medical care "proper"? It has a death rate; it is not always successful. Many parents who refuse conventional medical treatment are trying to give their children something better. They are trying their hardest to help their child in the best way they know how.