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?