International Day of Families: The Challenge of the Parents’ Rights Movement
Today is the International Day of Families. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance and value of family. It is also an opportunity to draw attention to the social, economic, and demographic processes affecting families. Indeed, traditional family systems and norms about what constitutes family are rapidly changing. A family can consist of a single parent who adopts or utilizes a sperm donor, a same or opposite-sex married or cohabitating couple with or without children, unrelated friends who become family for each other, and many more constellations. Paul Taylor, in writing about the changing demographics of the United States in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, stated:
We are at a moment in history when old and young do not look alike, do not think alike, do not vote alike, do not use technology alike, and do not have similar kinds of families. These differences have the potential to put stress on everything from family life and budgets, to politics and entitlement programs, to the country’s sense of social cohesion. (p. S4)
Taylor wrote this prior to the pandemic, and the accompanying school lockdowns and mask wars, and prior to the growth in mainstream attention to racial injustices following the murder of George Floyd. We are no doubt seeing the negative impact of these events on our country’s social cohesion, but also on mental health. Arguably, the hardest hit has been children. In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in young people’s mental health. Pediatric mental health topped ECRI’s (an organization focused on healthcare technology and safety) list of patient safety concerns for 2023.
Thus, you would think that our focus would be on strategies to promote the well-being of society’s youngest members. Instead, in the United States, the push has been for “parents’ rights.” Frustrated and fueled by a sense of fear and the rapid changes taking place in society, organizations actively promoting the parents’ rights agenda have progressed from the 1990s political rallying cry of Christian conservatives to constrain government power by abolishing public schools to extending the government’s reach further into schools. What started out with local school boards has advanced to state legislatures. Some of these bills require the notification of parents if a young person asks to go by a different name or to use a different pronoun at school, censoring books that represent diversity with and among families, banning educators from discussing LGBTQ+ topics or people, and prohibiting materials that accurately portray the historical injustices committed upon people of color, to name but a few. In fact, at the time of writing, the American Civil Liberties Union was actively monitoring 474 anti-LGBTQ bills, 222 of which involved schools and 125 healthcare. Meanwhile, FutureEd has identified 62 parents’ rights bills in 24 states that have been introduced or pre-filed so far in 2023. At the time of writing, the U.S. House of Representatives had just passed the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act.
The new policies, however, don’t align with what most Americans believe. A 2022 CBS News poll found that more than 80% of Americans don’t believe in banning books criticizing U.S. history, political ideas with which they disagree, depicting slavery or discussing race. A 2023 CBS News poll found that 61% of people didn’t think books with LGBTQ characters should be banned. The “rights” these groups are demanding don’t represent what most parents want for their children.
Moreover, pushing entire groups of young people to the margins of our schools based on their races, sexualities, genders and countries of origin is dangerous. No young person should hear from anyone, especially adult leaders, that they are less than or that it is wrong to be who they are. Young people, still reeling from the disruptions and losses caused by the pandemic, are now being asked to learn in tense environments in which mistrust permeates the halls and where their own rights are but an afterthought. How are young people supposed to develop their own sense of agency, autonomy, and judgment? Shouldn’t a primary role of the schools be to help young people develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to avoid indoctrination? Shouldn’t schools expose young people to the vast array of ideas and stories that enable them to form their own opinions? Indeed, it is this type of exposure and education that teaches us how to be active, engaged, caring and productive citizens.
Efforts underway from local school boards to Congress in the name of “parents’ rights” distracts us (maybe intentionally?) from and exacerbates the real issues – severe teacher shortages, underfunded schools, gun violence in schools, learning loss, and lack of investment in mental health. The precedent being set for censorship and government overreach should give us all pause. Allowing these restrictions on young peoples’ basic rights sets a dangerous precedent for the future, when restrictions could be put into place that go even further.
On this day, when we celebrate families in all their diverse forms, we need to think long and hard about what’s happening to their youngest members and what we as individuals and as a society are going to do about it. As I said before, the majority of people don’t agree with what many of these policies are doing. We cannot stand idly by while a small but vocal group attempts to strip away entire groups of people’s identity and history in the name of parents’ rights. It’s time for all parents, regardless of their children’s gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, race, or ethnicity, to make their voices heard. We owe it to our children and our communities to support all families and to celebrate them.
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association. A declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association. https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/child-and-adolescent-healthy-mental-development/aap-aacap-cha-declaration-of-a-national-emergency-in-child-and-adolescent-mental-health/
American Civil Liberties Union. Mapping attacks on LGBTQ Rights in U.S. state legislatures. https://www.aclu.org/legislative-attacks-on-lgbtq-rights
Backus, F. & Salvanto, A. (2022, Feb. 2). Big majorities reject book bans – CBS News poll. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/book-bans-opinion-poll-2022-02-22/
DiMarco, B. (2023). Legislative tracker: 2023 parent-rights bills in the States. FutureEd. https://www.future-ed.org/legislative-tracker-2023-parent-rights-bills-in-the-states/#:~:text=FutureEd%20has%20identified%2062%20parental,one%20in%20Georgia%20and%20Louisiana.
Salvanto, A. (2023, May 8). CBS News poll analysis: How do people view book bans, trans rights issues as GOP presidential primary fight ramps up? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-views-book-bans-trans-rights-issues-gop-presidential-primary/
Taylor, P. (2015). The Well-Being of Young Adults in the “Next America”. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(Suppl.), S4-S13.