I get it that parents’ rights sound like a good thing. In the words of the movement’s leaders, it’s about the “liberty of parents to direct a child’s upbringing, education, and care as a fundamental right.” That’s nice, right? In theory, perhaps, but in practice, it’s a big no. The parents’ rights movement is problematic for quite a few reasons. Let me lay it out for you.
It allows a small group of vocal parents to make decisions that affect other people’s children.
I don’t have an issue with people making decisions for their own children. You pay your kids to do chores? I don’t care. You want to raise your kids in a particular religion? Your business. But when your decisions start to affect my kids, then we have a problem. I understand that there are books that some parents are uncomfortable with their children reading or lessons that for whatever reason they don’t want their kids participating in. I don’t agree with that kind of censorship, but that’s their prerogative. It is not, however, within those individuals’ rights to make the decision about what is and is not appropriate for other people’s children.
The argument is that parents are the experts on their own kids. I can get on board with that in most cases, but the loudest folks in this debate are not experts in education and I don’t want them making decisions that affect a class, school, district, or state full of children. If the teachers and librarians have determined that a book or lesson belongs in their classroom, I trust that decision. And in the rare case that I don’t, I can pull my child. I just shouldn’t be able to make that call for anyone else. And neither should you.
It means a single complaint can lead to the removal of a book, lesson, or entire curriculum.
There’s a long history of book bans and parents objecting to things taught in school, but in general, there’s been a thorough review process. Now, we have parents who feel emboldened, and it takes much less than it once did to get something removed. For example, in Florida, two parents challenged Disney’s Ruby Bridges, a film about the Civil Rights activist and one of the first Black children to integrate schools in the South. The grounds? It teaches how “white people hate black people.” A temporary ban went into effect while the school engaged in the formal objection process.
These days it doesn’t even take a complaint because we now have folks self-censoring. Teachers may be less likely to teach certain topics or read books because they’re worried about parent complaints. (I know I stopped teaching about the Day of the Dead because I got tired of being accused of being a devil worshipper. Yep.). Districts are revisiting their content (and that’s how you get a Carroll Independent School District ban of a book written by a Black author for whom one if its middle schools is named). But it’s also publishers like Scholastic engaging in what I’ll call “proactive censorship.” And those decisions have a far greater impact than a single classroom, school, or district.
It has parents of transgender children asking, “What about my rights?”
In an opinion piece for the Tallahassee Democrat, Florida mom Jennifer Koslow responds to recent anti-trans legislation in the state, writing, “I am the parent of a transgender child. I should have the fundamental right to determine what is in the best interests of my child’s health and education. These legislations that would ban gender-affirming medical care for minors … undermine my parental authority … [They] undermine a parent’s fundamental right to make medical decisions for their child in consultation with their physicians.”
Should parents’ rights not also extend to advocacy for a safe educational environment for one’s children? I spoke to Texas parent and advocate for transgender youth, Rachel Gonzales, and her Arizona counterpart, Lizette Trujillo. They told me, “Unfortunately, parents’ rights have been weaponized by extremists to disrupt school spaces and hinder the progress that has been made in the last decades ensuring the safety of all students and especially LGBTQ+ students. We know that learning is severely inhibited when students do not feel safe, so this deeply impacts the ability for some students to learn in the way all students should be able to.”
It ignores the rights of parents who want something different.
In an essay for The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes, “The reality of the ‘parents’ rights’ movement is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curriculums to the rest of the community. ‘Parents’ rights,’ in other words, is when some parents have the right to dominate all the others.” Gonzales and Trujillo told me, “Extreme groups see parental rights as a way to enforce a very specific religious ideology, while enforcing curriculum and book bans that inhibit inclusion and safety in the classroom of diverse or marginalized students.”
Believe me, there are plenty of parents who want their children to learn about LGBTQ+ identities and history, to grapple with the legacy of slavery and the enduring and systemic role of racism in the country, and to have access to books with diverse perspectives. We know the power of representation, of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. What about our rights? If exercising your rights means fewer rights for others, you’re doing it wrong. Period.