Mother’s Day has come to pass, with Father’s Day on its heels.
As we head into this year’s season of parenting holidays, I am thinking about the concept of “parent’s rights” that underlies many new laws and bills around the country — laws that are often overtly or covertly anti-LGBT, such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” (or trans or queer…) law, officially known as “Parental Rights in Education.”
This legislation is geared toward restricting materials in the curriculum and ensuring parents have complete control over what their children read and learn. This year alone, more than 80 bills in 26 states were pre-filed or introduced to expand parents’ rights in schools, according to Georgetown University think tank FutureEd. These bills are duplicitous because, on the face of it, what parent wouldn’t want the right to make decisions about how to bring up their children?
Here’s the thing: From the instant one becomes a parent, parenthood is the gradual process of teaching our children not to need us. As our children leave our arms and walk on their own, head to daycare, playdates, and school, make friends, and learn to drive — they are becoming their own people and taking responsibility for themselves. The fundamental goal of parenthood, I believe, is to facilitate their doing so.
Yes, there are times when we must say no to something they wish to do; Internet sites we block; dubious friends whom we wish to guide them away from. Through all of this, however, we parents must recognize that we cannot and should not control every aspect of our children’s lives. Children will often encounter things we might not want them to, or do so at a younger age than we would wish. Our job as parents is to prepare them for this by helping them develop a strong moral compass (whatever that may mean to us), and by letting them know they can come to us when they see or read something that feels confusing or wrong.
I am glad my son, now grown, experienced things that my spouse and I did not control to the letter, especially as he grew older. I’m thankful that his worldview wasn’t limited just to our opinions. I hope we instilled core values, but I also know he read books in school, played games at summer camp, and saw movies at friends’ houses that weren’t even on our radar to suggest — and that broadened his horizons. Granted, sometimes things he saw made me uncomfortable (Is he really old enough to watch that horror movie?), but I also knew that kids mature faster than we think, especially in this media-saturated age. Within some reasonable range of age-appropriateness, I tried to relax, knowing these things gave him a wider view of the world and enabled him to relate to what many of his peers were already watching and reading. I trusted that we had prepared him to evaluate them for himself or ask us if he had questions.
Parents, in other words, are absolutely necessary, but we are not sufficient. Children need to experience people and opinions beyond just those in their families in order to learn judgment and how to respond when faced with different viewpoints. These skills are foundations for moving in the world as an adult.
So while some may rage about “parental rights,” I invite all of us to consider what that really means. Parent’s rights, to my mind, only exist to facilitate children’s rights — rights to care, safety, and loving home where they can learn and grow into responsible adults. And part of helping our children do that means learning to let go as they venture forth into the world. That can be scary. It may mean discussing uncomfortable (to some) topics like LGBT identities, race, and racism as our children encounter them.
But it shouldn’t mean passing bills restricting the curriculum or, as one now-dead Florida bill had proposed, putting video cameras in classrooms, because of some parents’ fears. And banning discussion of topics because they upset some parents just infringes on the rights of other parents who would argue that these topics should even be required in the curriculum as part of a full education for today’s world.
“Parental rights” are also a sensitive topic to me as a queer parent, since I had to pay a lawyer and go to court to secure my rights as a legal parent of my own genetic child, whom my spouse carried. If the right-wing is so concerned about parental rights, maybe they should start by ensuring all states follow Connecticut and the handful of other states that have updated their parentage laws to ensure all children have access to the protections of legal parentage, no matter the gender or marital status of their parents or the path they took to parenthood.
That’s a lot of serious stuff to think about during the holidays when many of us just want breakfast in bed or a new tie (regardless of gender). But conservatives have made parents’ rights a battle cry right now. We need to consider what such rights really mean so that we can fight back. Certainly, take a break and celebrate whichever holiday feels best to you (and please also celebrate #LGBTQFamiliesDay with me on June 1, between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) — then see what you can do in your state or community to ensure schools are really serving children in all families. That’s the best gift I can think of for any of us during the parenting holidays this year.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 900+ LGBTQ family books, media, and more.