Governments across the world continue to take actions that reflect the belief that it is not parents who are the guardians of their children but the state itself.
In September, the First Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a high-profile case regarding whether a school violated parents’ constitutional rights by actively encouraging their 11-year-old daughter to transition her gender while keeping it a secret from the parents.
School officials followed a school board policy that encourages them to privately meet with the child and affirm her gender transition, allow her to use the boys’ bathroom, and instruct everyone at school to use her new name and pronouns. The school also asserted that the parents weren’t providing a safe environment at home.
The school’s attorney argued in court that parents do not have a right to know about their child’s “gender transition” because “you can’t decide to have transgender children or not to have transgender children.” The attorney said the school was not obligated to tell parents various things about students. Topics the lawyer claimed are exempt from parent-teacher conversations include whether the child is depressed, suicidal, has been raped, or had an abortion.
US Circuit Judge Kermit Lipez told the school’s attorney that he “seem[ed] to be asserting that the right of students to make decisions trumps the right of parents to know what’s going on.” Stunningly, the attorney acknowledged as such, stating, “We are.”
The case, Foote v. Ludlow School Committee, raises questions about the rights of parents and children and whether or not a school or government has the right to intervene in that relationship. The parents of the child have interpreted the school’s actions as an affront to their constitutional rights. To make matters worse, the parents explicitly wrote to their daughters’ teachers, principal, superintendent, and school board members to make it clear they were handling her gender identity issues. They asked these officials not to privately communicate with their child, and the officials all chose to do the opposite.
Underneath the question of whether the school has the right to privately communicate with the child without parental consent is what I consider to be the root of the issue: Does a school, a government, or any apparatus of the state have a right to tell parents what to do with their children? More pointedly, does the state actually believe it owns the children?
Are They Your Children or “Our” Children?
During COVID-1984, we saw numerous examples of state actions clearly showing that at least some agents of the state believe they have a right to tell the public what they can and cannot do with their children.
For example, in 2021, the Greek government stated that parents who kept their children at home because they did not approve of COVID-19 measures at schools, such as masking and social distancing, would face two years in prison and a fine. Attending school in Greece has long been compulsory until the age of 16. The penalty for non-enrollment is 59 euros (around $65 USD). The updated guidelines during the COVID-19 panic were the first time parents were threatened with jail time for not enrolling their children.
“We could not tolerate the phenomenon of parents keeping children from school,” Alexandros Koptsis, general secretary for primary and secondary education at the education ministry, told Al Jazeera at the time.
In May 2021, the Saskatchewan Health Authority upset some parents when it announced that “anyone 13 years or older can consent for themselves” to get a COVID-19 injection. As noted by the CBC, in Saskatchewan, children aged 13 to 17 are considered “mature minors” and can consent to injection without parental approval.
In November 2021, the UK National Health Service (NHS) sparked controversy when it released a pamphlet that asked children 12 to 15 years of age if they would like a “Covid jab.” The ad went on to reassure these children that “we will not usually inform your parents, teachers or anyone else if you contact us.” The concerning material was produced by the Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust.
Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, told The Telegraph in the UK that this decision was best left to parents. “Children are not state property,” she emphasized.
In the United States, there were similar examples during COVID-19. Some also interpreted a statement from Joe Biden in April 2022, when he was hosting the National and State Teachers of the Year event, as the president saying the state owns the children.
“We always talk about ‘these children.’ They’re not someone else’s children. They’re our children,” Biden stated. Moments later, Biden appeared to clarify what he meant.
“You’ve heard me say it many times about our children, but it’s true: They’re all our children. And the reason you’re the Teachers of the Year is because you recognize that. They’re not somebody else’s children; they’re like yours when they’re in the classroom.”
Joe Biden: "They're all our children .. They're not somebody else's children. They're like yours when they're in the classroom." pic.twitter.com/ATNGGO594U
— Corey A. DeAngelis, school choice evangelist (@DeAngelisCorey) April 27, 2022
Whether Biden innocently meant that teachers are the guardians of children’s minds while in school or that the teachers and the school—an arm of the state itself—actually own children, the comments clearly outraged some onlookers.
Arguments for the Rights of Children
In his book, Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions, libertarian theorist Steven Horowitz argues that Austrian-British economist Freidrich Hayek’s work on rights “should lead us to make a strong defense of parental rights and place a high burden of proof on those who would intervene into families for anything beyond obvious cases of violence or abuse.” He also argued that so-called parental rights also come with parental obligations to care for their children.
As Horowitz explains, one of Hayek’s most powerful insights was the idea that knowledge is dispersed, contextual, and often tacit. Hayek argued that one single person cannot know everything, and it is those closest to choices—and their consequences—who are in the best position to know what to do. Horowitz calls for applying this logic to parenting, stating that parents have the “right incentives and best relevant knowledge to know what is best for their children.”
While Hayek acknowledged that the role of parents is complemented by schools, houses of worship, and the other elements of civil society, he believed that none of these institutions could adequately replace the family. Horowitz summarizes Hayek’s view, noting that “placing the stewardship responsibility for child‐raising in the hands of parents gives those with the most knowledge and strongest incentives the right to make the relevant decisions about the children.”
Of course, children should be protected from abuse and danger, whether caused by the government or their parents. However, we need to be careful where we draw the line when it comes to what the state has a “right” to do when it comes to your kids.
Horowitz explores the question of parental neglect or even abuse through the lens of Hayek’s philosophical work. He wonders what the best path forward is in cases where parents make choices that are clearly not in the best interests of their children. “Do these cases necessarily require some action on the part of the state or others to stop the parental behavior in question?” he asks. If the parents are imperfect, will intervention by the state or other institutions guarantee an improvement for the children?
He imagines a situation where a parent is neglecting their children who are under 10 years old but not physically or emotionally abusing them. We might be tempted to call this a “parental failure,” and some might even support calling Child Protective Services (CPS) to intervene and remove the children from the home. Again, he wonders if this action would actually lead to a net benefit for the children:
“In the face of such a temptation, the first Hayekian question worth asking is the comparative question ‘and do what with them?’ Is the alternative that the state will offer for the children really better, on net, than their current situation?”
Notably, Horowtiz also wonders if there are other “non-state institutions of civil society” that might be able to help these parents perform better. Such non-state actors could include religious institutions, a neighborhood group, extended family members, etc.
Horowtiz once again invokes Hayek’s view that those closest in proximity to a particular choice are the best suited to understand the problems at hand and have the incentive to act on that knowledge. “Bureaucrats with dozens of cases or more are unlikely to have enough knowledge or incentive when compared to those in the family’s local sphere,” Horowitz writes.
While Horowitz, Hayek, and other libertarian-minded philosophers argue for the rights of parents, there are advocates within the unschooling and so-called “free-range parenting” movements who push the envelope even further by calling for children to be free of parental restraints, as well. These arguments are not supportive of the idea that the state and its many appendages should be the arbiter of what is right for a child, but rather, that children themselves should be supported by parents and family to draw their own conclusions.
Whichever side of this discussion you land on, it should be clear that more and more government actors believe they have a right to intervene in the relationship between children and their parents. The idea that a school, doctor, or government official could encourage a child to keep secrets from their parents feels like the early stages of children snitching on their parents in George Orwell’s 1984. If that particular plot point seems ridiculous or unimaginable to readers, one need only look to Soviet Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany for examples of how dangerous it can be when children are taught that Big Brother and Big Sister are their real parents.
In the age of COVID-1984, parents ought to strive to maintain strong, healthy, and open lines of communication with their children to ensure the state does not become the lead parental figure in their lives.
Source: The Last American Vagabond
Derrick Broze, a staff writer for The Last American Vagabond, is a journalist, author, public speaker, and activist. He is the co-host of Free Thinker Radio on 90.1 Houston, as well as the founder of The Conscious Resistance Network & The Houston Free Thinkers.
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