Opinion: The rights of minors cannot be left to the politics of their parents

Opinion: The rights of minors cannot be left to the politics of their parents

Note to the Editor: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and the author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter @JillFilipovic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. See more comments on CNN.


Some of the most contentious debates in American education — including what kinds of stories are allowed (and not allowed) in the classroom, how teachers should teach US history and navigating LGBTQ issues (when there are states that look to prevent them from discussing) – led to the abandonment of talk about “parental rights”.

Jill Filipovic

The term, for some Americans, is exactly what it sounds like. But the risk is tempting, because it has historically been a conservative talking point, and now it’s back with a vengeance. For the right-wing media ecosystem, “parental rights” are too often a parent’s right to control: the power to decide what their child learns, what their child believes and what that child does with their body – as long as it is. prevent the child from being exposed to anything the parent might disagree with.

And while “parental rights” or “parental rights” may sound sensible – of course parents should have the broad ability to guide their children, keep them safe and make decisions that children are too young to make. them – these are also the terms they often seek to deprive children and teenagers of their basic rights, including medical care, education, physical safety, freedom (including freedom from sexual violence) and a modicum of privacy .

Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the discourse about trans children – ubiquitous as a fear tactic in the right-wing media and more recently, a point of debate about articles such as the one recently published in the New York Times asking whether schools should parents to be informed when their children change or test their gender identity at school.

It is understandable that most parents would want to know if their child was going through such a significant transition. The question, however, is not what is reasonable for parents to want, but what is reasonable to enforce through laws and regulations. And it is completely unreasonable to demand that parents be exposed to an experiment in identity and religion from a teenager, as long as that experiment is not physically dangerous.

We should not make laws – or education policy – ​​with only functional, supportive families in mind. It is tempting to do so, but life experience tells us that not all children have the families they deserve and research tells us that trans children without parental support face many mental health risks and other challenges. That combination should give anyone pause before deciding what is reasonable.

Think about this. Teenagers are not adults yet, but they are in the critical stages of establishing some independence from their parents, asserting their own identity, forming their own opinions and trying new things. In the hours they’re at school, they should find a safe place to do that, whether that’s a teenager with vegan parents choosing a chicken nugget in the cafeteria or an atheist kid trying out the Christian after-school club or, yes, a teenager who think that there is a chance that they are trans wants a new name and puts it on.

Context is important here: According to a 2022 report that analyzed data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of minors who identify as transgender has increased significantly. While 0.5% of American adults identify as transgender, 1.4% of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 do. Those numbers are even higher in more liberal regions, this report says – in New York state, for example, 3% of young people now identify as trans, which equates to 34,000 teenagers.

Of course social changes like this make them uneasy, especially when it concerns something as fundamental as identity. For many, the act of an individual crossing or breaking the gender binary challenges long-held assumptions about gender roles and ideas about what is “natural”.

There was similar parental panic in the 1990s when high school students began coming out as gay or bisexual. An article in the New York Times from 1997 seems particularly telling in its observation that “as gay-straight student clubs have sprung up in recent years, some parents are wondering if their children are getting what the These parents, at least, fear gay. propaganda along with classical education.”

Some conservative parents may still agree that gay-straight alliances predispose students to homosexuality, but I imagine most liberal parents realize that it doesn’t – and that it can create real problems for teachers or counselors students who identify as someone they know. gay or bisexual to their parents, and that teenagers should be supported to come out to the people they choose, when they want.

The same is true for trans and non-binary teens who are experimenting with social transition during the school day.

There are many people and parents who wonder if some of the teenagers who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming people are only in one stage of their adolescence in search of identity, seeking attention and feeling different and special, or giving face them. other mental health issues or developmental disorders.

A small fraction of minors seek gender affirming care, which can range from assistance in social transition – that is, appearing as one’s identified gender in public – to medical interventions, which range from drugs that hormone therapy helps delay the onset of puberty. . Last year, the New York Times reported that in 11 of the leading pediatric gender clinics in the US, 203 mastectomies were performed on minors in 2021. That’s out of more than 25 million minors in the US between 12-17 years of age. .

Worthy and generally supportive parents may have questions, including the long-term health risks versus benefits of drugs that delay puberty and the hormones that may follow. Meanwhile, many conservatives have capitalized on parents’ understandable fears about their children undergoing significant emotional and physical changes, casting transgender people and those who support them as “groomers” and dangerous sources of indoctrination. They have dragged gender affirming care and even the simple recognition of transgender people under the umbrella of “parental rights,” essentially telling parents, “No one should be making decisions about your child’s gender identity but you.”

There is no easy answer to the question: How much power should parents have over their children’s identity and pursuit of information?

Many on the right want to say it’s simple; for them, the answer is “complete.” But even some liberal parents balk at the prospect of not knowing their teen’s identity is changing. In that recent New York Times article, a group of mostly self-identified liberal parents shared that they were upset that their teenagers had begun to socially transition at school—using a new name, perhaps, or wearing androgynous clothing or clothing associated with a particular sex. . These parents felt that they should know if their child is identifying as a different gender at school.

It’s hard not to sympathize with their aspirations, but those feelings don’t exist in a vacuum. They are happening in a country where minors have very few rights. America’s children are wild and unprotected. The type of physical assaults that would be criminal if committed by one adult against another adult are legal in many states when the victim is a child. Child marriage is still legal in most states, including, in some cases, allowing children who are too young to legally consent to sex to be married anyway if a parent deems it appropriate – and they are the Republicans who strongly opposed efforts to lift the law. age of marriage.

Meanwhile, parenting norms, like everything else, differ greatly along political lines. Research shows that conservative parents are more likely to use authoritarian parenting methods, demanding obedience and respect for elders over the independence, curiosity and self-reliance that liberal parents often prioritize. It makes sense why parents believe this attitude – destructive as I would say it is, especially when enforced (as it often is) through physical punishment, threats and shaming – that their rights to their lives are almost complete children. In that worldview, their children have very few rights at all.

This is why informal norms and rules are important: when America’s children are put at risk because of their lack of legal protection, the least they need is communities (including schools) to see them as individuals and worthy people, not mere extensions of theirs. parents.

The more liberal among us, in other words, should push back against this authoritarianism and the demand for parental rights to supersede everything else. We must affirm the rights of every child to live free from violence and to explore their identity in safe ways without their parents being told. As adults, we can have the necessary openness and willingness to listen that the researchers say make us allies and potential sources of support for teenagers – whether we are parents or not.

Yes, this can be uncomfortable. But part of being an adult is advocating rules and laws that are best for everyone, and not just the rules and laws that reflect what you want as an individual for yourself. And that means supporting a world where, yes, parents have rights – but so do children and teenagers.

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