‘Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.’ So wrote George Orwell nearly a hundred years ago. Looking at the so-called Parents Bill of Rights Act recently passed in the House, his words hold equally true today.
This bill seeks to give parents in every state the right, among other things, to inspect all books held in a school library, to review the budget of their child’s school, and—most disastrously—to be informed when a school employee allows a child to change their pronouns.
To some, this might seem like a good idea. Rep. V. Foxx (R-N.C.) hailed the bill’s passing, saying it ‘will help parents steer the educations of their children back onto the correct path.’
But when it comes to ‘steering’ children’s education, it’s wrong to assume that parents should be behind the wheel.
When a student receives only the knowledge, ideas, and values held by whoever’s teaching them, that’s not education, that’s indoctrination. Real education doesn’t just inform a student, it teaches them to think critically, to think for themselves. That kind of teaching is a skill that takes training. I imagine no parent would feel qualified to clean their kids’ teeth or perform their baptisms, so why do we assume that parents are qualified to educate their children?
If we want children to succeed, we can’t leave their education in untrained hands. So while we’d all agree that parents may want what’s best for their kids, they don’t necessarily know what’s best.
This is especially true for parents of LGBTQ kids.
When I came out to my parents decades ago, my dad said, ‘I’m worried that life’s going to be a lot harder for you now.’ These were the words of a man who’d just had his entire parenting toolkit taken away from him. What my dad understood was that he couldn’t prepare me to enter adulthood as a gay man. To his credit, he knew the best thing he could do was support me as I found my own way.
Which I did, through books. I didn’t have gay friends or relatives. But I had teachers who were gay, and who were happy and successful, and they directed me to the books that finally, finally showed me who I was.
Today, LGBTQ kids (1 out of every 14 parents has one, according to the latest statistics) don’t need to find their own way. But that’s exactly what 213 House representatives want to force on them. By playing into the myth that parents know best, legislators can present regressive, undemocratic laws as being ‘common sense.’ As K. McCarthy (R-Ca.) said on the bill’s passing, ‘I couldn’t imagine someone would oppose a Parents Bill of Rights.’
Opposing the bill is crucial when you remember and repeat that parents can’t always know what’s best for their kids.
I imagine this argument will make a lot of parents angry. Loving their children, as my dad did all those years ago, parents naturally want to protect them from harm. But too often this protection leaves kids—especially LGBTQ kids—not just unequipped for their future, but terrified of becoming who they are, lest they disappoint the parents who’ve given them all that love.
That love, for it to be real, can’t be conditional on the child believing only what the parents believe.
The central defense of this bill is that it will protect children from ‘sexualized’ materials, but this is a lie. You can no more sexualize a child with a book than you can ‘violentize’ them with a video game: it’s all there from birth. Having been a gay child, I can assure you I was ready for LGBTQ stories far before the age of 18. I needed social contacts, a personal history, some simple self-acceptance.
And yes, I needed before 18 to know what kind of sex I was able to have, because nobody anywhere was talking about it.
We give this sort of thing to straight kids as soon as they choose their aisle in the toy store. School dances. Romeo & Juliet. Clothes that express their gender. All that healthy support, affirming who they are and what they want, is how we develop our next generation of leaders. This bill’s main purpose is not, in the end, to help parents, but to deny that same support to our queer and trans kids.
If it passes, it’ll hurt us all. To rephrase Orwell, if education is working well, every generation should know more than the one that went before it, but should imagine itself humbler than the one that comes after it.
The ideas behind the Parents Bill of Rights aren’t based on reason, or science, or even faith. They’re based on fear, namely the fear that our children may turn out different from us. Even smarter than us. We should all, parents and non-parents alike, be so lucky.
UPDATE: For more on how parents’ preference for the status quo can stand in the way of their children’s education, see this Alec MacGillis story about Richmond, Va.’s attempts to recover from pandemic learning loss.