Opponents thought they had driven a stake through the heart of the parental rights movement last year when a parental rights initiative (Amendment 17) was defeated in Colorado by a margin of 57% to 43%. In the Colorado battle, the National Education Association, Planned Parenthood and their allies poured over $500,000 into an election-eve campaign designed to convince voters that the concept of parental rights was a far-right scheme to limit abortion access, cause chaos in the schools and make child abuse harder to prosecute. The lies and distortions were so pronounced that the Rocky Mountain News (itself an opponent of the parental rights initiative) called the opposition campaign “demeaningly hysterical.”
But the parental rights movement has survived. All over America, parents, civic leaders, and local activists are finding new and innovative ways to advance the proposition that parents-and not government-should raise their children.
In June, for example, Texas became the first state to officially recognize the “fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children” when its state legislature passed a parental rights bill. Just last month, the San Diego public school system began to consider a “Parental Involvement Initiative” designed to promote “meaningful involvement of parents” in the local education system and give parents widespread rights regarding curriculum, non-academic testing and the provision of health, social, mental or emotional services for their children. In 26 state legislatures during the first six months of 1997 alone, significant parental rights legislation was introduced.
One reason the parental rights movement is back is that we took our defeat in Colorado seriously, and learned from it. The new Parental Rights Amendment model language, developed by a group of renowned constitutional scholars under the auspices of Of the People Foundation, a fact. The analysis of its causes is crucial in determining what might reverse the trend. Have parents thrown up their hands concerning their ability to combat mass media and other cultural factors? How important are such economic trends as the increase in two-worker families that has left parents with less time to devote to their children? Or have parents simply become more narcissistic than they used to be?
Someone who believed narcissism was the bulk of the problem would undoubtedly frown on re-emphasizing parental rights. We believe, and our research indicates many voters believe, that a significant reason for the decline in parenting is what could be called parental demoralization. Since the rise of the progressive movement in education a century or so ago, parents have had drummed into their heads the idea that scientific methods can and should displace traditional parenting in forming the next generation. Knowledge of sex should be instilled by scientific means in the schools, for example, rather than by parents in the home. (Trends in the several decades since parents conceded defeat on this front are not reassuring, whether measured in rates of out-of-wedlock births or teen promiscuity.)
The rise of the parental rights movement is a sign that parents, and more broadly speaking voters, no longer buy into “expertise” as a substitute for parenting. We would argue that parental rights and the movement to remove children from abusive parents not only do not contradict each other, but are two parts of the same movement. What they have in common is growing recognition that parenting is essential.
Where they are willing, which we believe is the vast majority of cases, parents need to assert their rights and reclaim their responsibilities. In the minority of cases where parents are unwilling to do this, society is justified in doing its best to provide a facsimile of parenting, rather than leaving such children with abusive parents or to the ministrations of the helping professions. The good news is that society is coming to a consensus that parenting is too important to be left to those who play it down-either the minority of parents who have abdicated their role, or the panoply of “experts” who never understood the importance of that role in the first place.
Jeffrey Bell is chairman of Of the People Foundation, the national parental rights organization.