Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and 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. View more opinion on CNN.
Some of the most contentious debates in American education – among them what kinds of stories are (and are not) allowed in the classroom, how teachers should teach US history and navigate LGBTQ issues (when there are states that seek to bar them from discussion) – have led to the resurgence of talk about “parents’ rights.”
The term is, for a number of Americans, exactly what it sounds like. But therein lies its deceptive risk, because it’s also historically been a conservative talking point, and now it’s back with a vengeance. For the right-wing media ecosystem, “parents’ rights” is now too often a shorthand for 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 – all while preventing the child’s exposure to anything with which the parent might disagree.
And while “parents’ rights” or “parental rights” may seem like common sense – of course parents should have the broad ability to guide their children, keep them safe and make decisions that children are too young to take on – those terms are too often trotted out to strip children and teenagers of their basic rights, including to 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 around trans kids – ubiquitous as a fear tactic in right-leaning media and of late, a point of debate about articles like a recent one in the New York Times asking whether schools should alert parents when their kids change or experiment with their gender identity in school.
It’s understandable that most parents would want to know if their child was undergoing such a significant transition. The question, though, isn’t what it’s reasonable for parents to want, but what it’s reasonable to enforce through laws and regulations. And it is wholly unreasonable to demand that a teenager’s experimentation with identity and belief, so long as that experimentation is not physically dangerous, be disclosed to parents.
We shouldn’t make laws – or education policy – with only functional, supportive families in mind. It’s tempting to do that, but life experience tells us that not all kids have the families they deserve and research tells us that trans kids without parental support face a host of mental health risks and other challenges. That combination should give anyone pause before deciding what’s reasonable.
Consider this. Teenagers aren’t yet grownups, but they are in the crucial stages of establishing some independence from their parents, asserting their own identities, forming their own opinions and trying new things. In the hours they are at school, they should find a safe place to do just that, whether that’s the teenager of vegan parents choosing to sample a chicken nugget in the cafeteria or the child of atheists trying out the Christian after-school club or, yes, a teenager who thinks they may be trans trying on a new name and putting on a different wardrobe.
Context is important here: According to a 2022 report analyzing data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a marked uptick in the number of minors identifying as transgender. While 0.5% of American adults identify as transgender, 1.4% of young people 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 amounts to some 34,000 teenagers.
Such social changes of course provoke unease, especially when they pertain to something as fundamental as identity. For many, the very act of an individual crossing or transcending the gender binary challenges long-held assumptions about gender roles and ideas about what’s “natural.”
There was a similar parental panic in the 1990s when high school students began coming out as gay or bisexual. A New York Times article from 1997 now seems quite quaint in its observation that “as gay-straight student clubs have sprung up in the last few years, some parents wonder if their children are now getting what these parents, at least, fear is gay propaganda along with a classical education.”
Some conservative parents may still agree that the very existence of gay-straight alliances propagandize students toward homosexuality, but I imagine most liberal parents understand that they don’t – and that it could pose real problems for teachers or counselors to out students who identify as gay or bisexual to their parents, and that teenagers should be supported in coming out to who they choose, when they choose.
The same holds true for trans and non-binary teenagers who are experimenting with social transition during the school day.
There are a great many people and parents who wonder if some of the teenagers identifying as trans or gender-nonconforming are simply in one stage of their adolescent hunt for identity, are seeking attention and the feeling of being different and therefore special, or are facing other mental health issues or developmental disorders.
A tiny fraction of minors seek gender-affirming care, which can range from assistance in social transitioning – that is, presenting as one’s identified gender in public – to medical interventions, which themselves range from drugs that help delay the onset of puberty to hormone therapy. Last year, the New York Times reported that in 11 of the leading pediatric gender clinics in the US, 203 top surgeries, or mastectomies, were performed on minors in 2021. That’s out of more than 25 million minors in the US aged 12-17.
Even well-meaning and generally supportive parents may have questions, including about the long-term health risks versus benefits of drugs that delay puberty and the hormones that may follow. In the meantime, many conservatives have exploited understandable parental fears about their kids making significant emotional and physical changes, casting transgender people and those who support them as “groomers” and dangerous sources of indoctrination. They have drawn gender-affirming care and even the simple recognition of transgender people under the umbrella of “parental rights,” and essentially tell parents, “No one should be making decisions about your child’s gender identity but you.”
There’s no one easy answer to the question: How much power should parents have over their children’s identities and pursuit of information?
Many on the right are trying to say it’s simple; to them, the answer is “total.” But even some liberal parents are coming undone at the prospect of not knowing that their teenager’s identity is in flux. In that recent New York Times article, a group of largely self-identified liberal parents share that they were upset that their teenagers began to socially transition at school – using a new name, perhaps, or wearing androgynous clothing or clothes associated with a particular sex. These parents felt that they should know if their kid is identifying as a different gender at school.
It’s hard not to sympathize with their desires, but those feelings don’t exist in a vacuum. They are happening in a country where minors have very few rights. American kids are wildly unprotected. The kind of physical assaults that would be criminal if they were committed by one adult against another adult are in many states legal when the victim is a child. Child marriage remains legal in most states, including, in some cases, allowing children who are too young to legally consent to sex to nevertheless be married off if that’s what a parent deems appropriate – and it’s Republicans who have largely opposed efforts to raise the legal marriage age.
Meanwhile, parenting norms, like just about everything else, differ widely along political lines. Research indicates that conservative parents are more likely to use authoritarian parenting methods, demanding obedience and respect for elders over the independence, curiosity and self-reliance more often prioritized by liberal parents. It makes sense why parents with this mentality – destructive as I would argue it is, especially when enforced (as it often is) through physical punishment, threats and shaming – believe that their rights over their children’s lives are near-total. In that worldview, their children have virtually no rights at all.
This is why norms and informal rules are important: when American children are made this vulnerable by their lack of legal protection, the very least they need are communities (including schools) that see them as individual and worthy human beings, not simple extensions of their parents.
The more liberal-minded among us, in other words, should push back on this authoritarianism and the demand for parental rights to supersede all else. We must assert the rights of all children to live free of violence and to explore their identities in safe ways without being ratted out to their parents. As grownups, we can project the necessary openness and willingness to listen that researchers say makes us potential allies and sources of support for teens – whether we are their parents or not.
Yes, this can be uncomfortable. But part of being an adult is advocating for rules and laws that are the best for everyone, and not just the rules and laws that reflect what you individually would like for yourself. And that means advocating for a world in which, yes, parents have rights – but so do children and teens.