Thank Goodness Kids Do Belong to Their Parents

The notion that children belong to the whole community, propounded by Melissa Harris-Perry, would be terrible for most of them.
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Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Did you catch the controversial Melissa Harris-Perry TV spot? The MSNBC personality has been ridiculed by conservatives and libertarians since she suggested that the United States hasn't invested as much in public education as we should have because we have "this private notion of children." We think, "Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility," she argued, rather than "these are our children." She went on to argue that a necessary remedy is to "break through" the "private idea" that "kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families," and to recognize that kids belong to whole communities. "Once it's everybody's responsibility, and not just the household's," she concluded, "then we start making better investments."

Hmm.
 

Did she really mean that kids don't belong to their parents or families, but to the community at large? Or did she do a terrible job of expressing the distinct argument that members of communities have some obligations to all the children within them, not just the members of their own families? It's hard to say. Her follow-up post conflates distinct concepts so much I can't tell.

What I can do is to explain why, as someone who supports well-funded public schools, a social safety net, neighborhoods with "eyes on the street" (per Jane Jacobs), charitable work on behalf of needy kids, and an ethos of looking out for any kid who finds him or herself in need of adult assistance, I emphatically believe that "your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility," that "kids belong to their families," not to their communities, and that the converse formulation is dangerous.

It is dangerous in part because children are raised by individuals, not diffuse collectives. Mother and father are in fact responsible for getting baby her shots, strapping her into the car seat, childproofing the house, noticing her allergic reaction to peanuts, and enrolling her in primary school. If they fail to do these things, or to find someone who'll do them on their behalf, baby suffers. A kindly passerby won't peek through the living-room window, notice the child crying, and attend to it. I suspect that if a young couple leaving the hospital, newborn in arms, were to ask Harris-Perry for advice, she would not tell them, "Don't worry, this kid isn't all your responsibility." The fact that most parents feel this responsibility deep within them is literally indispensable to our civilization. Kids whose parents don't feel or ignore it are often seriously disadvantaged. 

Recognizing that parents bear primary responsibility for their children's well-being isn't just important for most families. It is a collective necessity in any pluralistic society. Progressives are prone to talking as if optimal policies and methods can be agreed upon if only right-thinking people vest trust in appropriately enlightened technocrats. But outside the wonk bubble, Americans have deep, legitimate disagreements about what ought to happen. Child rearing is no exception. If kids belong to their families, some can spend their Saturdays taking piano lessons, others can mark the Jewish Sabbath, and still others can play baseball or attend Chinese or Korean school.

"Can you believe the Nguyens let Johnny race dirt bikes?"

"I don't care if Caitlin's mom is letting her go."

"My son will not be one of those Muslims who never learns the Koran."

Parents raising their own children as they see fit can disagree vehemently, even on deeply held values, and coexist with nothing more dramatic than incredulous bitching to their spouses about other nearby parents. Conceive of the community as ultimately responsible for raising kids and see how suddenly, intractably contentious and upsetting a formerly thriving place becomes. A secular progressive parent put in a small town of devout Mormons would be the first to tell you that he gets to decide how to raise his kids, not the community. He would be exactly right. Parents get to decide how to raise their kids. Their neighbors ought to help them succeed, but have no claim to the kids.

There are, of course, unfit parents. Fathers who beat their sons. Mothers who get their three-year-olds high. Those kids should be taken away. Like all humans, they possess individual rights. But what those children then want and need -- much more than a community that feels collective responsibility for its children -- is to be placed in a specific family with individuals who'll love them like family. That is far more valuable to them than a community with an abstract investment in them. If their adopted parents love them as their own -- which is to say, prefer them to all other children, and are willing to sacrifice more for them than anyone else -- that is a beautiful thing. Better two loving parents than 200,000 taxpayers with an impersonal responsibility for one's welfare.

You can only have both if the family is in charge.

**** 

Free Range Kids is one parents' movement I follow with interest. It's a reaction against helicopter parenting. Its adherents believe that by giving their children extra independence at an early age, encouraging them to solve their own problems, and permitting them to take reasonable risks rather than being overprotective to the point of paranoia, they'll raise happier, healthier, more confident, independent people. They all put a great deal of thought into their parenting.

The group's blog recently featured a story written by a parent who reported that Child Protective Services wants to take custody of their daughter. It is both relevant and worthy of attention in its own right.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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