To Whom Do Children Belong?


Children’s relationship to the political community is fundamentally different from that of adults, because it is mediated through their belonging to a family and living under the authority of their parents.

Children belong not to parents, but to the whole community. So claimed Melissa Harris-Perry in a recent MSNBC promo spot that has sparked heated controversy.

Harris-Perry argued that if we are going to start investing adequately in our public schools, “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”

Now, if she simply meant that families and community members should support each other with neighborly gestures, such as—to take her own example—offering to drive a child home from school when the parents temporarily cannot, then her position is hardly controversial.

But her words are much more than just an exhortation to neighborliness or volunteerism. They reflect the troubling but not uncommon view that the education of children, particularly their formal education, is first and foremost the task of the state rather than parents, and that the state has primary educational authority over children, at least once they are old enough to attend school.

This is effectively the position that political theorists such as Amy Gutmann and Stephen Macedo take when they argue, for instance, that the state can and should require children to be exposed to values and ways of life that conflict with those they are learning at home, that the state at least in principle has the right to mandate such “diversity education” programs even in private schools and home schools, and that parents in principle have no right to opt their children out of such programs, even if they have a moral or religious objection to their content.

Many liberal academics agree that the district court in Mozert v. Hawkins was right to deny evangelical Christian parents their request to have their children exempted from a public school reading program designed to expose students to diverse moral and religious views. They think too that the Supreme Court was wrong in Wisconsin v. Yoder to accommodate Amish parents by letting them pull their children out of school after eighth grade, so as to educate them at home in skills necessary for the Amish way of life.

If, as Gutmann puts it in Democratic Education, parents and the state have a kind of shared sovereignty over children, in which parents can teach children their values at home, while the state has primary control with regard to formal schooling, then at least as a matter of moral principle (and leaving aside the constitutional question), Mozert was right and Yoder was wrong.

More broadly, public debates about issues such as education vouchers are also guided by this presumption that children’s formal education is primarily the task of the state. Many assume that “public education” means education provided in government-run institutions, not merely education made accessible to all through government funding; they think it is intrinsically bad for government-run schools to lose pupils or shut down once vouchers or charter schools force them to compete with privately-run schools.

Yet those scenarios are only inherent losses if we think education is primarily the responsibility of the state, not of parents.

To hold that parents, not the state, are the primary agents of education is not incompatible with the role that other individuals and associations of the parents’ choosing—and usually, in a more indirect way, the political community as a whole—play in facilitating parents’ educational task.

It is true, of course, that children “belong to”—i.e., are members of—a larger community beyond their families. But to say that children belong to the political community just as much as, or in the same way as, they belong to their families is to make a fundamental and dangerous mistake.

As inherently social creatures, all human beings belong to many communities, but not to the same degree, or with the same intensity, or through the same kind of relationship. Human beings are, in a sense, nested within various levels of community like the traditional Russian nesting dolls, communities that claim different degrees and types of allegiance and commitment from us, and that exercise different degrees and types of authority over us (and in which we also exercise different degrees and types of authority over others).

As an American citizen, I belong to the political community that is the United States of America, but in today’s globalized world that lacks any truly self-sufficient nation-state, I also in some sense belong to the broader community of all human beings, in which the closest thing to an established political authority is the United Nations.

Still, I only indirectly belong to the UN as an individual. It would be more precise to say that I belong to the US, and that the US belongs to the UN, and thus that I would approach the supra-national community of the UN as a US citizen. It is as a US citizen (and, except in extreme cases, through the mediation of the US government) that the UN’s actions and decisions would have authority over me.

Something analogous could be said of children with respect to the larger political community.

Children belong first and foremost to their families headed by their parents, who, due to their uniquely intimate relationship with their children, are the ones with the most direct obligation and authority to care for them until they are sufficiently mature to direct their own lives.

It is thus not directly but through their families that children belong to the larger political community, and it is also through their parents that the political community exercises paternalistic authority over them (except in cases where the authority of parents is clearly failing to fulfill its function—i.e., cases of abuse and neglect).

In other words, children’s relationship to the political community is fundamentally different from that of adults, because it is mediated through their belonging to a family and living under the authority of their parents.

Harris-Perry’s view is wrong because it fails to recognize the family as an authoritative community distinct and relatively independent from the larger political community with regard to its internal affairs, primary among which is the education and raising of children. And it is dangerous because the eradication of independent, intermediate authority structures between the individual and the state—of which the family and the church are the two most fundamental—is precisely, as Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, the essence of totalitarianism.

Melissa Moschella earned her PhD in politics from Princeton University and is a 2012-2013 Postdoctoral Research Associate of Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.



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