Childism, Under the Guise of Parental Rights, Is Detrimental to Children

Bruce Lesley
Published in
18 min readApr 1, 2022


Rachel Aviv just published a powerful, and yet horrifying, piece in The New Yorker about the case of Mackenzie Fierceton, who is still working to overcome an abusive childhood in Missouri despite far too many adults either ignoring, disregarding, or actively throwing up roadblocks in her path.

Mackenzie’s Story

Twitter link

The story is a tragic one where some adults have been supportive of Mackenzie, but many others actively sought to invisiblize her story, ignore her needs, and worse, inflict more harm.

Sadly, kids who seek protection from abuse are often dismissed or neglected by adults, particularly when the perpetrators are powerful or otherwise “well-respected” people or institutions in a community.

One morning in September 2014, Mackenzie arrived at her high school with, as her history teacher described, “a bloodied and battered face and then fainted.” She was rushed to the hospital and a nurse there said she “had two black eyes, and her hair was full of blood. She had bruises all over her body in different stages of healing — an obvious sign of child abuse.” Mackenzie spent three weeks in the hospital, including some time in pediatric intensive care. The Department of Social Services (DSS) investigated and determined she was not safe and took her into protective custody.

Despite reams of evidence about the abuse she suffered, there were multiple moments where adults turned their backs on her or actively took steps that would inflict further injury (to her education, her financial status, and her reputation). Although the State’s legal system took Mackenzie into the child welfare system because of the abuse, the legal system imposed no real penalties upon those who perpetuated violence against her.

After living with three different foster families, she managed to graduate from high school and got accepted to the University of Pennsylvania — where she hoping to move beyond her past.

Unfortunately, in acts that would compound the harm to Mackenzie, Aviv reports that staff at the University of Pennsylvania, its Office of Student Conduct (OSC, which has authoritarian tenets and structures directed at students that every university across this country should reconsider), and Rhodes Trust (who initially granted Mackenzie a scholarship) decided to reinvestigate the abuse against Mackenzie.

At this point, they focused on government’s decision not to prosecute her mother and boyfriend as being evidence against her. Despite her hospitalization and other extensive evidence, the Rhodes Trust questioned her story because her medical record included “no reference to dried blood, distorted facial features, or cessation of breathing” and, at a later point, the University of Pennsylvania went so far to say that she “claimed to fall ill” and presented a “fictitious account of abuse by her mother.”

So what on earth would they possibly think explains being hospitalized for three weeks with serious injuries? Victims of abuse will see a very familiar and disturbing pattern here.

After being exposed to a new form of trauma, Mackenzie’s undergraduate degree was threatened, her graduate degree is still being withheld, and her scholarship was rescinded. As Professor Anne Norton said:

I cannot avoid the sense that Mackenzie is being faulted for not having suffered enough. She was a foster child, but not for long enough. She is poor, but she had not been poor for long enough. She was abused, but there is not enough blood.

A detailed point-by-point rebuttal from two professors hold the University of Pennsylvania’s administration accountable for failing to uphold its commitment to students, particularly in this case.

This is all terribly recognizable to many children and young adults, as kids experience violence at home and in various institutions that are supposed to be serving children and are often not listened to or believed. But even if hidden or ignored, the truth remains.

Children, who are less powerful than adults, are particularly vulnerable targets for physical and sexual abuse — but also abuse of power, which is a form of “childism.”

“Childism” Demeans and Subjugates Children

In 1975, Chester Pierce and Gail Allen referred to “childism” as “the automatic presumption of superiority of any adult over any child” that results in actions taken toward children via “authoritative, unilateral decisions.”

Pierce and Allen spoke about the misconception that “there is a belief that the society is child-oriented and that children take priority” but “[t]hat is, in actuality, far from the truth.”

Nearly half a century later, the idea that children are prioritized remains far from a reality. There have been numerous examples of grievous U.S. scandals involving children in recent years.

For example, in 2018, over 150 young women came forward to a Michigan judge to tell their stories of sexual abuse and molestation by Dr. Larry Nassar, the former U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports clinic doctor. These young women demanded answers from U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University for failing to listen to their complaints about Nassar’s criminal and unacceptable behavior as far back as 1997.

USA Olympic gymnastics medalist Aly Raisman wrote in the New York Times:

Abuse goes way beyond the moment, often haunting survivors for the rest of their lives, making it difficult to trust and impacting their relationships. . . . If over these many years, just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.

Children spoke up, but adults — repeatedly and for more than 20 years — didn’t listen to them. The number of adults that failed these young women is astounding, but again, this is not an isolated incident.

In major institutions, including the Catholic Church, the Jerry Sandusky and Penn State scandal, the Boy Scouts, and the courts and juvenile justice system in the “Kids for Cash” scandal, for example, we see time-and-time again the continued failure of our society to respect the basic human rights of children. Institutions and the adults who run them repeatedly seek to “protect their interests” rather than listen to and act to protect children and youth.

Our nation must do better.

Children should be guaranteed fundamental human rights and protections. Unfortunately, as Michael Freeman writes:

More attention is paid to animal rights, even to the rights of rivers and rocks, than is paid to children’s rights. Advocates of children’s rights are often relegated to the margins of human rights.

In her book Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Child Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate, Barbara Woodhouse notes that the subjugation of children in our legal system is both shocking and sweeping:

Most would be astonished to learn that abused and neglected children in state custody have fewer rights than accused criminals. While a long line of Supreme Court cases has addressed the rights of adults to counsel when taken into state custody, to protection of their property from unjust takings, and to protection of their familial ties, the Supreme Court has never held that a foster child has a right to legal representation, a right to speak in his own court case, a right not to be deprived of property without due process, or a right to contact with his family.

This lack of recognition to the fundamental rights of children sometimes even continues when kids become young adults. In Mackenzie Fierceton’s case, at various points in her life, some adults inflicted physical and sexual abuse, others dismissed that abuse, others actively attacked her for daring to ask for help, and still others have used their individual and institutional power to inflict further abuse into adulthood.

Recognizing the Fundamental Rights of Children

Fortunately, at some key moments in our legal system, the fundamental rights of children and youth have been recognized. For example, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas recognized the fundamental rights of children in his majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969). He wrote:

In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. . . In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.

Justice Fortas adds:

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.

A few years later, Justice Harry Blackmun writes in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth (1976):

Constitutional rights do not mature and come into being magically only when one attains the state-defined age of majority. Minors, as well as adults, are protected by the Constitution and possess constitutional rights.

Our children and young people need our laws, policies, and institutions to ensure that the “best interests of children” are a primary consideration. The vast majority of people in this country strongly agree with that notion. In a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners on election eve 2020, voters strongly support (81–13%) policy being “governed by a best interest of the child” standard.

Source: Lake Research Partners, Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2020

No more looking away, invisiblizing, ignoring, or dismissing the issues and needs of children.

We must also reject laws and institutions that treat children as “chattel” or the property of parents, and that assume children lack independent reason, agency, or understanding of their own “best interests.” The law should balance the interests of parents (who have a developed relationship with a child), the state’s parens patriae role that should be focused on the protection and “best interests” of the child, and the child’s own expressed interests and needs.

Kids — their voices, their needs, their concerns — must count and matter.

Children need the support of both parents and government. But sometimes children need protection from both parents and government, such as when children are physically or sexually abused by parents and the government’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems compound and unduly harm children.

Why the “Parental Rights” Movement Fails Children

Unfortunately, there is a political movement that is pushing in the opposite direction and would threaten the health, education, safety, and well-being of children across this country. Under the guise of “parental rights,” this movement seeks to enshrine “childism” (defined by Aleisa Myles as “prejudice and oppression against children”) into law by effectively eliminating any recognition of the voice or the rights of children altogether while simultaneously gutting any affirmative responsibility of parents to their children or for government to look out for the “best interests” of children.

This movement is not new. Even up until a century ago, kids were seen as the property of their parents. Woodhouse writes:

As late as 1920, a parent who killed a child in the course of punishment could claim a legal excuse for homicide in no fewer than nine states. Well into the nineteenth century, a father could enroll his male children in the army and collect the enrollment bounty, betroth his minor female children to persons of his choice, and put his children to work as day laborers on farms or factories and collect their wage packets.

But family law has evolved. According to Woodhouse:

As family law matured, American law increasingly characterized parents as the guardians not the owners of their children. Parental rights were regrounded in the presumption that parents are motivated by love for their children, share a deep commitment to their children’s future, and will act in their children’s best interests.

There is no doubt that parents deserve deference in the upbringing of their children. That is not in dispute. Indeed, it is already in law.

The problem arises when some parents are simply unable to live up to the responsibilities and duties of parenting, as in the case of Mackenzie Fierceton and the litany of other scandals cited above. The reality is that, tragically, some parents are violent, criminal, unfit, and a danger to children and that institutions and government also fail children.

In case we all need reminding, a Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities published an extensive report in 2016 that found:

Every day, four to eight children in the United States die from abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents or caretakers. No one knows the exact number, and there has been little progress in preventing these tragic deaths. Most of the children who die are infants or toddlers.

Samantha Godwin, resident fellow at Yale Law School, writes:

When evaluating the extent of parents’ legal rights, we should not merely consider how ideal parents exercise their power to provide the effective care and guidance children need. The extent of what the law enables imperfect parents to do to their children must also be taken into account. The issue is not only what role we hope that parents play in their children’s lives, but how the powers actually granted might be used and abused for better or worse. Thinking only in terms of how the best parents conduct themselves is a mistake; it is also necessary to account for what the worst parents can get away with.

Unfortunately, the “parental rights” movement, supported by groups like Moms for Liberty, the Manhattan Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are seeking to rollback basic protections that have been gained for children over the last century.

Moms for Liberty’s Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovitch argue, “Moms for Liberty is fighting to restore the role of primary decision maker for children back to parents by helping them organize and amplify their voices.”

First, parents never lost authority as the primary decision-makers. But their tactics and the bills they support are disastrous for children. They are seeking to turn government into a punitive actor (“don’t say gay, don’t discuss racism, don’t read that book, don’t get vaccines, don’t ask questions, don’t step out of line, don’t question authority”) rather than a protector of children while simultaneously gutting the fundamental rights of children.

For example, there is a deep and long-held understanding that public schools play important societal roles beyond just individual interests. Public schools serve to further our democracy, help achieve social mobility and success, and help students understand math, science, literature, the arts, and history to fully become the next generation of leaders. The focus of public schools should always be focused on children — their education, their health, their safety, and their well-being. Moms for Liberty wishes to end this.

In fact, the focus of public education on children has started to slip away in Florida. For example, Florida’s recently passed Parents Bill of Rights (HB 241) includes the following language:

The state, any of its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or any other institution may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.

This may seem innocuous, but the sweeping language, which is similar to bills proposed in a number of other states across the country, would preclude or limit any action by the government or any other institution, such as laws that protect the health, education, and safety of children from abuse unless “necessary to achieve a compelling state interest” and the “least restrictive” possible.

Courts would likely rule this new language to be quite different than the historical parens patrie state role that serves to protect the “best interests” of the child in a number of matters, including child abuse, child custody, etc. In short, the “interests” of individual parents will take precedent over the needs and interests of children, even in schools. Kids will return to being viewed as the property of parents under HB 241.

As Florida Rep. Susan Valdés (D-Tampa) said to WPTV in West Palm Beach:

I can’t support the bill because I am thinking about all of the children. Not just those that have good parents.

The “parental rights” movement sees Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an ally in this effort to change the focus of public education from one that addresses the educational, health, safety needs of children and respects the rights of children to one of obedience and compliance of students to the whims of adults (i.e., “childism”). In Morse v. Frederick (2007), Thomas writes:

In my view, the history of public education suggests that the First Amendment, as originally understood, does not protect student speech in public schools.

Thomas goes so far as to argue for overturning the judicial precedent in Tinker v. Des Moines Community Independent School District (1969) that asserted children do have basic and fundamental First Amendment rights. According to Thomas:

…early public schools were not places for freewheeling debates or exploration of competing ideas. Rather, teachers instilled “a core of common values” in students and taught them self-control…. Teachers instilled these values not only by presenting ideas but also through strict discipline. Schools punished students for behavior the school considered disrespectful or wrong. Rules of etiquette were enforced, and courteous behavior was demanded. To meet their educational objectives, schools required absolute obedience.

In case it isn’t clear, Thomas is attempting to sanction the physical abuse of children here.

Beyond education, Florida’s Parents Bill of Rights (HB 241) also threatens the health of children by saying doctors and nurses cannot provide any services to a child “without first obtaining written parental consent.”

What happens when parents are abusers and kids fear their wrath so fail to get treatment, parents disagree, parents are absent, parents believe that cannabis, alkaline diets, or prayer are how kids should be treated for cancer, children have an emergency, or parents believe that kids should not receive access to mental health or substance abuse treatment, birth control, vaccines, or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases?

What about the cases of children who seek treatment for child abuse injuries? Can parents deny they exist and deny treatment?

Unfortunately, these cases happen. Parents can make tragic decisions that threaten the health and lives of children. In states like Idaho, “parental rights” language is directly linked to the deaths of children.

In addition to denying children their basic rights to obtain access to life-saving health care services, HB 241’s language takes the additional step of allowing parents to demand certain health care treatment be performed on their children. It reads:

The right to make health care decisions for his or her minor child, unless otherwise prohibited by law….

Florida’s Parents Bill of Rights adds:

Unless required by law, the rights of a parent of a minor child in this state may not be limited or denied. This chapter may not be construed to apply to a parent action or decision that would end life.

Short of an action or decision that would result in death, this language suggests parental rights “may not be limited or denied,” even if it might be detrimental to the health and well-being of children and against the will of a child or adolescent. This is astounding.

For example, some parents across the country have bought into an array of false or dangerous treatment for autism that, according to NBC News, included “industrial bleach…, turpentine or their children’s own urine as the secret miracle drug for reversing autism.”

The language reopens grave concerns about the role some parents have played in decisions to impose female genital mutilation, conversion “therapy,” rebirthing “therapy,” certain types of involuntary institutionalization of children, seclusion and restraint, forced sterilization of children with disabilities, and other harmful or detrimental “care”.

Consequently, children and youth appear to have limited to almost no recognizable rights under the “parental rights” bill language, even on matters where their health and well-being is at stake. The only exception to parental rights is a limited exception for a “compelling state interest” rather than the “best interests” or “rights” of children themselves.

This is a form of “childism.” It is anti-child.

Children Have Rights and Must Be Seen and Heard

In Troxel v. Granville (2000), Justice John Paul Stevens articulated the need for independent constitutional rights of children in his dissent in the case involving the visitation rights of grandparents. While he agreed with the “presumption that parental decisions generally serve the best interests of their children,” he noted that “even a fit parent is capable of treating a child like a mere possession.” Stevens adds:

Cases like this do not present a bipolar struggle between the parents and the State over who has final authority to determine what is in a child’s best interests. There is at minimum a third individual, whose interests are implicated in every case to which the statute applies — the child…. [T]o the extent parents and families have fundamental liberty interests in preserving such intimate relationships, so, too, do children have these interests, and so, too, must their interests be balanced in the equation.

Justice Stevens is right. As you are reading stories about issues of importance to children and even the “parental rights” movement, notice how often there is little to no attention or focus on the voices, needs, “best interests,” and fundamental rights of children, even with respect to matters that are all about them.

As Michael Freeman writes in his book The Moral Status of Children:

It is important that all those that formulate policy should be compelled to consider the impact their policies have on children.

Unfortunately, children are often an afterthought in policy debates. We have witnessed the failure to consider their best interests time and time again. Freeman adds:

All too rarely is consideration given to what policies…do to children. This is all the more the case where the immediate focus of the policy is not children. But even in children’s legislation the unintended or indirect effects of changes are not given the critical attention they demand….

This is one reason why the piece by Rachel Aviv about Mackenzie Fierceton is so important. It centers the debate on her life, her needs, her challenges, and her rights — not those of just the adults.

Cases like Mackenzie Fierceton, the child deaths cited by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, and the victims of abuse by the Catholic Church, the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team, the Boy Scouts, etc., argue for more rights and protections for children — not fewer.

After all, as Freeman notes:

The most fundamental of rights is the right to possess rights.

Over 30 years ago, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) proclaimed that every child “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” and be raised “in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.” Unfortunately, the United States is the only nation in the world that has failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Adopting a Pro-Children and Families Agenda

Frankly, the vast majority of parents are not calling for the sweeping “parental rights” agenda in HB 241 and that is moving in other states. Most parents are not “helicopter parents” seeking to control and direct over every single aspect of the lives of their children, including the privatization of public schools, the micromanagement of teachers, book bans, censorship, the whitewashing of history, and laws so they can use the power of government to inflict their will upon children, including the use of lawsuits against schools, teachers, pediatricians, nurses, etc. to enforce this power.

Source: CBS News/YouGov Poll, Feb. 15–18, 2022

Instead, parents want what is best for their kids and see teachers, coaches, child care providers, pediatricians, and others as allies (and not as adversaries) in the care of children. After all, teachers, coaches, child care providers, pediatricians, and others have dedicated their careers to the well-being of children.

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of the forthcoming book Parent Nation and a pediatric surgeon, explains:

Time and time again, I heard parents express a desire for community, a sense of camaraderie, societal supports that would allow them to parent the way their children need and deserve.

Dr. Suskind adds:

…enhanced support for parents and young children can and should be championed by anyone who has ever loved a child, and anyone who wants to see our nation live up to both its ideals and its full potential.

Instead, we underinvest in children and families. Between 2016 and 2020, for example, the share of federal spending invested in children declined by 25%.

Source: First Focus on Children, Children’s Budget 2021

Instead, we need a new forward-looking and supportive agenda for children and families. This is why the vast majority of parents support a Children and Families Agenda that includes things such as:

  • Enactment of the Child Tax Credit improvements (its expiration has led to a $1,000–3,600 per child increase in taxes on families);
  • The adoption of a “best interests” standard for children in public policy;
  • More funding for public schools, pre-K, and child care;
  • Ensuring every child has health care coverage and access to care;
  • Family medical leave;
  • Teaching children a challenging education curriculum that is inspiring and grounded in truth about science and history;
  • The establishment of an independent Commissioner for Children to ensure the needs and voices of children are considered; and,
  • Initiatives that would work toward preventing and eliminating child poverty, child hunger, child homelessness, and child abuse.
Source: Lake Research Partners, Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2020

Let’s put an end to “childism” and support an affirmative and positive agenda that raises up and supports children and families. We must do better by, for, and with our children.



Bruce Lesley

@BruceLesley — President of @First_Focus & @Campaign4Kids. Child advocate, husband & father of 4. Basketball fanatic. Follow on Twitter: @BruceLesley.