Prioritizing Children’s Best Interests Over Parental Fear

Bruce Lesley
Voices4Kids
Published in
6 min readDec 16, 2023

--

Parenting is an ever-evolving journey. Just as you feel you’ve mastered one stage, children grow and present new challenges that render your parenting playbook obsolete. Moreover, every child’s individuality adds layers of complexity, reinforcing the notion that parenting is more art than science. As a parent of four, I can attest that parenting requires constant learning, adapting, flexibility, and seeking support, advice, and guidance as children grow.

At a back-to-school night PTA meeting, our children’s junior high principal made a memorable observation about child development: “Your kids will enter this school looking, acting, and smelling one way and leave looking, acting, and smelling another way.”

His observation was true, as were those of many of the incredible teachers our children had over the years. These educators, armed with training, experience, and a commitment to children, often provided insights that were enlightening to us as parents. After all, parenting doesn’t come with a manual. In so many ways, our kids’ teachers were invaluable partners.

Just as we cherished many of our kids’ educators, so too did we appreciate and revere our kids’ pediatricians. They guided us through an array of childhood hurdles (or as pediatrician Barry Brazelton has called them, “touchpoints”), from developmental concerns, pediatric asthma, chronic ear infections, accidents and stitches, broken bones, immunization schedules, sports physicals, and even through birth control questions.

Their advice emphasized balance and moderation. This, we learned, is the essence of child-rearing: meeting the needs of children, supporting their aspirations without spoiling them, offering guidance without overbearing control, and providing protection and safety while allowing them the space to navigate life’s hurdles independently. Kids want the truth and not a white-washed version of history, literature, or life.

Finding this balance is challenging, and it seems to be slipping away as some parents are focused on their own desires and fears rather than recognizing that children have fundamental rights and needs. When this fear-driven approach to parenting is predominant, some parents seem to forget that just about every policy issue has a children’s angle that is being overlooked.

As I said to Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post:

That is why I am for a child-first mindset and parental engagement, but not a focus on parental rights… Our job as adults is to work together as partners in the education, development, and safety of kids.

Kids must be allowed to be kids. Parenting fear is leading to excessive control and a focus on “parental rights,” which as professor Adam Benforado writes, “is often centered on keeping the community out, to bar people, ideas, and scientific progress, and that imperils us all.” Fear is the motivation. Benforado recently talked about these issues on our Speaking of Kids podcast.

As educator Peter Greene writes in his blog entitled “One Wrong Move,” excessive control, competition, and stress are being imposed upon children is related to rising rates of mental health problems and suicide. Greene describes it as a “fear of failure” by parents that “slowly leaches down into the whole system” and causes children to feel they live on “a razor’s edge, imagining a world that will destroy them the moment they make One Wrong Move….”

In response, some in the “parental rights” movement have chosen to exercise complete control and censorship over kids — the denial of vaccines to kids, the banning of books, history, literature, science, spoken words (“Don’t Say Gay”), and even spelling words — to chisel their kids and their minds into exact replicas of themselves. They demand a protective bubble and the enforcement of their thoughts and beliefs by all instruments of society, including schools, libraries, and doctors.

Benforado explains:

If you are a parent, resist the urge to go it alone. When you face an important question about your child, rely on our collective wisdom. Lean on experts and other professionals who have done the hard work for you. You don’t need to be your kid’s teacher, doctor, coach, and librarian when there are already people in those positions who know what they are doing.

The “parental rights” agenda often closes off this community, which is not helpful to either children or parents. It limits their experiences, their ability to learn, and their growth opportunities.

In North Carolina, “parental rights” legislation has even resulted in the removal of child sexual abuse prevention efforts — an example of how such agendas can harm rather than protect.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) points out the absurdity and danger in this skewed vision of parental rights as personified by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). I have also written about the problems that DeSantis’s agenda creates for the health and education of children. Unfortunately, DeSantis does not understand that educators and pediatricians are allies to parents — not adversaries.

Sen. Murphy writes:

DeSantis’s vision of parental rights is odd, hateful, and honestly kind of creepy. He pretends as if our schools are sex shops with teachers spending six hours a day fervently trying to turn our children into drag show performers. He believes that parents need to be empowered to micromanage school library shelves in order to get rid of the tidal wave of prurient books drowning students, force the termination of teachers and administrators who dare talk to students about anything other than multiplication tables, and rid schools of the true threat to student safety — gay and transgender kids. It’s bigoted utter nonsense, and it’s getting kids killed. For instance, the majority of transgender children in American have contemplated suicide. That’s a heartbreaking statistic, and it’s a direct result of adults like DeSantis making gay and transgender children feel like they are abnormal and dangerous.

Murphy talks about the legitimate concerns and fears parents have about other issues, such as concerns about the economy, social media, and safety. To that fear, policymakers should do as Sen. Murphy has done. He has fought in the U.S. Senate to address issues like gun violence, which is now the leading cause of death in children, and protecting transgender and nonbinary children from harm.

The Senator adds:

The conservative parents’ rights campaign is worth fighting against. It has no relation to the actual challenges that our kids are facing today, and it simply serves to turn Americans against each other.

So, how do we proceed?

Murphy writes:

…parents are hurting out in America today, and the answer to DeSantis and others isn’t alternating between jeering and silence; we need our answer for what parents are feeling today.

First, I strongly agree with 99.9% of what Sen. Murphy wrote and his point that an agenda of harm and abuse to children is poorly met with silence, invisibility, or neglect.

If I have any disagreement, it is with the frame that the implied “answer” should be focused on “what parents are feeling.” Instead, I would urge the focus should be on the needs and best interests of children themselves. That is the agenda that is, far too often, overlooked and ignored.

For instance, when the focus was centered on adults and their “deservedness” in the U.S. Senate, Congress failed to take action to prevent the expiration of the Child Tax Credit, child care, nutrition, and health care funding for kids.

The consequences have been devastating, as millions of children have been pushed back into poverty and hunger and no longer have access to child care and health coverage.

Benforado points out:

So often, children are at the back of our minds, not the front. They are afterthoughts or never noticed at all. They are invisible when they are right before us.

We need a shift in focus — where children’s best interests and needs are not just considered but prioritized. Their health, education, safety, and well-being must be at the center of the nation’s agenda, informing every policy and decision we make.

--

--

Bruce Lesley
Voices4Kids

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