Parents Want a Forward-Looking Children’s Agenda, Not Book Bans
Bruce Lesley, First Focus Campaign for ChildrenChild Rights Education
There is no doubt that parents are frustrated, overwhelmed, and at wits’ end after nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rough economic recession that was particularly difficult for parents, women, and young adults — a triple whammy for some.
As for their children, we have been saying repeatedly over the last two years that, despite some terrible misinformation, the kids are NOT alright. Every aspect of their lives has been disrupted.
But let there be no misunderstanding: What most parents want is a real, thoughtful, and forward-looking agenda for their children. Parents want what is best for their kids. Censorship, book bans, book burnings, the whitewashing of history, the denial of science, and a retreat into the distant past is not that agenda.
While there is a loud and vocal set of parents that are channeling their frustration into anger, resentment, and a regressive or backward-facing political agenda that is being fueled by big money and “AstroTurf” organizations, the majority of both parents AND children prefer progress.
Parents want the best for their kids. They do not accept that the U.S. ranks 36th out of 38 wealthy nations in indicators of child well-being.
A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report entitled K-12 Education: Students’ Experiences with Bullying, Hate Speech, Hate Crimes, and Victimization in Schools, studied the period between the 2015–2016 and 2017–2018 school years and found:
- About 1 in 5 students were bullied annually
- 1 in 4 students “experienced bullying related to their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation”
- “Hate crimes — which more commonly targeted students because of their race and national origin — and physical attacks with a weapon nearly doubled”
- Sexual assaults increased by 17% during the period
And this was happening before the global pandemic and economic recession, which has led to different stresses and challenges for our kids.
In response, what is needed is a whole-child approach and a comprehensive policy agenda that would improve all aspects of the lives and well-being of the next generation, including:
- A First-Class and Challenging Public Education: Most parents want children to be challenged in school and for their kids to get a first-class education in which the truth is taught in science and history, literature and books are encouraged and not censored, and all children are valued and respected. Parents support fully funded schools that have high-quality teachers, a challenging and engaging curriculum, smaller class sizes, expanded extra-curricular activity options, community schools, pre-kindergarten, and interventions for struggling learners (so yes, an emphasis on equity and inclusion). This is also what students want. Most parents and kids do not support book bans and censorship, the whitewashing of history and civics, an anti-science curriculum, educational gag orders, and efforts to discriminate against kids due to their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability status, or sexual orientation.
- School Health and Wellness: The vast majority of parents want their kids to return to school safely, which means getting their kids vaccinated and for schools to use public health measures to protect their children until the pandemic is under control. They desperately want to avoid school closures, quarantines, and having their children catch COVID-19, which happens if we fail to appropriately use science and public health protections. Parents also want schools to increase the number of and access to school nurses and counselors rather than putting up restrictions and bureaucratic barriers. There is a children’s mental health crisis in this country that demands our full attention and not denial or inaction.
- Teaching Inclusion, Civility, Respect, Compassion, and Kindness: Parents expect their children to behave, be respectful, inclusive, courteous, compassionate, and kind, and to not throw tantrums when they don’t get everything they want or disagree with others. This demands that adults model such behavior. Parents see teachers and other educators as partners in teaching children about how to behave with civility, respect, and self-control. Thus, parents do not support the rise in threats, harassment, and intimidation in school settings, such as at school board meetings. Some adults are behaving in ways that they themselves would condemn if they saw children acting that way. Bullying, harassment, and threats are unacceptable behavior, and it is destructive and harmful in our schools and our democracy.
- School Safety: Parents and children desperately want something done to eliminate school shootings. Sandy Hook, Parkland, Santa Fe, Oxford, etc. are tragedies that must end. Parents and students fear gun violence — 34 school shootings in an abbreviated 2021 school year. This is uniquely an American problem that is killing our children. What does not harm children are Toni Morrison and Ruby Bridges books, the history of slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and vaccines for children. Books and vaccines over gun violence and active shooter drills, please.
- Child Health: Parents overwhelmingly support reducing child and infant mortality, ensuring that all children have health coverage in their country, getting children vaccinated and protected from disease, addressing the growing crisis of children’s mental health and rising suicide rates, and ensuring science and research are increased to eliminate childhood illnesses, disability, and death. They do not support the recent four-year trend in which the uninsured rate for children has grown or the anti-vax movement that threatens to bring back childhood illnesses that are easily prevented. There is also a children’s mental health crisis in this country that demands a societal response. If we truly care about life, there is nothing more important or that demands more attention than efforts to cut infant and child mortality, including child suicide.
- Child Hunger: An estimated 15 million children may experience food insecurity in 2021, according to Feeding America. Food insecurity negatively impacts the health and education of children. No child in America should go hungry.
- Child Care: Parents want child care centers that are well-staffed, high-qualify, safe, and loving places that help ensure the development and growth of their children and allow them to return to work. U.S. parents receive far less support than parents in any other wealthy nation in the world.
- Early Childhood/Pre-K: Parents understand the science and importance of early childhood programs that help stimulate brain development, language, emotional well-being, attachment, etc. They understand they need support and high-quality early childhood programs that can ensure the age-appropriate development and future success of their children. What parents do not want are high-stakes testing, exclusionary academies, and high-quality options that are only available to the wealthy in our society.
- Family Economics and Child Poverty: Millions of parents are struggling to make ends meet and find the Child Tax Credit to be a lifeline in helping them pay for food, rent, clothes, school supplies, and other items of importance to families. The American people, including parents, do not believe that children should be subjected to a life in poverty, as it negatively impacts all aspects of the lives of kids. Fortunately, an improved Child Tax Credit was enacted by Congress earlier this year that benefits 65 million children overall and has lifted an estimated 3.6 million children out of poverty. Nearly 450 economists have written Congress to support making these provisions permanent and cite research estimating child poverty costs our nation between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion annually. Unfortunately, if Congress allows the improved Child Tax Credit to expire, child poverty would nearly double. If you have any concern about children or our nation’s future, that should be unacceptable.
- Family Medical Leave: The American people, but particularly parents, understand the dire challenges that face parents of newborns, children who are sick and must stay home from school, kids who have longer-term illness or disability, and some who must also be caregivers for their own parents. They are demanding paid family medical leave in this country, just as every other wealthy nation in the world provides. What they do not want is for parents to be left on their own and to be harmed for providing care to their children or their own parents when they are most in need.
- Child Protection and Abuse Prevention: Parents want to ensure the nation’s children are safe and support prevention tools that help ensure all parents have the tools they need to protect children from harm, neglect, and abuse. What parents do not want is for institutions and facilities to allow abuse to occur, to cover it up, and to fail to protect children from harm (e.g., Larry Nasser and the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team, Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, Kids for Cash, the Catholic Church and Boy Scout scandals, etc.). What parents and children do not need are QAnon #SaveTheChildren rallies seeking to exploit the problems of child abuse with fake targets that distract from true instances of child abuse and child trafficking in this country.
- Community Engagement: Parents want community supports, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, community centers, community schools, parks, and other important outlets for their kids to grow and stay healthy and active in their neighborhoods. These extra-curricular activities for kids must be well-funded and supported so that we end the movement toward privatization that has put enormous new and growing costs upon parents who are now being asked to pay for private club sports, music lessons, and other enrichment activities. What parents do not want are the ongoing funding cuts that eliminate community supports and engagement.
- Embrace ALL Children: Every child deserves the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, income, disability status, zip code, sexual orientation, immigration status, size, or place of birth. We should invest in kids both here and abroad. Even as some parents seem fine with discriminating against or harming children that are not their own, most kids reject such approaches. Most kids support their classmates and friends, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, disability, income, or sexual orientation.
- Homeless Children: Homelessness is an unfortunate reality for millions of children in this country. An estimated 1.3 million children under the age of 6 are homeless and another 1.4 million school-age children are homeless in the U.S. All children deserve a place they can call home.
- Best Interests of Children: By an 81–13% margin, both parents and childless adults want policy that impacts children to be governed by a “best interests of the child” standard. Everybody wants what is best for their children and are also supportive of ensuring all kids can strive to fulfill their greatest potential. While parents want and must have a voice or say in various aspects of their child’s life, that does not include the whitewashing of history and science, the weakening of health and safety protections for children, or other agendas that sideline the “best interests” of children. Policies that impact the lives of children demand that the needs, concerns, and interests of children are the focus rather than the special interests of adults, providers, or institutions. We must stop sidelining kids in discussions about their lives and needs. Children have fundamental human rights too.
Children used to be an issue that would cause Democrats and Republicans to put aside differences and advance a common agenda. As the 15 policy areas cited above indicate, there is a rather robust “Children’s Agenda” that Republicans and Democrats should come together to support and advance.
To Republican policymakers: Please listen to the overwhelming majority of parents. Incivility, harassment, bullying, intimidation, and the destruction of public schools and community supports is not an agenda of progress for parents, children, or our nation’s future. It might rally some in the conservative base or the Proud Boys, but it is not the right agenda for America. Republicans used to lead on issues like the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, civics education, child abuse, child trafficking, the promotion of sports and extra-curricular programs, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Republicans, who speak of themselves as a pro-family party, must understand that young adults are leaving them in droves, and young people are facing enormous financial and debt challenges (lower wages, unaffordable housing, school debt, etc.) that prevents them from even having children. According to exit polls from the 2020 election, people under the age of 50 voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump and that margin was more than 2-to-1 among the youngest voters.
These young adults, many of whom are parents or caregivers of kids, are looking for policymakers to be partners in helping make parenthood and child-rearing an affordable and rewarding endeavor.
After all, parenting is the most important work.
To Democratic policymakers: Please stand up and center your agenda on children and families. Democrats have historically promoted an array of important efforts to support children and families, but have, far too often, made these initiatives secondary, background, or an afterthought in their overall agenda. Young adults, women, and people of color are the voters that overwhelmingly have voted for Democrats, and they are the strongest voices for policy issues of importance to children in any and every poll ever conducted. There is growing impatience.
Democrats must pay more than lip service to the needs and concerns of children and families. Fortunately, the Build Back Better Act has the potential of being the most important piece of legislation for children and families in decades but it remains stalled. Pass it…NOW!
To both political parties: Children need adults to listen to their needs and concerns and act. In the absence of a clear and forward-looking “Children’s Agenda,” the door has opened for backward-looking or extremist interests to gain traction. The anti-vax and aspects of the “parental rights” movements put kids in harm’s way.
Although there is no doubt as to the importance of parental engagement in schools, parents must serve as a partner to rather than authoritarians over teachers, schools, students, and society, including taxpayers, in public education. The partnerships that parents, educators, students, and communities engage in demands some basic level of civility and forbearance.
As the Washington Post expressed in a recent editorial:
No question that parents should have a say in the education of their children, but individual parents can’t dictate that schools teach what they want.
Allowing one parent — or a group of parents — to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about.
Students should have a voice in their own education where they can learn and grow with their peers. Students need support from parents and government but sometimes need protection from parents or government.
Furthermore, efforts to privatize our public schools threaten the education of our children and the future of our democracy. As renowned political scientist Benjamin R. Barber has written:
. . .there is something deeply disturbing, even perverse, about current political rhetoric that has seized on privatizing (de-publicizing) America’s schools. For to take the public out of education is to take the common out of the commonwealth. It is to undermine the function of schooling as what Alexis de Tocqueville sagely called the arduous “apprenticeship of liberty.” It is to forget that liberty must be learned, that while we are, to be sure, “born free” we are also born as private individuals whose God-given rights are abstractions until realized through engaged and competent citizenship.
Stated simply: born free in theory, but free in reality only when we become citizens. We are not born citizens but acquire the rights and responsibilities that comprise citizenship only through Tocqueville’s long and arduous apprenticeship for which public education is the chief instrument.
Most parents want what is best for their children. Most are interested in ensuring a bright and strong future for all children, but those interests and concerns are too often being failed by one party and treated as an afterthought by the other. We under-invest in our nation’s children in comparison to all other wealthy nations around the world. Consequently, we have much poorer outcomes. That must change.
Our children are NOT alright. Millions of parents, young adults, and children are watching and waiting with growing exhaustion and impatience. Our children deserve better.
Policymakers who figure this out and move a pro-child and family agenda forward will be rewarded. So will our nation and our future.