Free the Children

We assume parents have the right to control their kids. Why?

By Max Fox

Art By Emma Erickson

An illustration of parents puppeteering their child as a ballerina

An ominous political coalition has emerged in recent years, orchestrated by the reactionary right. This coalition has mobilized fascists and liberals alike to defend a vision of sex and society that many liberals imagine they might reject if it were stated plainly. As of April, more than 494 bills have been introduced in 47 states to restrict access to medical resources needed for youth transition or to compel schools to out trans children. The effects of these bills resonate with the hysteria that neo-nazis and Proud Boys have tried to generate around trans people, as they stage armed displays around drag shows to recruit for their movements.

This coalition feeds panic with the idea that trans people are an affront to a natural order of sexual difference and gender hierarchy. It suggests that teachers and internet forums and M&M ads are turning children trans, and that children should not be able to socially or medically transition. This movement is coordinated from familiar precincts of the organized right — the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Policy Alliance, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum — and self-defined feminists like Cathy Brennan and Martina Navratilova have found ways to participate as well. The ultimate goal is to legally enshrine hierarchical gender difference, in part by outlawing the right to transition. “This is a political winner,” Terry Schilling of the American Principles Project told the New York Times about his organization’s national advocacy campaigns against trans existence. But to achieve a legal regime of sex segregation (“separate is not inherently unequal,” states Bill No. 2076, now awaiting a vote before the Mississippi Senate), they must first attack children’s health care, because for now, according to Schilling, that’s “where the consensus is.” 

In anti-trans activists’ and their Republican allies’ attempts to outlaw trans childhood, they argue that they are defending children from the scourge of being trans. They appeal to children’s innocence and the idea that kids are incapable of identifying their own gender. But behind all these claims is a premise so widely shared that it enables a coalition between fascists and liberals to become possible: Children are their parents’ property, and as such, parents have the right to know, if not decide, everything about who their children might be.

At first glance, parents’ rights to their children appears so natural that opposing it seems irrational, disturbing, frivolous, and pernicious. But the question of whether children are their parents’ property is the constitutional question at stake in custody cases in Texas; in Florida and Texas’s threats to remove trans children from their parents; and in the moral crusading among parents who have appointed themselves citizen deputies with the aim of taking over school boards, library districts, local political offices, and state houses. Under the banner of parents’ rights, the latter group has achieved moderate but ongoing legislative success. 

Appealing to parental control is a familiar tactic for driving a right-wing wedge into liberal constituencies. The same political network has successfully used parental consent laws to chip away at abortion rights. It also played a significant role in the first national campaign to stop gay rights. The current wave of anti-trans legislation draws on deeply felt emotions and tries to bypass or disorient rationality by creating what can appear to be a morally complex situation. So, it’s worth reflecting why the idea that sex may not reprise nature would trigger such convulsions across the political spectrum.

What is actually at play here? Being a parent can be understood as a form of ownership, even if a child is not a typical asset or commodity. They are not legally transferable — except when they are, in cases of adoption, challenges to custody, surrogacy, marriage, etc. Nor do they bear a monetary value — except when they do, in cases of adoption or surrogacy, again; in insurance value; through money generated by work; or negatively, through the costs associated with their rearing. This situation reflects the strange place that the family occupies in a society organized around commodity production generally, and based specifically on the private production of the one commodity crucial for all others: labor-power.

The early stage of capitalism was symbolized by the notorious image of the child laborer, who, along with the woman laborer, was often favored for reasons relating to their size, dexterity, and lower costs. Now, Labor Department data shows that violations of child labor laws in the U.S. have risen continuously since 2015. Child protections, moreover, are being circumvented via immigration laws, or rolled back altogether. Iowa, one of the many states to ban trans health care for young people this year, recently passed a law weakening protections against child labor. 

In the early 20th century, legal restrictions on child labor and the introduction of compulsory schooling transformed proletarian life. In turn, the bourgeois family structure was handed down to proletarians even if it was not fit for the task. In addition to its capacity to work, the working class is defined by its lack of property, while the bourgeois family governs the transmission of property between generations. And in fact, while the task of the proletarian family is “for the race of laborers not to die out,” as Marx puts it, working-class parents’ capacity to protect their children as a kind of property from the state is comparatively restricted — the rights parents have in defending their kids against the government depends heavily on class. The family without property thus operates in two realms: a public one in which their labor can be sold on the market for a wage, and a private one in which the necessary work of reproducing this capacity for waged labor — in other words, having kids — takes place outside of the market, in the home. 

Perhaps what is most disturbing to reactionaries and liberals alike about trans kids is not the natural or unnaturalness of their gender, but the way they expose these relations of property to be at work in the family. The family is sometimes gauzily thought of as a refuge from the miseries and restraints of ownership, but when a child moves to assert their autonomy within its structures, he or she or they can press against strident claims on their person. Not only that, but by making clear that the body alone is not deterministic, the child undermines the claim that the social order represents nature — and, in turn, that parents are its stewards.

If parents’ rights over their children seem “natural,” it’s because we have been taught to believe that this arrangement reflects a higher biological and spiritual order. This is true, to some extent, for all children — parents wonder how their children can live lives other than the ones that were envisioned for them. Trans children may simply have the misfortune of representing this wrenching question to everyone else.

My friend the mother and writer Madeline Lane-McKinley underlined this to me. “I don’t think under capitalism it’s possible for the child not to be, somehow, a site of ownership,” she told me recently. “I mean, we obviously struggle against that. But all of the logic of investment and labor, it’s inexorably bound to ownership.” This is why even someone like Lane-McKinley, who has addressed her professional and political life to child liberation, can find the experience of her own non-binary child’s adolescence wrenching as she navigates advocacy and judgment with a commitment to her child’s self-determination. The emotional dimension of growing apart is one thing, but the absence of language or modes of relating that aren’t based on an assertion of ownership is what’s harder to bear. “I don’t know how someone is supposed to conquer any of these things individually. And so I have a lot of compassion for why parents end up feeling themselves to be owners,” she said. “How else are you supposed to feel?” But the flight from this difficulty animates the unwitting coalition which is elsewhere providing cover for the rightist project of segregating the sexes and outlawing abortion. To relate differently to a trans child requires going against the roots of capitalist life and its forms of reproduction, which also keep us from doing that work together.

Max Fox is a writer and translator and an editor of Pinko Magazine.