An ad featuring MSNBC Host Melissa Harris-Perry stirred up controversy recently. Under the banner of Lean Forward, Ms. Harris-Perry states, “We have never invested as much in public education as we should have, because we have always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is 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. Once it is everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.”
What may seem like well meaning, caring commentary is dangerous and misguided.
Let’s start with the idea that we have never invested as much in public education as we should have. According to FacetheFacts.org, a project of George Washington University, the United States spends approximately $11,000 on every K-12 student. That is $2,826 more than the average in other industrialized nations. It is far more than some other countries whose students outperform ours. Money is not the sole ingredient of a good education.
I home educated all four of my children for varying lengths of time. While part of the homeschooling community, I saw many parents who educated several children with very limited funds and sometimes-limited education, yet their children excelled. A 2009 study by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) supports my personal observations.
In it, researchers found that household income had little effect on test scores, and while parental educational levels had a modest effect, homeschooled students whose parents did not have a college education still scored far higher than the national average on standardized tests. The secret sauce recipe in homeschooling is very simple: individualized, personalized attention by parents or family members who know and love their children and who have a personal, vested interest in that child’s wellbeing.
That same recipe applies to children educated in public and private schools. When parents are actively involved in their children’s education, children fare better. It is the parents’ responsibility to choose the method of education that best meets the child’s and the family’s needs. There will be times when parents need to reach out to resources in the community to help meet special needs or interests, but it is the parent who directs these choices for the benefit of the child. The community does not and should not make these decisions.
The more troubling part of Ms. Harris-Perry’s statement is that children belong to the community. The underlying sentiment is that parents cannot be trusted to make good choices and provide the best for their children, so the community (i.e., the government) needs to take those responsibilities from them. It’s an overarching theme of liberal thought, and it’s insulting and elitist.
For a moment, let’s take the view that children are the responsibility of the community. We know that every parent doesn’t have equal resources and abilities, so to be fair, let’s redistribute the resources so that every child has the same opportunities. And let’s face it – some parents are bad influences on their children, so let’s limit the influence they have on their kids. After all, children belong to the community. And since children are the responsibility of the community, maybe the community should have a say in how many are allowed in each family. We don’t want to overextend community resources.
Before you say that won’t happen, remember China’s one child policy.
But then, our community is part of a nation, a bigger collective. Maybe the children in our area of the country don’t perform as well as those in other areas. Maybe our community isn’t the best influence. Maybe the larger collective needs to make decisions on behalf of the children. After all, we need a homogenous product that reflects well on the nation.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the current move towards a national curriculum — a move that violates the Tenth Amendment.
I am not denying that society has an interest in our nation’s children. I believe the children are our future – cue Whitney Houston. But my children do not belong to my neighbor, and my neighbor’s children do not belong to me. Every parent is entrusted with a great responsibility when we bring a child into the world. Children are not our property, but precious gifts put into our care.
It is the responsibility of parents to nurture their children to the best of their abilities, to seek help and guidance when needed, and to love them like no one else can. When you weaken that responsibility, you weaken an essential bond. Only in extreme circumstances and with due process should the responsibility for children be taken from the parents. Communities should empower parents in this important task and make available resources and guidance as needed.
There are many ways we can and do accomplish this. As members of the community, we can support parents by serving as Little League coaches, Scout and 4-H leaders, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and school volunteers. We can pass on our love of gardening or baking or woodworking to the neighborhood children. Our churches and community organizations can provide childcare and family activities. Our libraries and museums can provide family learning opportunities. In times of need, individuals can serve as guardians ad litem, foster parents, and adoptive parents.
Children aren’t assembly-line goods. They are individuals who need the love and guidance of parents and other family members. Communities don’t own families – families create communities. The government can’t tuck our children into bed at night, rejoice at their first words, sit vigil with them when they are sick, or hold them when their heart gets broken for the first time. That’s why God created parents.