Do Parents Own Children?

When I teach about possessives and how we use them, I feel I have to make a distinction between owning materials (“That is Linda’s desk”) and relationships to people, particularly relatives (“That is Gene’s wife”). Because, there was a time, not too long ago, when people owned people. We see traces of it all the time in our own homes, particularly how we treat children. The constant need for children to always obey *our* rules. Corporal punishment for slight infractions. Tight controlling of schedules.  Grueling chores. Feverish disappointment and rage when children do not live up to our (often unrealistic) expectations. These are not strays – they are emblematic of the fact that the conservative notion of parenthood is one of ownership. And the latest conservative dust-up, which is happening over a commercial about investing in the education of all children with Melissa Harris Perry, is further proof of it.

In the promo ad for the MSNBC meta-campaign “Lean Forward”, Perry argues that the US needs to invest heavily in the education of its children, and she mentions why we don’t: Because children are seen as private entities rather than as a shared responsibility. (emphases mine)

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve 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’s everyone’s responsibility and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.

Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck are bloated and bizarre creatures, but often they speak to the core animus of conservative reactionism – and hence the heart of conservatism in a very raw and unfiltered way. So when Palin tweets her frustration that MHP “doesn’t believe that your children belong to you” pay attention to that word “belong.” It’s a statement of ownership.

children's day

In fact, that’s where much of this animus comes from. Conservatism operates on the filter of ownership, of feudalism. As Margaret Thatcher expressed famously a while ago, “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…”

So the idea that it is the responsibility of an entire community to raise children is troubling for conservatism because in conservatism, one doesn’t hear notions of “responsibility.” The conservative mind hears “ownership.” And sharing ownership means “communism”, as the Daily Caller and Rush Limbaugh understand it. “It’s as old as communist genocide,” Limbaugh says, shortly after describing the various ways that the community shares in the ownership of children, through forcible slavery.

You go knock on the door down the street — your kid that you don’t own. I do today. For the next hour, your kid is going to mow my yard. And then after that, my trash needs taking out and after that I need somebody to go to the grocery store for me and my kid’s tied up, so I’m claiming your kid.

Limbaugh says that the Left is always trying to destroy families. Which is odd, since Perry’s statement is not about destroying the family, but the idea that individuals or families own children. To conservatism, these two ideas are intricately connected.

The default setting for conservatism* is hierarchy. Bosses own and control employees. Parents own and control children. Husbands own and control wives. Few would say or acknowledge that, but notice the reactions when that mode of line is questioned.

We need a manner of dealing with other human beings that treats all as fully human and complex creatures with various social needs. And allows for complex social structures.


Note: I’m trying to draw a distinction between conservatives and a conservative idea. To say that there is a clear delineation in this concept between how conservatives think and how progressives think is absurd and demeaning. It appears to me that most parents view in one form or another (and I include myself) that children are ours in an ownership sense. That mindset needs to be questioned.


11 thoughts on “Do Parents Own Children?

  1. Reading the article was impossible because of the nifty “follow me!” that kept migrating all over the screen. No, I don’t want to follow you if I don’t know the first damn thing about you.

  2. Great and informative piece!…I can see the logic of the concept, but the conservatives, who worship money above all else, will not go for it!…This type of conservative, mammon-worshipping, thinking is a direct throw back to the concept of survival of the fittest. It will be the undoing of this modern society, if it is allowed to become the goal of the global community!…But, as history has shown, when does the human being do what is logical?…But,…Time will tell the tale!….I am just a messenger…Peace!

  3. “The default setting for conservatism is hierarchy”.

    Oh, really?

    And you DON’T think that the “default setting” of the Nanny State collectivist/statist mind is hierarchy ……. the hierarchy of the centralized state?

  4. an interesting perspective, but it may be too ideological to capture another truth of raising children – you love them unlike any other love you know, and feel responsible for giving them guidance to make heir way in the world as adults. so chores, and learning responsibility including how to treat others, how to deal with disappointment, that “i” am not the center of creation, and that each generation benefits from the investment of our fore bearers all involve teaching things like: discipline, obedience, justice, equity, authority, independence, respect…i could go on, but i think I’ve made my point that the complexities of raising children cannot be boiled down into whether or not we think we “own” them.

    • You are right, of course. As a parent and a child, I certainly recognize them. But this post was about the notion of owning children. That is pretty much it. It’s a scary enough prospect in itself, I think. And I barely scratched the surface of what that means.

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