More and more, children, long associated with innocence and joy, seem to terrify us. In the forthcoming novel Cutting Teeth, a group of bloodthirsty 4-year-olds are suspects in a murder case. Baby Teeth features a little girl who “may have a truly sinister agenda,” as the novel’s jacket copy explains. And on the 2022 HBO show The Baby, an adorable infant falls from the sky and then lots of people die. In these stories and the many others like them, maternal ambivalence, ordinary and healthy for a mother to express, is transmuted into a horror story in which children have violent, occasionally vampiric, appetites.
Even in subtler representations of the trials and tribulations of motherhood, something is amiss with our young ones. “The baby I hold in my arms is a leech, let’s call her Button,” Szilvia Molnar writes in her new novel, The Nursery. The book is a sensitive and smart examination of postpartum depression, the kind of suffering that I have only empathized with when experienced by friends, and certainly worthy of literary treatment. But as a reader and an observer I can’t help but notice that there it is again, the child as a threat, a seemingly immutable reality in our culture’s portrayal of little humans. In the mother’s arms is not a unique and vulnerable human being with a name but an alien creature who poses harm. These are the children who pervade contemporary parenthood literature. They need too much and take everything: our well-being, our hopes, our dreams. Even our blood.
But perhaps, as a new book suggests, we’re seeing this all wrong. Maybe the problem isn’t that our kids are too demanding. Maybe the real issue is that they need to demand more—just not from their very tired and lonely parents. They need more attention, more devotion, and more acknowledgment from society overall. In A Minor Revolution, the law professor Adam Benforado makes the case for children’s rights, which, in the United States, are sorely, if not entirely surprisingly, lacking. The real demon lurking in the playroom, and the reason parenting is so oppressive, is the way children’s vulnerability is systematically ignored by the world at large.
Parenthood will never be a fairy tale, and good riddance to a popular culture that presented it solely as such. But the nightmare in which a new mom like the protagonist of The Nursery spends day after day alone with her baby—horrible for mental health—is not the only other option. Children’s rights, as Benforado presents them, can help us reach that non-idealized, non–horror story, messy, fruitful, and joyful middle ground of family life that remains tragically hard for American parents to achieve.
The U.S. is the only member state of the United Nations that has not ratified the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. This treaty, first adopted in 1989, establishes a basic set of rights for children that aims to ensure their safety and healthy development. Children should have the freedom to play and learn, and freedom from exploitation and torture. One need not be a particularly close reader of the news to notice that America is in dire need of this set of assurances—or that it wouldn’t help just children but parents too. Guaranteeing children the right to learn is also guaranteeing parents the right to free, quality education for their children.
[Read: The parenting prophecy]
The U.S. has remained a holdout in part because of a deeply entrenched fear that children’s rights are in opposition to parents’ rights. Nobody—not the government, not to mention the UN—is going to tell American parents what they can and can’t do in their homes. And yet, this very overwhelming responsibility borne by parents alone has metabolized into fear and fatigue, and, ultimately, resentment toward our children. I, for one, would very much like more help from the government in ensuring that my kids have a safe and nurturing environment to go to every day while I work.
Benforado, whose academic works focus on criminal justice alongside children’s rights, has written a book that reads like a manifesto. His ideas are bold, to the point, and ambitious, though some are further out of reach than others. Promising America’s children quality early-childhood education and caregiving is not that difficult to envision. Experts have overwhelmingly proved this to be a good long-term investment for the productivity and psychological and physical well-being of the adults of the future—as well as the adults of today. Passing a universal paid-leave policy to make sure that babies can connect with their caregivers, long a global standard, shouldn’t be hard to imagine either. Nor, for that matter, should making sure that products for babies and children are properly monitored for safety. And if we’re going for low-hanging fruit, what about a criminal-justice system that takes into account whether prosecuting a person will likely lead to their children being abandoned or severely neglected? These are the kinds of agenda items that one can feel shocked to learn don’t already exist.
Others, such as giving minors the right to vote and protecting children from gun violence and climate catastrophes, feel unachievable in today’s political environment. In particular, Benforado makes a compelling case for enfranchising youth and offers a few different ideas as to how this might be implemented and at what age. He anticipates the obvious objections, pointing out that as a society we don’t screen any other voters for their news literacy, historical knowledge, or ability to make good decisions. And do not children, or at least the adults directly attached to children who Benforado suggests might vote on their behalf in some capacity, have a distinct set of priorities, including achieving some of these agenda items? For them, the future isn’t abstract; it’s the reality they are going to inhabit. This gives them a longer-term political perspective than most politicians are able to hold today.
There’s yet a third category of Benforado’s aspirations that I found hard to conceptualize as potential rights. This includes protecting our children from bullying, by children and adults, and having a less individualistic and more cooperative approach toward raising children. I can see how having better social-emotional-learning programs in schools might help our children be kinder to one another. And perhaps if we had more humane work schedules, leave policies, and lower costs of living, we might have a more robust culture of volunteerism and mutual aid. But ultimately our inability to be good and giving people is a Hydra-headed problem in need of solutions that are more complex and wide-ranging than just declaring that a different reality materializes by fiat.
Reading this book made me want to take a nap. The fatigue was not born of boredom and not a reflection on the author or subject matter. Rather, it was the experience of moving in fewer than 200 pages through a detailed examination of our society’s recklessness toward children and then feeling a deep swell of exhaustion as a mom of two not-at-all-demonic kids in this environment.
In “The Right to Be Heard,” a chapter on late adolescence, Benforado tells the story of a teenage boy named Wylie who lives in Greenbrier, Arkansas. One Wednesday morning, he stood up and left his class to join the national protest against gun violence following the Parkland shootings. In response, the school offered him a choice between suspension and two “swats.” Wylie chose swats, although, because he was 17, his dad had to come to the school and sign a waver. Parent rights. The dean ordered Wylie to put his hands on the wall, stated his crime, and then, using a cricket bat marked with the words Board of Education, a deliberate, nauseating pun, hit Wylie twice on his thighs. A 2016 study found that corporal punishment is still legal in schools in 19 states, and more than 160,000 students experience this kind of punishment every year. This is a horror story, no novelistic or slasher-film treatment required, and particularly for Black students and those with disabilities who are more likely to be on the wrong end of the paddle compared with their white and nondisabled counterparts.
There are Benforado’s own children, who would be drinking lead-contaminated water—which the city of Philadelphia said was just fine—if he hadn’t had the confidence that comes by way of a Harvard law degree, the time and energy to get the water tested a second time, and then the money to replace his own pipes. Or what about the case of the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper that everyone I knew had and swore by, trusted by millions of sleep-deprived new parents, Benforado included. In 2019, it was recalled after dozens of babies died while inside of it. The sleeper wasn’t, as Benforado points out, subject to a single safety test before it hit the shelves a decade earlier.
[Read: Judging parents online is now a national sport]
His book had me thinking about all of the daily indignities of parenting, and being a child, in our society. I thought about those viral news stories about already tired, already busy parents of small children who pack goody bags for the adult passengers on their upcoming flights in an attempt to mitigate these strangers’ potential fury at having to suffer the injustice and frustration of sitting next to young human beings. And what about these young human beings who are made to feel wrong or bad when acting in an age-appropriate manner in public? Where is the parallel conversation about the million ways in which air travel is inhospitable to these parents and children? I was once denied access to my 3-year-old son’s stroller for 90 minutes during the middle of the night while going through customs at JFK. He was too tired to stand. We were too tired to carry him. His hilarious reentry photo, pudgy features distorted by sustained fury, only kind of makes up for it.
Benforado largely focuses on how the absence of comprehensive rights for children affects the one in six American children who live in poverty, and rightly so. Wealth is a remarkably effective replacement for politically enshrined power; those without it suffer far more than those with it. Still, we are all hurt by the lack of systematic concern with our children—and not just in the collective, “It takes a village” sense. We’re either consumed with worry about our children and not being able to buy, with money, time, or expertise, a better life for them, or, if we are half-decent people, we’re consumed with the morality of using our money, time, and expertise to advocate on behalf of our children. The book would have benefited from more personal stories of parents and children in the second camp, illustrating how the status quo taints parenthood and childhood for all—possibly garnering more support for the children’s-rights movement in the process. In a world without these rights, I often feel like my only two options are being a helicopter mom looking out for my special snowflakes or sending my kids to a school or out to walk on streets that are not, sadly, designed with their safety in mind. Thinking about either option exhausts me. I write this knowing, feeling, that there are millions of parents who would happily trade difficult decisions for no decisions at all. I hate it all.
No matter one’s economic or social status, the rights of parents and the rights of children are intricately bound up. Unfortunately, Benforado doesn’t spend time exploring how bound up they actually are. Instead he mostly yields to the conservative construction in which parents’ rights are in opposition to children’s rights. “Parents have the God-given right and responsibility to direct and guide their children’s moral education,” declared the Texas Republican platform in 2018. This vision might include the right to homeschool with a curriculum downloaded from an anonymous Reddit user, to spank our kids, to deny a teenager a COVID vaccine even though she really wants one (as was the case with a girl whose story was cited in the book), or to control the books available to children at the local library.
But of course rights work the other way too. I don’t just want freedom from government intervention when it comes to my kids. I want freedom to send my children to the local public school where they will receive a good education. I want freedom to spend time with my children after they are born and not rush back to work, which, as a freelancer with no paid leave, I did twice. I want the freedom to be a free-range parent in a city with better urban design and safe public places. I want the freedom to go to Target and not worry that the thing I am buying to help my newborn sleep is a death trap. I doubt more ink spent on showing how parents’ rights and children’s rights are symbiotic would do much to convince those who seem intent on seeing them as opposed to each other, but it might help ignite his argument for that enormous middle that doesn’t think about these issues in ideological terms.
Benforado’s biggest idea, the one he ends the book with, is that we should think about children in every policy and business decision we make, guided by a federal bureau dedicated to children’s welfare. I’d add that we need to think of their parents and caregivers too. “Your child’s life is not your own,” Benforado explains early in the book, with the best of intentions, in his extremely sympathetic and worthy attempt to protect kids. Yes, they are not our own. But they are also, not not our own. They depend on us, and with that dependence comes pressure and responsibility for which we parents currently receive little support.
I want the right to enjoy my kids more, to worry less, rush less, work less, and spend less on summer camps, education, and extracurriculars. I want all kids to have the right, starting with paid parental leave and going from there, to a less overwhelmed parent. Make this happen, and I suspect we’d see a new crop of parenthood tales in which horror-story children are replaced by characters that more closely resemble the complicated, beautiful, challenging, id-filled beings in our homes. They’re fascinating.