The next civil rights frontier is children

I was excited when I read that kids in California were suing the schools for wasting their time. Or something like that. You can read about the lawsuit here. In my mind, the list of grievances against school governing bodies is long and growing. But the focus was on firing teachers — schools negotiated away the right to fire bad teachers and kids were suing the schools for doing that. The kids argued that they have the right to competent teachers. 

It’s exciting to see kids mobilize. The California crusade ultimately failed, but it’s part of a movement to use civil rights legislation to reform schools. In New York the board of education is being sued because charter schools are terrible. And other lawsuits accuse schools of violating civil rights laws by disproportionately (by a huge margin) disciplining black kids.

These are attempts to rein in the schools by using rights we’ve established to apply to school situations. But I also see an opening to expand the rights of kids — so they are independent entities and not just legal extensions of their parents.

There’s an important case in Illinois courts, in the 90s, where two kids living with their divorced mom refused to visit their dad in North Carolina. The judge held the kids in contempt of court. He put the 12 year old in juvenile prison and grounded the 8 year old at her mom’s house.

WTF??? I remember being shocked that courts could do that. And even today, when I rooted around to find a link to the case, I was shocked again. Kids have no rights in a divorce. They do not determine visitation, so how could they be held in contempt for violating visitation? It’s taxation without representation, yes? Or divorce without representation, or something.

Anyway, when kids have no rights, they become another object of a dispute. Mary Ann Mason wrote in her book, Custody Wars, “The idea of legal rights for children apart from those of their parents is relative new and still very controversial for Americans.” For example, in the 1960s the Supreme Court established that kids could protest the Vietnam War in school because children “did not leave their constitutional rights at the school house door.” But the Supreme Court in the 1970s upheld censorship of the school newspaper and searching student lockers.

The United Nations has made a statement by way of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Not surprisingly the document is so vague as to be meaningless, but at least acknowledges that this is all a big problem.

A 45-year study on super-smart kids finds that in order to score consistently in the top 1% in intelligence, kids need supportive, understanding parenting and increasingly challenging work. This type of work is very specific – researchers point to reading, playing a musical instrument and playing video games as the best examples of the type of work that encourages genius. The most interesting part of the study is that adults get the same brain benefits as kids do if adults engage in these activities. Which means playing video games is good for both adults and kids.

When it comes to education, adults and kids learn the same way. And everyone can benefit from the right to choose what they learn. But no one tells adults they need to follow the common core. So why not extend kids the same latitude?

Adults do not want to give kids rights that are inconvenient for the adults. But when the problem comes to a head, you can bet kids will take themselves out of school. If kids had rights, it’s easy to see how school would violate them.

The assumption that kids do not have the same basic rights as adults is making adult life harder, not easier. As homeschoolers, instead of thinking in terms of childhood education, we should think in terms of childhood rights. That’s where the real social reform will take shape.


13 replies
  1. jessica
    jessica says:

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but giving kids legal civil rights opens a huge can of worms. In the UK, for example if The child understands basic concepts, so around 6 to 8, they can deny their parents rights to the medical records. It’s also easier for children to become property of the state. For example, your writings on domestic violence would be investigated by an authority and your children would be taken away for however long, sometimes a year, and you and your husband would be forced to separate because it’s not in the best interest of the child and their rights. This would’ve happened as fast as you posted the article, same day the family splits to different locations to start investigation of the home for the children

    The best interest of the child takes on a whole new meaning when the state is involved.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      First comment hits it on the head.

      Rights are a wonderful idea. We have to accept that, in practice, we only benefit from this wonderful idea to the extent that a representative from the state (the only legitimate user of violence) will use violence against somebody to preserve them.

      You have a right to not be assaulted walking down the street to the precise degree that the police will arrest someone if he assaults you. In that sense, rights are a nice way to describe a threat of violence.

      When we talk about increasing the rights of children, we are always also talking about extension of the state’s use of violence. You want the right of children to be free from houses in which pimps shoot up hookers? You are then talking about the ability of the state to remove children from parents running houses in which pimps shoot up hookers.

      If you talk about a child’s right to determine his educational choice, you are always also talking about the state’s right to remove children from parents who do not respect that right.

      I know we don’t think much of the state’s ability to force children to attend school – that battle was only recently won. Why do we want to turn back the clock on that?

  2. Dana
    Dana says:

    I think Jessica’s right, but I am not sure what we should do. I do agree that children’s rights are being violated by the schools, there are so many examples. Maybe family rights? The right to a homework free evening, the right to more time together as a family …

  3. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    From the title I thought this might touch on the black lives matter movement, as education reform is part of their plan. It seems like PT’s ideas and these should have some overlap, though frankly I struggle to see it. (perhaps one of the other smart people who read this blog see some parallels).

    I agree kids need more autonomy, from both school dictators and their parents. Especially in the teen years, they should be able to have more control over their lives. If we ever want poor kids especially to leap up the socioeconomic ladder beyond what their parents achieved, they must be able to make decisions free from those parents. It is not a matter of turning their lives over to ‘the government’, but giving them the keys to their own personal responsibility.

  4. Kate
    Kate says:

    Wait! I want to hear more about the 45 Year study and those 3 areas you mention as aiding a kinda optimal intelligence! I was nodding ‘reading’ nodding ‘musical instrument’ then smiling.. ‘Computer games’ :-)) ~that is a triumvirate of my best recreational activities (maybe add knitting and baking stuff too!) tho I wrestle daily with my relationship to screen time for my kids.. *grimace*

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I’m glad you caught that! I felt the study was huge validation of how my family operates and I wanted to have a poster-sized version of the study.


  5. Aquinas C. Heard
    Aquinas C. Heard says:


    I’ve been advocating for the idea of children’s rights for the last 10+ years. I’m glad to see you understand the fundamental premise that will have to be accepted by adults if you want to see the spread of Unschooling. As a wise man once said: a person’s a person, no matter how small.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      The idea of granting children rights makes sense in theory. This theory is already implemented in other cultures. The issue is that the more rights a child has, the less rights a parent has in the decision making process for a child. The responsbility for the child is then spread to the general public and organizations set up by government to ‘oversee’ the child. They can easily override a decision such as unschooling because the government also dictates school process. It is obviously in the states bestinterest to keep children in the schooling programs.

      That said, we dont live in a sharing/ semi socialist society with that sort of expectation. By giving children rights we would then have to question how much government we would need in place to support a more communal environment with due process (which does not exist in the countries where children have rights).

      • Aquinas Heard
        Aquinas Heard says:


        I’d be very surprised if the idea of children’s rights is being implemented in any country when almost all countries do not even understand the idea of individual rights.

        If a country does not have a 1st amendment (freedom of speech) enshrined in their constitution, then they still don’t even grasp the concept of individual rights. “Hate speech” laws are an example of a violation of individual rights.

        Health care is not a right.
        Education is not a right.
        I bring up the last two because even millions of Americans don’t even grasp the idea of individual rights.

        The practical implementation of individual rights for children might create some initial difficulties but that should not be a primary argument against the idea any more than it was prior to women and blacks (in America) having their individual rights finally recognized and honored.

        It’s still to early in American culture for the idea of individual rights for children to take hold BUT I’m doing my damnedest to spread the idea. Penelope’s work (in education, homeschooling, parenting) is helping to “soften” the culture so that this idea does not sound so radical.

        Aquinas heard

  6. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I completely agree with the premise of this post. There are fewer comments than I would at first predict, but the best posts are often the one’s ahead of their time.

    Obviously tons of cultural scaffolding is needed to have the implementations of this idea make any sense. Of course giving children the same rights as adults within the snap of fingers without any preceding cultural conversations or paradigm shifts isn’t going to work at all. But equally obvious–even if only to me–is the inevitable mass realization that age is just an indirect indicator of mental awareness.

    Granted, this doesn’t mean government needs to be up in everyone’s business. It probably shouldn’t be. This just means that children’s questions are important and it is wrong to not allow children to make decisions for themselves if a developmental psychologist deems their mental development fit to make the self-determinations.

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I think that respectful, peaceful parenting is a way to bridge that gap. When we begin teaching informed consent to our kids at young ages, and raise them in a healthy and respectful way by giving them freedom to make decisions regarding food, social activities, education or belief system and honoring their choices, then that is giving them rights they deserve as human beings.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s a term named adultism with which I was unaware until today that describes what you have written here. There’s a good article ( ) with references at the end and a link to a followup article ( ). As the first article says – “The essence of adultism is that young people are not respected.”

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