Your Child, Your Choice: How the United States Made Parenting Impossible

By Anat Shenker-OsorioSeptember 12, 2018

Your Child, Your Choice: How the United States Made Parenting Impossible
MY FIRST BOOK came out the same time as my second baby. For reasons I no longer recall, I decided that a baby was a feasible addition to my multi-city book tour. At one point in this journey, I headed to Dulles Airport. Having traveled extensively with my older son, I thought a family lane at security was standard. Not so at Dulles. When I asked the TSA agent why this airport lacked one, he said, “We’re more conservative out here.”

When I lamented about this on a listserv of progressive advocates, one response read: “why do you people need your own lane?”

These are the minor irritations of a parent who has the resources to get what she needs done anyway. But they’re indicators of a massive problem that cuts across the political spectrum that parents in the United States know all too well: the pervasive attitude in our country that can be summed up as “no one asked you to have kids, so raising them is your problem.”

For some, it is considered reasonable to judge parents at the border in fear for the lives of their children as people making bad choices. The horror of the current administration’s separation and incarceration of immigrant families is new in its depravity and reach. But the fact is that long before xenophobia was the soundtrack to making America great again, the US government was treating such families as free agents selecting from among an array of options. The idea that they could be deterred through policies at the border is long standing. Immigration attorney R. Andrew Free detailed an exchange he had with President Obama on this. According to Free, Obama justified holding immigrant children in prisons alongside their parents to warn others against attempting the trek. Current White House Chief of Staff John Kelly doubled down on this, calling family separation a “tough deterrent.”

Implicit in this abuse-as-behavior-modification approach is the assumption that parenting is a series of individual choices, that, for would-be immigrants or other marginalized groups, can be improved through disincentives (a.k.a. human rights violations) and, for certain classes of Americans, should happen without social supports. But for many people, both in the United States and outside of it, parenting is an attempt to navigate among insurmountable obstacles for the well-being of the humans in your care. When these obstacles include the threat of death, prison isn’t a credible deterrent. And neither of these can accurately be described as “choices.”

Our attachment to personal choice in general and parental choice more specifically eclipses another conversation about choices, one we seem determined to ignore: which choices will we make as a society to shape our future? The deliberate cruelty to immigrant families is today’s extreme example. Yet, as horrified as many Americans are by the abuse of immigrant children, this cruelty is what happens when racism intertwines with the neoliberal ideology embedded in the idea of parenting as a set of consumer options. Many of us accept that children are the sole responsibility of the adults related to them. And because we’ve given credence to this, in quotidian ways, for generations, the idea that we can “deter” parents from bad choices starts to seem sound.

My experiences as a naturalized citizen and mother to Latino kids is mercifully buffered from human rights abuses. However, even from my perch of privilege, my experience raising kids in the United States demonstrates how widespread the tacit acceptance that society has nothing to do with the fate of its children has become.

The United States is either in or near last place in the industrialized world on paid family leave, child care subsidies, maternal health, and child poverty. This is well known. The destruction of family-geared public resources — schools, playgrounds, libraries, and so on — is another noxious emblem of the mentality that parents alone hold all responsibility for the next generation. We’ve created an America where, by law, only the few adults related to a child need move a finger. Policies to support parents that other wealthy nations take as obvious are huge political battles yet to be won here.

This is, of course, a country where people proudly maintain that those unable to make ends meet have simply not tried. In a place where no one identifies as poor, we’re merely pre-rich, many resent expenditures made on behalf of others.

But this American adherence to the dogma of the self-made shouldn’t necessarily translate to refusing programs that parents of all income levels desperately need. Nor should it mean we look away while our leaders justify imprisoning children as the means to force parents to make better choices. The need for paid time to care for a new baby, or for good and affordable child care, affects all but the wealthiest among us. Babies behind bars, with or without their parents, should never seem appropriate.

Why, then, in a country where a pop icon cemented her legacy singing “children are the future,” a country where one party re-vamped itself under the banner “Family Values,” do we accept child-rearing as merely the calculated choices of a couple of adults?

In many ways, this is simply the logical conclusion of neoliberal reasoning; this is aptly summed up in conservative economist Gary Becker’s description of children as “marital-specific capital.” But three bitter truths also exist at the heart of this reality. Decades ago, those arguably most committed to collective well-being unintentionally bolstered the idea of parenting as private undertaking. Secondly, this opening helped conservatives paint themselves as pro-family while they denied social supports for child-rearing. And, thirdly, today people who proudly espouse progressive political beliefs approach child-rearing in ways that both stem from and reinforce individualism.


My Child, My Choice: The Roots of Rugged Individualism in Child-Rearing

Progressives are accustomed to blaming decades of calculated conservative efforts for our lack of supports for child development. And yes, there’s plenty to pin on them for their deliberate undermining of most families.

But a hard look at the last 50 years of political discourse and recent parenting practices belie a more complex origin story. The tendency toward seeing children as commodities is a paradigm partly of the left’s making.

Since the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, the dominant note advocates sounded was one of “choice” and keeping “laws off our bodies.” From arguing this landmark 1973 Supreme Court case on privacy (not equity) grounds to bumper stickers declaring “US out of my uterus,” second-wave feminists took a libertarian approach, hoping to hook folks from the right side of the spectrum.

Fast-forward from social movement to elected leadership and most Democrats, including the Clintons in the 1990s, joined the “government out” chorus. Arguably, they won: 40 years of the Hyde Amendment barring public monies from abortion provision.

Americans claim the legal right to abortion and contraception — at least at this moment. But without government support this critical win was far from sufficient. Consider the prolonged battle to include reproductive coverage in the Affordable Care Act and the evergreen threats to defund Planned Parenthood. We see that without government, reproductive health care is a legal right in name only for many.

This is an argument that reproductive justice proponents like Loretta Ross and Dorothy Roberts have made for decades. In construing abortion and contraception as “rights,” advocates failed to account for the financial side of the equation. In short, with the “my child, my choice” battle cry, economically secure white women ignored that there’s no “choice” if you don’t have money to pay for the procedure or insurance to cover it. This critique was a profound and still not fully heeded wake-up call.

It’s bad enough that our limited reproductive rights are now in reach only for women of means. The “my child” part of the slogan further betrays the aims of those who chanted it.

The “government out” approach on abortion curried favor in the same White House where First Lady Hillary Clinton penned the book It Takes a Village. Yet, these are inherently contradictory ideas. Once we became wedded to a woman’s individual right to determine and control her reproduction (“my choice”), we enabled the corresponding assumption that she (or both parents) must assume sole responsibility for child-rearing (“my child”).

Instead of fighting about the right of women to have sex without the threat of lifelong consequences, just like men, we had a debate about how far into our lives government ought to be permitted. And, to be fair, there’s no telling whether an alternate framing, rooted in either freedom or equality, would have advanced the hard-won rights that “choice” achieved. Indeed, “choice” as proxy for abortion came at a moment when certain women were enjoying greater professional and consumer options.

But research now shows that the language of choice leaves audiences cold. Studies in cognitive linguistics and psychology demonstrate this phrase suggests action quickly considered and of little consequence. This is hardly a rhetorical counterweight to “life.” It’s also grossly inaccurate for describing how most women undertake the abortion decision, think about contraception, or approach parenting.

And, sure enough, the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements are reckoning with how to more effectively frame their arguments (even as they’re overwhelmed with fending off attacks and providing free or low-cost care to millions). In particular, deliberations around “pro-choice” as a political platform are ongoing. Yet, the broader ideas behind this slogan have proven durable. The shift, for example, from “pro-choice” to the short-lived alternative “it’s personal” still posits reproductive rights within a privacy framework. The same goes for the rhetoric of “bodily autonomy” that continues as a staple in this arena.

Further, “choice” as argument for family planning was only part of lending credence to a highly individualized idea of child-rearing. In addition, with contraception and subsequently abortion such flashpoints, second-wave feminists were largely silent about how we ought to ensure the healthy development of the children we do have.

In fact, it became a mainstay of a proudly more radical element of feminism to see child-rearing as anathema to liberated womanhood. It’s not that certain feminists forgot to talk about raising children. It was a deliberate political decision to broaden the spectrum of “woman” away from the maternal and the heteronormative.

And it’s an ironic one in hindsight. Today, the number-one reason women give for abortion is their desire to better care for their current or future kids. Thus, exiting the conversation about how to raise healthy, functional adults hurt even the narrowest interpretation of the reproductive rights cause: accessible abortion care.

With the left more or less silent on child-rearing, the right had plenty of room to claim this territory. And they did.


From Rugged Individual to Family Values

In the 1970s, a religious psychologist named James Dobson gained prominence by authoring Dare to Discipline. This and his dozens of subsequent volumes gave rise to his parental advice industry, which would serve as the foundation for his influential organization, Focus on the Family.

By luring parents in with biblical techniques for handling everything from toddler tantrums to teen angst, Dobson and his allies could comfortably claim to be helping families by dishing out wisdom on how to rear strong boys and obedient girls. Never mind that they championed dismantling social supports, and the municipal budgets that fund parks, after-school programs, and libraries. With persuasive attention to frustrations and anxieties, they spoke of “parental rights” in key debates such as sex education, Creationism, and the freedom to discipline as you see fit.

Dobson was part architect, part beneficiary, of an intentional change in the conservative tune. Key Republican thought leaders in the 1960s and ’70s recognized that a purely individual explanation for success or failure left humans, as a social species, somewhat cold. They witnessed the concerted shift leftward in American politics and saw in this a certain inadequacy to their Rugged Individual story. So they expanded the Rugged Individual story to shift the politically relevant unit from atomized man to his (yes, his) household.

Although it began as a counter to abortion and the “gay agenda,” Dobson’s Family Values offered a way to understand economic problems as well. If for Horatio Alger, hardship was due to an individual’s lack of work ethic and initiative, now family structure came into the mix. Sex before marriage, single mothers, and deadbeat dads became explanations for poverty.

While the left was talking about women’s right not to parent, conservatives looked to the long term. They didn’t just recalibrate their rhetoric from describing individuals to focusing on families. Conservatives built themselves a plum perch from which to argue for defunding public schools, dismantling safety nets, and blocking subsidized child care under a red, white, and blue banner of Family Values and parental choice.

Consider “school choice” as a euphemism for dismantling what was once the collective democratic effort to prepare, empower, and ensure a thriving next generation (for white families, at least). Tracing the linguistic efforts to “reform” — read: privatize — public schools shows how profound the impact of the privacy approach to reproduction has been.

The Religious Right likes to trace its origins to Roe v. Wade. According to founding fathers like Jerry Falwell, it was this pending Supreme Court decision that convinced him to organize evangelicals as a political force.

A neat story, but it’s untrue. Historian Randall Balmer has documented how school choice — specifically white parents’ determination to evade integration — served as the cornerstone for evangelicals’ emergence as a political force. It wasn’t earnest desires to save babies that created what we know today as the Religious Right. As Balmer illustrates, evangelicals organized in response to a 1970 decision to prohibit segregationist private schools from maintaining tax-exempt status. Since Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act expressly forbade discrimination, African-American families argued that private institutions barring their children do not deserve the designation “charitable,” nor the tax benefits that go along with it.

Preserving tax exemption for segregated private institutions helped politicize evangelicals who were drifting toward the Republican Party anyway. But the question of how to frame the cause remained. Anti-integration was too easy to assail. So, instead, conservatives turned this into an issue of religious freedom — and, of course, parental choice.

These white evangelical parents were fighting for the right of their schools to refuse to contribute to the commonwealth. They wanted out of a shared kitty that funds public education under a social contract of collective responsibility for the next generation. Moreover, they were refusing these funds in order to tailor the schooling their offspring would receive in the private sector.

Building on their success opposing private school integration, conservatives applied the “choice” frame to further transform public education. Where school vouchers and demonizing teachers didn’t work at first, the idea of empowering parents to select what is best for their own children through “opportunity scholarships” was an ideal conceptual cornerstone on which to build the charter school movement.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz encapsulated this advice in his “Nine Communication Commandments” for school choice. Luntz advised, “personalize, individualize — and above all humanize. Without a feeling of intimacy, Americans won’t get involved. This needs to be about them, their hometowns, their future and, of course, their children.”

Luntz’s messaging prowess notwithstanding, he owes a debt of gratitude to his predecessors. Parental empowerment makes sense in a paradigm in which kids are products to be perfected, not future adults that society recognizes we all share a responsibility to educate, empower, and shape. 


The Parentocracy: How Progressives Parent Conservatively

The efforts of Dobson, Falwell, and eventually Luntz resonated more effectively because American culture had already shifted from old notions of child-rearing into ones of parenting. Formerly, the focus had been — as the term suggests — on moving human young into adulthood. Implied in this is some social benefit to turning entirely dependent infants into eventual citizens, providers, and, in turn, parents themselves. And where so much is at stake for society, it follows that there must be some collective effort.

Child-rearing sounds old-fashioned because our focus has shifted to parenting. This increasingly specialized “job” boasts competing schools of thought from an ever-expanding advice industry.

The debates about “cry it out versus continuous comfort” and “helicopter parenting” have taken on such outsized importance that we now often fail to notice the larger conversation we aren’t having: the proper function of society in the complex and resource-heavy responsibility of raising the next generation. We don’t raise children alone in the forest. Society plays a role whether we like it or not. But we have lost the language to speak about the collective nature of this basic requirement for the future of our species: turning helpless newborns into functional adults.

We’ve reached a point of fixation on the interactions between parents (read: mothers) and their kids. The obsession exists in seemingly opposing political paradigms. Dr. Sears, Dr. Spock, and Dr. Dobson come to wildly different pronouncements on how to rear kids. But, they all take as their unspoken point of departure that parents — almost exclusively — ought to be working toward “producing” perfect offspring.

This brings us to what is, for some savvy marketers, the logical extension of “parental empowerment.” We’re seeing a rise in sex-selective add-ons in fertility treatments. Today, over half of US fertility clinics offer embryo screening that includes information about sex.

Showing cherubic newborns on color-coded backgrounds, these clinics describe their sex-selective offerings as “family balancing.” Never mind that some allow or even encourage it for a first child.

These new “choices” can be purchased over-the-counter as well. Pharmacies now sell tests to ascertain sex at seven weeks into pregnancy. This is meant to minimize sex-linked diseases. But it comes into a culture where some would-be parents want more than a healthy child. They have in mind a particular kind.

This creates legal, ethical, and political concerns — many of which we can’t yet imagine. And sex selection against girls is a powerful weapon in the Religious Right’s arsenal. Never has the opposition’s line “abortion hurts women” rung truer than in describing the deliberate choice to abort XX fetuses.

Regardless of the reality that birth ratios indicate sex selection is extremely rare in the United States, opponents of abortion are using these concerns as reasons to control women. In this, they target women of color in particular. Currently, eight states have passed outright bans on sex-selective abortions and half of state legislatures have voted on such bills.

Meanwhile, those of us parenting in Boston or Austin, Brooklyn or Oakland, are frequently so overwhelmed financing child care or scrambling to get that coveted spot in the school lottery, we lack the bandwidth to notice we have accepted that our children are projects for us to manage, solo.

Internet search trends in liberal areas suggest that parents in blue counties are responding to parental anxiety about the chances for their offspring more than they are Googling how to create the political will to care for the collective. They are looking to give their kids a competitive edge — classes and tutors, brain-boosting gadgets and optimal diets. Where I live, private learning institutions have rebranded themselves as “independent schools.” While surely meant to make those of us choosing this option feel less elitist, this rebranding has the effect of implying that public schools are dependent. And they are. But the immediate assumption that this is a bad thing is troubling. If taxpayers demand that public dollars be spent in the public interest, that’s not dependency. That’s collective self-preservation.

British sociologists coined the term “parentocracy” for the notion that what befalls children, how well or ill they do, is entirely up to what their parents do and, thus, what rights they have. If certain kids ace all the tests while other are “left behind” or don’t “race to the top,” surely it’s the parents (and teachers) to blame. It’s never the structural features of society that ensure some kids endure poverty and violence as a staple of childhood. And if some kids are put in detention with their parents, we can conclude it’s purely the fault of the latter in electing to come here, not the misdeeds of a government or a society that fails to see the future in any collective capacity.

Parentocracy also explains the mom in Marin County who wants the “right” not to vaccinate her kids. If it weren’t so dangerous, the irony of capitalizing on collective efforts while undermining them might be amusing. Vaccine refusal means you rely on the very herd immunity you threaten by prioritizing your individual concerns.

More broadly, urban coastal parents faithfully identify structural causes and favor collective approaches. But, if our kids don’t get into a desirable public school, we move to another district or go private: the quintessential individual solution to a collective dilemma. Yet, when our public schools in the district where we managed to find a home have been deliberately deprived of necessary resources, when we pay our own way into private or play the charter lottery, this feels more like a desperate measure than a “choice.”

For wealthy Americans, the seldom voiced belief that offspring are the ultimate consumer good is connected to everything from Mommy Wars to “having it all” screeds. These beliefs enable both the systematic refusal of social supports for children and the simultaneous blame for all economic ills on family disintegration.

The language of “choice” appealed to women by engaging self-interest: this is about your rights! But whether it’s applied to abortion or parenting, schooling or crossing borders, “choice” for individuals is almost always a fiction. Without collective support, shepherding millions of humans from infancy to adulthood doesn’t work. Parents who risk everything to come here do so precisely because they are completely out of choices. Without collective recognition of this, we have lost all understanding of what it means to be humans, let alone raise them.

The kids in any parent’s care are also our future proctologists, plumbers, and politicians. If parents are forced to raise children on our own, how can they become the adults our country requires? How we treat the children and parents on our soil today — whether temporarily or for a lifetime — determines who and what we will become tomorrow. Until we come to a shared understanding of how we’re bringing up future generations, whether we parent or not, we harm our children, our society, and ourselves.


Anat Shenker-Osorio is founder of ASO Communications and author of Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy.


Feature image by Dan Ox. Banner image by Edson Chilundo.

LARB Contributor

Founder and principal of ASO Communications, Anat Shenker-Osorio conducts research globally on why certain messages resonate where others falter. She’s led analytic and empirical research projects and advised campaigns on narrative and strategy in the Untied States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the EU on issues ranging from beating back restrictions on reproductive rights, to changing laws for people seeking asylum to winning electoral races. Anat is completing a Soros Fellowship on how human rights advocates can craft a more effective narrative to counter the growing spread of nationalism globally and white nationalism in particular. Her writing and research has been featured in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and the Boston Globe, among other outlets.


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