To Whom do Children Belong?

Peace at Home May 15, 2023 | Colleen K. Vesely

In a recent CNN Townhall, a young trans person named Niko from Arlington, VA asked the current governor in Virginia about bathroom policies, “Look at me, I am a transgender man. Do you really think that the girls in my high school would feel comfortable sharing a restroom with me?” Governor Youngkin’s response never directly answered Niko’s question, but prompted by the moderator, Youngkin went on to describe the important role of parents and how much parents matter. Youngkin then followed on with, “See, there’s a basic rule here—children belong to parents. Not to the state, not schools, not to bureaucrats, but to parents, and that’s where the first step has to be.”  

On the surface, the idea that children belong to their parents seems benign and almost correct. Indeed, parents are responsible for caring for and raising children, but do children really “belong” to their parents? “Belonging” to someone implies possession, ownership and control. These ideas reflect a stained history of ownership and control of humans in this country. From enslaving African people to removing indigenous people from their land to forcing Japanese American people into internment camps, to most recently, putting young Latine children in cages and permanently separating them from their parents (in this case, children apparently did not belong to their parents, but rather to the state). 

However, when we hear the term “belonging” in relation to an organization or system (rather than another human) ideas of connection, as well as being seen, accepted, and affirmed for who we are at the fore. Some of the most recent diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts within organizations include an emphasis on belonging. This includes a focus on psychological safety, or feeling safe to speak up and be yourself– a key component to feeling like we belong.  

Same word, two very different ideas—belonging to another human reflects control, while belonging to an organization or system reflects connection. Some have noted that control is antithetical to connection, or in the words of Brene Brown, “the near enemy of connection is control.” That is, if we are trying to control someone, we will have a hard time connecting with them. As parents, we want children to do what we are asking of them—or to comply–whether it is brushing their teeth, cleaning their room, or coming home from a friend’s house at a specific time. We can focus on children’s compliance through a lens of control or connection. Compliance grounded in control, uses rewards and punishments to control children’s behavior. Children comply out of fear of getting in trouble, and over time are at risk of their own needs not being met. On the other hand, children who do what is asked of them because of their connection with others operate out of consideration for and ability to take perspective on other’s needs. These connection and perspective-taking skills also foster children’s abilities to consider their own needs. 

So, how do we build connection with our children to not only help our households run more smoothly, but also to support healthy development? As an early childhood education professor, I often turn to the wisdom of good early childhood practice, which can be applied well beyond the early childhood years. Much of high-quality early childhood education is grounded in the idea of “following children’s leads,” and “leading by being led.” These ideas are rooted in ideas of connection and the notion that children know themselves, have agency, and ought to be directors of their lives. Following children’s leads does not negate the importance of adults guiding children and ensuring children’s safety, but it also supports the development of an internal locus of control within children. And importantly, this internal knowing or trust of oneself bolsters children’s confidence and self-esteem, and positive mental health over time. As parents, children’s individuation or seeing oneself as separate from us, while it can be challenging for some of us, is extremely important to healthy development. In fact, this individuation in adolescence is imperative for youth to successfully traverse through this stage of development. It has been noted that the job of a parent of a teen is to be disagreed with by their teen, to best support their teen’s developmental process of saying, “I am not you.”

As children and youth begin to individuate and consistently tell us and show us, “I am not you,” we may feel the urge to double down on control. These tendencies to try to control children’s individuation can be especially harmful for gender expansive (GE) youth, whose sense of self and self-expression may be very far from who the parent is. Each time a parent tries to control how their GE child is expressing or identifying, to meet their needs as a parent, they send the message to their child, “You are not okay as you are, you don’t belong, my love is conditional.” However, each time we reflect back connection by following our children’s lead, we build their self-esteem by reminding them that they know who they are, and importantly, who they are belongs in this world, and the only person they belong to is themselves. In our family, one of the most important rules we have is that we can all live in our bodies as we wish.

While my partner and I are raising our children, entrusted to us by God, the universe, and science, we do not own them. While we hope to guide and teach them how to be stewards of a more just world, they are not our property to control. So, as I recall Governor Youngkin’s assertion that children belong to their parents, as a parent and an early childhood professional, I respectfully disagree: All children belong in this world just as they see themselves to be, and most importantly, children belong to no one but themselves.  

To read more from Colleen, please visit her website, Raising Unicorns

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