There are currently about 63 million people in the United States who have children under the age of 18. They form a cohort larger than any religious or ethnic group. Why, then, is there no “parents movement” akin to the ones dedicated to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality? Why has there never been such a movement?
To answer these questions, we need to consider changes in the American social fabric. Several generations ago, most Americans became parents—and all domestic politics were centered to some extent on their needs. Today, a growing number of people don’t have children and don’t share the specific interests of parents. They make different demands of social institutions. The U.S. Census Bureau noted the trend in 2017: “The share of adults living without children has climbed 19 points since 1867 to 71.3 percent.” While many of those people have adult children and grandchildren, their direct concern with family issues wanes with age. More important was the finding of the Institute for Family Studies in 2020: “Childlessness is currently rising rapidly among younger women, and has begun to rise among women in their late thirties, too.” Popular culture has reinforced the trend: An entire genre of nonfiction books with titles such as Childfree and Loving It! and Childfree by Choice extols the virtues of the “childfree lifestyle.”
This development has implications for policymaking and for the forms that our institutions and civic spaces take. Policymakers, particularly on the left, are increasingly eager to distribute taxpayer money to the childless. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan recently tripled the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless Americans, for example. That marks a dramatic departure from the purpose of the EITC; its original aim was to help low-income parents stay out of poverty while maintaining employment.
Writing in the Atlantic in 2019, Derek Thompson noted the impact that the disappearance of parents had on how cities function. He described watching a young mother navigate an East Village walk-up with young children and a stroller as akin to observing the torment of Sisyphus: “It looked like hell—or, as I once suggested to a roommate, a carefully staged public-service announcement against family formation.”
That announcement has been heard: In cities across the country, the fastest-growing group is college-educated people without children, and housing prices and resources increasingly reflect their lifestyle needs, not those of families. “Families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places,” Thompson noted. “As the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark put it, [cities] are ‘entertainment machines’ for the young, rich, and mostly childless.”
At the same time, people and institutions whose mission is supposedly to serve as helpmeets in the rearing of America’s children have morphed into powerful special-interest groups of their own. Those umbrella organizations are not aligned with the needs of parents but are dedicated instead to the narrow interests of their members. Despite the sentimental lip service paid to the selflessness and nobility of educators, the disastrous pandemic-related school closures driven by union demands revealed a staggering divergence between the needs of families and the wants and desires of the education establishment.
Similarly, state and local governments, particularly in more densely populated areas, now place parents far down the priority list of their constituents—after unionized workers, developers, and businesses that cater to the wealthy and child-free.
These changes suggest that parents qua parents now have a common interest that needs defending and advocating in the public sphere. The pandemic and the recent spikes in crime and civil disorder have pushed these needs to the forefront of American life. What recourse do parents have when politics actively interferes with their ability to raise their children? Is it possible that we have reached a cultural and political moment when their concerns (and justifiable anger) might lead them to organize themselves and become an effective and sustained activist force capable of swaying elections?
The first signs of a true “parents movement” began to reveal themselves during the pandemic, with school closures in particular. The past year witnessed parents across the political spectrum organizing recall elections of school-board officials in many states, running for school-board seats themselves, and lobbying state legislatures to respond to their demands for in-person learning in places whose powerful unions and Democratic elected officials had kept public schools closed.
Much of the energy for these fights came from self-described liberal and progressive parents—because it was in their Democratic, union-dominated states that schoolchildren were most likely to languish in virtual learning. Parents organized and put pressure on the public-school district in largely progressive Maplewood, New Jersey, to reopen classrooms, for example. Eventually parents in Maplewood and nearby Montclair sued the school district in federal court to force reopening (the pressure of a pending lawsuit encouraged school officials to start offering in-person learning).
In late July 2021, private-school parents in California scored a large victory in the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after suing the state because it had forced private schools to close. “California’s forced closure of their private schools implicates a right that has long been considered fundamental under the applicable caselaw—the right of parents to control their children’s education and to choose their children’s educational forum,” Judge Daniel Collins ruled. As disturbing evidence has poured in about just how far behind many students have fallen after a year of virtual learning, while the number of pediatric deaths from COVID-19 remained extremely low, it’s clear the parents who urged reopening were right all along.
This recent parent activism has also provided new energy to existing campaigns for school choice and charter schools, as well as to homeschooling. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March 2021 that the number of homeschooling households had reached 11 percent in September 2020, more than double what it had been just six months earlier. The National Black Home Educators, an organization that has represented black homeschooling families for more than 20 years, saw its membership increase from 5,000 to 35,000 during the pandemic.
It was not merely school closures that prompted localized parent revolts and new experiments in learning. Inconsistent and often unscientific protocols put in place by elected officials—outdoor mask mandates for the very young and the closure of playgrounds in cities such as New York—were a visible sign of the heavy hand of the state actively working to prevent children from going about their daily lives. And a harsh reminder that parents could do little about it.
At the same time, the latest and most aggressive iteration of identity politics in education began to affect K–12 schools nationwide: critical race theory (CRT). While its ideological advocates argued that their efforts to rewrite school curricula are merely meant to encourage “equity,” “diversity,” and racial reckoning, many parents on the ground have not been persuaded—including parents who had eagerly voted for Joe Biden.
Elina Kaplan, a Biden voter (and immigrant from the Soviet Union) is “alarmed over her state’s new model ethnic studies curriculum, which cites critical race theory as a ‘key theoretical framework and pedagogy,’” according to Politico. No mere keyboard warrior, Kaplan became an activist: She “launched an email list, set up meetings with state legislators and recruited people to meet with their school boards to discuss ethnic studies.”
She is not alone. Among “Democrat-leaning or politically moderate suburbanites interviewed by Politico in six states, all but one of which were won by Biden,” parents are “up in arms over their school systems’ new equity initiatives, which they argue are costly and divisive, encouraging students to group themselves by race and take pro-activist stances.” Politico canvassed voters in places such as the Northern Virginia suburbs, Westchester County, New York, and Maricopa County, Arizona—hardly Republican strongholds. What they found (and polls by Public Opinion Strategies have confirmed) should worry Democrats: “48 percent of independent voters and 59 percent of public-school parents overall in Loudoun and neighboring Fairfax County viewed critical race theory negatively, while 31 percent and 39 percent of each group had positive views.”
Similar outrage erupted in Biden-friendly Palm Beach County when a Democrat-dominated school board vowed in a statement to eliminate “white advantage.” Parents protested, prompting internecine warfare. As Politico: reported, “In May, the majority of Democrats on the school board sided with the protesters and voted to edit the ‘white advantage’ phrase out of the equity statement. But the local Democratic Party took action and censured those school-board members with a resolution saying they had betrayed the party’s values. Two school-board members declared they would leave the party as a result.”
In Virginia’s Fairfax County, parent-turned-activist Rory Cooper described these clashes in the Washington Post in July: “On one side are parents who saw incompetent school boards and administrators harming children by ignoring science and keeping children locked out of schools where they suffered emotionally, physically, and mentally. On the other side are the school-board members, superintendents, and their union benefactors who saw the parents as a nuisance or uninformed rubes who should have little say in the education of their children.” These aren’t partisan divides; these are diametrically opposed worldviews about the proper role of the state in making decisions for families.
Parents have also increasingly been more outspoken about the impact of rising violent crime. In cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Chicago, they are pushing back on efforts by progressive politicians to defund police and decriminalize quality-of-life offenses. In the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis leaders vowed to defund the police, and progressive city residents “vowed to avoid calling law enforcement into their community,” the New York Times reported. “Doing so, they believed, would add to the pain that black residents of Minneapolis were feeling and could put them in danger.”
The entirely predictable result? A large encampment of drug-addicted, mentally ill, and sometimes violent people made their home by the hundreds in a nearby park. Those who spoke out about the new and dangerous conditions were often parents. “I’m not being judgmental,” one mother told the Times. She “explained that she no longer felt comfortable letting her children, 12 and 9, play in the park by themselves. ‘It’s not personal. It’s just not safe.’” Indeed. The Times reports that her neighbor was robbed at gunpoint by two black teenagers who then stole another neighbor’s car (because the victim was white, he said that he did not want to cooperate in the perpetrators’ prosecutions).
Parents also began examining how powerful interest groups were making it effectively impossible for many of them to do their jobs—and how cavalier their elected leaders were about this challenge. As school closures dragged on, parent concerns over the lack of child care and their struggle to keep their children on track educationally were frequently mocked by some of the most powerful politicians and activists in the land.
The mockery was ironic, given that many of those same leaders are not themselves parents. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who successfully lobbied officials in the Biden administration to keep unnecessary restrictions in place in schools that forced many to remain closed this spring, is childless. This does not stop her from frequently using children as political weapons in her efforts to increase the power of the teachers’ unions.
So, too, Vice President Kamala Harris. For the first time in the modern era, we have someone very close to the presidency who has never raised children. Harris married Doug Emhoff in 2014; he has two children from his previous marriage who were in high school when he and Harris wed. She appears well aware of the problematic optics of being a childless politician: When she launched her bid for president in Oakland, California, in 2019, she toted her two-year-old niece around the stage and has since given many interviews in which she notes that her stepchildren refer to her as “Momala.”
None of that would be relevant if Harris hadn’t also mocked the work that parents actually do. During an event in Pennsylvania in September 2020, Harris started cackling like she’d just told the world’s funniest joke when she mentioned that parents want their children back in school. At another appearance in Connecticut, she laughed loudly while saying, “More people are seeing that, yeah, affordable child care is a big deal. More parents are seeing the value of educators when they had to bring their kids and say we’re not paying them nearly enough.” These astonishing remarks were taken, and taken correctly, as a slap in the face of millions of parents who were struggling to work and take care of their children during mandatory lockdowns.
HOW FEASIBLE is it that parents might manage to sustain a political class consciousness among themselves, a sense of common purpose powerful enough to achieve broader political objectives while avoiding partisan bickering?
There are formidable challenges, including the aforementioned demographic trends. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported “This year, the U.S. will record at least 300,00 fewer births because the uncertain economy and the pandemic dissuaded women from having babies…. Provisional government data already show births in the first three months of 2021 declined compared with 2020.” These demographic shifts, if they continue, could foster a culture that creates and maintains fewer institutions that cater to the needs of parents, which itself encourages young people to see parenthood as something more challenging—and perhaps not worth doing at all.
It’s also the case that parents, particularly working parents, are among the most time-crunched citizens, putting them at a disadvantage in pursuing activism compared with the full-time political players and powerful and well-funded public-sector unions they often find themselves challenging.
There is also the risk that parent activism will devolve into standard special-interest-group politicking. In the past, campaigns spearheaded by parents as parents tended to do just that. Twentieth-century organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, as well as more recent gun-control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, focus on single issues.
Some of the newest parent activist groups that have organized quickly and effectively resemble such groups: Fight For Schools, originally organized by parents in Loudon County, Virginia, focuses largely on school closures and critical race theory debates. The group thus far has been effective. Thanks to its efforts, six Loudoun County school-board officials currently face a recall over the board’s handling of school closures and CRT initiatives.
Parents often divide along race and class lines with regard to certain issues. Efforts to eliminate meritocratic measurements of excellence at competitive schools have caused such divisions. Even those who have joined forces to save meritocracy in K–12 schools might find that enthusiasm fading once their children are competing against one another for spaces in elite colleges.
And yet, localized parent awakenings, if they can be sustained, could sway future elections. Politically contested areas such as Loudon County and Fairfax County, for example, which have seen a great deal of recent parent fervor over school closures and CRT, are worth watching in this regard.
Democrats’ response to these newly engaged and activist parents has largely been dismissive (although the Biden administration has recently been reminding parents as often as possible about the checks he is sending them as part of his pandemic relief package). School boards and union leaders and Democratic politicians either respond by claiming that the uproar over CRT is a figment of Fox News paranoia or intimating that they might hold school reopening hostage in the fall as a result of parents’ protests. “It’s actually detrimental for [critics] to fray our ability to focus on the important issues, like how do we bring students back next year and give them the mental-health support that they need,” a Loudon County school-board member told Politico. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe recently called CRT a “right-wing conspiracy.”
Children’s needs should be determined by their parents. Not by the suburban school boards who couldn’t manage to get children back in classrooms but have plenty of time to ponder the intricacies of faddish theories about white privilege and systemic racism. And not by public-sector unions. And not by Democratic politicians who assume that parents will never overcome their partisan leanings long enough to act as a unified political force.1
When you have a child, you become a parent for life, even as the window of time during which adults with children must advocate on behalf of their children’s interests is relatively small.
And yet, while children eventually outgrow the authority of their parents, do parents ever outgrow the sense of authority they believe they deserve to exercise in political debate? Activists and politicians often like to say that they speak not as partisans but “as a mother” or “as a father.” Their efforts might ultimately be cynical, but their appeal to authority is one all parents make at some point in their child-rearing journey.
The sociologist Robert Nisbet once observed that even in a highly individualistic society such as ours, the family unit is one of the most crucial building blocks; parents therefore have a duty to ensure that the state (or the culture, or other outside forces) doesn’t actively prevent them from doing what is best for their families. Parents can do this because they have inherent authority in their role as parents (as compared with the power that the state often exercises over its citizens).
“Authority, unlike power, is not rooted in force alone, whether latent or actual,” Nisbet wrote in The Twilight of Authority. “It is built into the very fabric of human association. Civil society is a tissue of authorities. Authority has no reality save in the memberships and allegiances of the members of an organization,” among which he listed the family first. “The authority of the family follows from its indispensable function…. When the function has become displaced or weakened, when allegiances have been transferred to other entities, there can be no other consequence but a decline of authority.”
Perhaps it is time for parents to claw back some of the allegiances they have often unwittingly transferred to teachers’ unions, the state, and an expert class that has too often claimed to speak for families while failing to consider their needs.
Ceding that authority is why parents found themselves powerless when teachers’ unions successfully pressured elected officials (and the CDC) to shut schools; when school boards unilaterally changed the curriculum to promote questionable ideological claims about race; and when Defund the Police activists put abstract notions of justice ahead of everyday public safety in neighborhoods across the country.
This is the distinction that is being fought over in many of these current debates, and one that newly galvanized parents, if they are determined enough, could translate into a genuine and nonpartisan political movement.
1 Parents as a political class also face significant internal partisan divisions. Consider the recent trend of parents drafting children into their own political activism—the moms and dads who dress their toddlers in Che T-shirts and read them A Is for Activist for their bedtime story. Most of them are happy to use their kids as accessories to their own (usually liberal) activism. In its extreme form, politically activist parents can do real harm to their children. The novelist and activist Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca once told the Guardian, “My parents were so deeply involved in the civil-rights movement that a lot of my needs as a young person were not fully seen and addressed, or considered as important as the movement….It felt very lonely and vulnerable.” There are enough scarred children of 20th-century activists that writer John Blake published an entire book about them, The Children of the Movement.
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