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Opinion: Parents Bill of Rights Misses the Mark

Why an ill-fated bill was ill-advised from the start.

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Politicians—typically those of the small-government ilk—like to talk about how parents know what’s best for their kids more than state or federal bureaucracies do. It’s an easy (some might say lazy) way to nab applause on the campaign trail, or to gin up approval for measures like the one the Colorado Senate advanced this week.

This week, the “Parents Bill of Rights” passed through the Senate on an 18–17 party-line vote. Among other things, it would codify the rights of Colorado parents to opt out of data collection efforts at their children’s schools, a worthwhile objective in this intrusive information age.

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Unfortunately, the bill also would enable parents to decline immunizations for their kids—a reckless proposal at a time when Colorado’s low vaccination rates are steering us toward a potential public health crisis. It would also allow parents to forego objectionable curriculum such as sex education, because to a certain conservative mindset, pretending sex doesn’t exist is preferable to learning how to better navigate its treacherous waters, even though dodging the issue makes kids markedly worse off.

Because Democrats still control the state House, the bill isn’t likely to pass. It will thus be relegated to the massive pile of symbolic gestures—i.e., time-wasting, go-nowhere legislation—that contribute mightily to the public impression that government is hopelessly inefficient and ineffectual.

Sometime symbolic gestures have meaning; in this case, the gesture is compromised by the fact that its premise is demonstrably wrong. To anyone who’d claim that parents invariably know best, why don’t we ask how the children feel about that? Ask the victims of parental abuse and neglect. Ask the ones whose parents can’t hold a job or put food on the table. Ask the ones whose folks express love by “providing” material possessions rather than love and support. Ask the ones whose parents disowned them because they’re gay or they married outside the family’s faith.

Mature adults know that even if they worship their mother and father, in the end they’re still just two people, as flawed as anyone, who sometimes make mistakes, who don’t always set the best example, who now and then can be flat-out wrong (often due to the lousy lessons their own parents taught them).

Our political system is designed to foster the debate and arrive at the standards that can best protect everyone, especially those who are least equipped to protect themselves. That’s why we need a Children’s Bill of Rights far more urgently than we need one for parents. Maybe Colorado Dems will counter with such a proposal. Even if it went nowhere for the same party-line reasons, only flipped, that would be an example of symbolic legislation that has meaning, because if nothing else, it might help upend this antiquated and puritanical notion of parental infallibility that insidously dominates our political discourse.

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Your kids aren’t your property; they’re your responsibility. Rather than passing laws that enable parents to treat their offspring as possessions, we should be coming up with ones that ensure our least-powerful citizens won’t be victimized by the very people who are supposed to shield them from actual harm rather than imaginary threats.

—Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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