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Robert Kunzman: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child vs. the Parental Rights Movement

Today's post is from Robert Kunzman, author of Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling. Kunzman spent ten years as a high school teacher, coach, and administrator and is currently an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Education. He is also the author of Grappling with the Good: Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools.

Book Cover for Write These Laws on Your ChildrenQuick—who are the only two nations who haven't ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Somalia is one of them—no bonus points for that guess. Who else stands against the 193 nations who've ratified the treaty? None other than the United States of America. This may change under the Obama administration; U.N. ambassador Susan Rice recently proclaimed the situation a disgrace and indicated that U.S. ratification of the treaty was under active discussion.

But not if the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has their way. Calling the UNCRC "anti-family" and "anti-American," they have urged their 80,000 members—as well as those who've joined ParentalRights.org, a "grassroots" organization founded by HSLDA—to voice their opposition. To further their cause, they have been a driving force in promoting a Parental Rights Amendment, which now has more than 110 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

Why does the most powerful and prominent homeschool advocacy organization in the world see the UNCRC as such a threat? Ultimately, it's an argument about who should have a say in the raising and educating of children.

I've spent the past five years exploring the world of homeschooling from a variety of angles, traveling the country and visiting with families in their homes, observing their homeschooling practices and talking with them about what they're doing and why they're doing it. I quickly discovered that the range of philosophies, methods, and outcomes is vast indeed. But one fundamental conviction among homeschool parents emerges again and again: the state has no business telling them how to raise or educate their children.

This conviction is especially strong among conservative Christian homeschoolers, who most observers agree constitute the largest subset of the likely two million homeschoolers in the United States (HSLDA describes itself as a Christian organization). Not infrequently, parents pointed to the biblical passage of Deuteronomy 6:6-9 when explaining to me their motivation to homeschool. The Message, a popular Bible paraphrase, puts it this way: "Write these commandments that I've given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night."

This orientation toward parenting and education helps explain why homeschool parents are particularly resistant toward any government role or authority in the education of their children. Good parents (whether homeschoolers or not) see education, broadly construed, as part of their job description: raising a child involves constant teaching, and the most important lessons in life generally occur outside of school walls. But most homeschoolers take this a step further. They don't see any real distinction between this broader notion of education and formal schooling itself—which makes sense, if homeschooling is just woven into the fabric of everyday family life. And if homeschooling is seen as simply part of parenting, then it becomes easier to understand why many homeschool parents view government oversight of education as an unjustifiable intrusion into their sacred domain.

For conservative Christian homeschoolers, educating their children is a God-given right and responsibility, and one they can delegate only at great moral and spiritual peril. Like many in the broader homeschool population, conservative Christians see homeschooling as a twenty-four-hour-a-day, all-encompassing endeavor. For them, perhaps more explicitly than other homeschoolers, homeschooling is a shaping not only of intellect but—even more crucially—character. This means more than just moral choices of right and wrong; character is developed through the inculcation of an overarching Christian worldview that guides those moral choices. These parents share a fierce determination to instill Christian character in their children, a process that entails protecting them from the corrupting influences of broader society. To accomplish this, the family becomes the defensive bulwark and sanctuary wherein children are prepared for eventual engagement with the world.

Parental interests aren't the only ones at stake in the educational process, of course. A democracy depends upon the cultivation of informed citizens who can deliberate respectfully about the best ways to live together. And while most parents naturally believe that their efforts are dedicated to what's best for their children, in reality this isn't always the case; as the UNCRC asserts, children have their own educational interests at stake as well. But in the context of homeschooling—the ultimate in educational privatization—how to define and protect these various interests remains a complicated and contested question indeed.