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I didn’t learn about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child until I was living in Cambodia, where it was an important framework for helping us address family violence, human trafficking, and community development. Maybe this isn’t too surprising, since the Convention is still young. It was adopted on this day (November 20) in 1989 by the UN General Assembly and became effective on September 2, 1990, after it was ratified by the required number of members. 

It is a very basic commitment to honoring and protecting the dignity and humanity of children, and 196 nations, including every member of the United Nations except one, has made that commitment. The one UN member that is still holding out, three decades later, is the United States.

To our credit, the USA has ratified two Optional Protocols on restricting “Children in Armed Conflict” and the “Sale of Children.” But, as President Barack Obama described it in his 2008 campaign, our collective failure to ratify the Convention is “embarrassing.” Nevertheless, even embarrassment has been insufficient to muster the political will to address this issue, as no US president has even submitted the Convention to the US Senate for ratification. The anniversary of the Convention’s initial adoption is a good opportunity for us to reflect a little on why we might be in this situation and what it means.

In the United States, the arguments against ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child with which I’m most familiar usually boil down to parental or state sovereignty, or both. At the heart of the resistance is who gets to choose what is in “the best interest of the child.” 

Many detractors of the Convention insist that parents should get to make that decision. If there is evidence of abuse or neglect, they may make allowances for the state to intervene. Intervention beyond this is usually resisted, and the idea of a UN committee being empowered to determine international standards of care is seen as a threat to both national and parental sovereignty. This is despite the fact that Article 5 of the Convention explicitly names and protects - “the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.”

The children’s version puts it more simply: “Governments should let families and communities guide their children so that, as they grow up, they learn to use their rights in the best way. The more children grow, the less guidance they will need.” These protections are one of the reasons that the ACLU has described popular opposition to the Convention as “based on incorrect assumptions”. But they also correctly and importantly point out that, underneath these false assumptions, we are avoiding “some hard truths about the exceptionally bad way we treat children in the United States” and the related hard work we need to do “to bring our laws and practices in line with human rights.”

Doing that hard work is the priority, whether the USA ever ratifies the Convention or not. And while I personally support ratification, there continues to be discussion on what is the most practical way forward. I can understand those who say the objections will likely never be met, and that this means we should focus on more local and statewide movements and legislation for protecting children. Where we agree, and where we can work together, is on transforming our systems and cultures to actually protect the wellbeing and humanity of our children. This is where we can begin.

The Congressional Research Service provided a report on the Convention in 2015 that continues to be helpful in understanding the issues, and their summary of objections based in parental authority is especially interesting. Rather than seeing value in protecting a child’s privacy, a provision intended to protect children from government and corporate invasions of privacy, objecting parties wanted to ensure that parents “have the right to search their children’s rooms or be notified if a child is arrested or undergoes an abortion.” Instead of supporting a child’s freedom of expression, objectors feared that the provision “could be interpreted to allow children to speak their minds at all times”, in opposition to parental authority. Similarly, they objected to a child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion because they feared it “might give children the right to object to their parents’ religious beliefs or training.”

Objectors resist a child’s access to information and education because they do not want children to access materials “they find objectionable.” A similar reasoning leads to rejection of freedom of association, to restrict a child’s “right to associate with people that his or her parents do not approve of”. Finally, Article 19(1)’s declaration that “no child should be subjected to physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation,” at school or by a parent or legal guardian” was rejected because parents could maintain their right to use corporal punishment.

I can’t help but reflect on these ideas through the lens of my own experiences of authoritarian cultures. Whether consciously sought or not, this focus on parental rights to control and coerce their children also connects with the ability of leaders to maintain their own power. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, reinforcing cultural assumptions that also reinforces the status quo. 

While authoritarian tendencies exist across the religious and political spectrums, I have only personally experienced it in a conservative context. However, I oppose authoritarianism in any form, whether it is from the right or the left. And I can remember several key moments in my own spiritual journey when I had to recognize, resist, and heal from such an abuse of authority. For all our sakes, I’ll share only two examples today, both from experiences I had in the early 2000s.

First, one of the notoriously difficult passages in the Christian scriptures comes from 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (NRSVUE) –

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Most preachers and exegetes I heard comment on this passage went out of their way to either interpret it in a creative way or dismiss it as a corruption of earlier and more egalitarian teachings. So I was surprised when I began encountering preachers who increasingly leaned into and even celebrated an explicitly misogynistic interpretation. I remember clearly hearing a prominent preacher explain that the greatest temptation for women was to usurp the role of men and their headship. Men were divinely appointed to lead and dominate women, and women would need to be content with caring for and dominating children, under the umbrella of the man’s authority. Usurping a man’s place meant doing anything independently, from earning an income to teaching a man. This was literally an argument along the lines of “women belong in the kitchen.” Moreover, everything needed to be under the authority of a girl’s father, a woman’s husband, and/or their male pastor. You couldn’t act without a man’s permission, which could be revoked at any time.

And yet, this control was presented as a benevolent gift. All of this was “for her own good.” Remember that this entire argument was framed within the context that usurping a man’s authority was the greatest temptation and sin for a woman. The best deterrent against such rebellion, this preacher argued, was to have children. Motherhood would give them a meaningful life while keeping them busy and tired, reducing their likelihood of falling into sin. 

On another occasion, I was incredulous as I sat and listened to a robust debate between church members about the age a boy became too old to be taught by a woman, since women should only teach other women and children, lest they “assume authority over a man.” In conversations and sermons of this sort, I never heard any awareness of the vulnerability of this kind of relationship to domestic violence. And I never heard any discussion of the rights and wellbeing of either women or children. The goal was to maintain the power of male leaders (in the home and in the church), taught with the assumption that maintaining patriarchal power would doubtless protect women and children.

My second example was even more shocking to me. I had gone to listen to a prominent leader of the Missouri Baptist Convention, who was going to be a guest preacher at a nearby church event. I was used to some version of the talks about male headship and the authority of men, but my childhood church had still generally accepted the goodness of human life and the innocence of babies. I was confronted with my own naïveté when I heard this leader describe how babies were selfish from the start, and that their cries were proof of their inherent, total depravity. He lamented that babies don’t think at all about the needs of their parents and will cry incessantly until they get what they want. This, he said, was evidence of their sinfulness. It followed, in his thinking, that parents had a responsibility to punish and control their children: to keep them from indulging their sinful impulses, to convince them of their sinfulness, and to warn them that their sinfulness deserved eternal punishment. I was already a parent by this time, and I couldn’t fathom viewing my child as this kind of enemy, intent on thwarting my wellbeing and deserving my threats and coercion to bend them to my will. But the pattern was becoming clear. There was no awareness of the vulnerability of this kind of relationship to authoritarian and even abusive parenting. And there was no awareness of the rights and wellbeing of children. The goal was to maintain the power of male leaders (in the home and in the church), with the assumption that maintaining men’s power would doubtless protect women and children.

It was not my experience, and I am not aware of research that demonstrates, that people who hold conservative religious and political views are more likely to abuse or neglect children. However, my experience is that cultures that uphold authoritarian parenting and leadership (whether left or right) create an atmosphere that helps empower and shield abusers. (This is in contrast with permissive parenting styles, which tend toward neglect.) 

Psychological research is helping us better understand how this works. For example, a 2015 study on authoritarian parenting “found that almost 50 percent of children were at risk for anxiety, and 10 percent for depression and somatization, with these rates persisting over time.” And Dr. Grant Brenner summarized the results of a 2020 study demonstrating that:

“All other factors equal, when parents violate psychological boundaries in an attempt to control the inner world of their children, they are setting them up to be vulnerable to abusive future relationships.”

The particular mechanisms for achieving this are familiar to many of us:

“Psychological control of others means gaslighting, making others feel ashamed of their own valid feelings and thoughts, using guilt and blame to turn others against themselves and manipulate them, and even sadistically and exploitatively ‘messing with their heads’ for parents high on dark personality traits.”

These mechanisms also happen to complement the objections to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that we discussed earlier. And it aligns with my own experience of rigid, authoritarian religious communities. I personally was trained by my extended religious community and culture to feel ashamed of my basic human inclinations and needs (especially related to gender and sexuality), experience guilt that blossomed into self-loathing, and become vulnerable to manipulation, all while I was a child. The lack of protection and resources meant that I spent years doing intensive healing work to grow into my own well-being. We are still repeating tragic versions of this experience in the lives of so many children. And the justification for sacrificing the wellbeing of our children is often that emphasis on maintaining parental and religious authority, grounded in a fear of losing power to socialize children through psychological control. 

If I could give a message to those who treated me this way, or who treat other children like this, it is simply this: it didn’t work. You hurt me instead. All your insistence on loving and protecting me, of having my best interests in mind, didn’t change the reality of that harm.

And it is not only psychological control and harm. We can also ask: what are the broader, structural results of our failure to protect children? What kind of world have we created? In the United States, as Farzad and Ochoa Family Law has pointed out:

  • “At least one in seven children suffer child abuse (Article 19).
  • Approximately 4.3 million children do not have any health insurance (Article 24).
  • Nearly 1.5 million children experience homelessness (Article 27).
  • About 10,000 children are forced into the commercial sex trade (Article 34). …
  • U.S. Customs and Border Patrol have over 15,500 unaccompanied children detained in overcrowded facilities (Article 22).
  • Children as young as 12 can labor limitless hours in agriculture work (Article 32).
  • Approximately 80% of the over 200,000 child brides between 2000 and 2015 were married to an adult (Article 34).
  • Juvenile detention centers and prisons house around 60,000 minors on any given day (Article 40).”

In September, Human Rights Watch released a report card grading each US state on four representative issues protecting children and their rights, based on the Convention: “child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice.” The highest overall grade was a C, achieved by just four states. 26 states received D’s, and the remaining 20 received F’s. Missouri ranked #32, earning an F. 

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As Human Rights Watch observed, “The US is the only UN member country that has not ratified the international treaty on children’s rights. Most people might think this isn’t such a big deal because the US is good to children. But it turns out we aren’t and our state laws don’t help.”

These problems demonstrate the actual dangers that our children are facing across the United States. We have a good idea what policies would make a difference, and we can support them as much and as often as we can. But this is another area where an important part of our work is in transforming our cultures, because our cultural assumptions are standing in the way of our children’s wellbeing. 

Our collective hesitation to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can help us understand just how important this cultural transformation is making real progress as a society. And we can all be engaged in meaningful work, personally and in our communities, to help make this happen.

For many of us adults, we can do the internal work. Even if you did not get directly wounded, most of us did not escape being socialized into these cultural assumptions. This is especially important for anyone who works with children, including parents, caregivers, teachers, social works, and, increasingly, law enforcement officials. 

A good foundation for the kind of shift we need is described by Pam Leo as “connection parenting” – “parenting through connection instead of coercion, through love instead of fear.” She points out that authoritarian parenting “is based on the child’s fear of losing the parent’s love,” while permissive parenting “is based on the parent’s fear of losing the child’s love.” They are both reactive, and neither consistently support healthy relationships or child development. In particular, coercion is a quick fix that may get short-term results but undermines long-term wellbeing. 

Shifting to connection is a long-term commitment, because a healthy relationship takes time. But it is precisely this commitment that we need to collectively make, if we want to open up a way to actually protect children and their capacity to thrive. As Leo put it, “Let’s raise children who won’t have to recover from their childhood.”