Why your children are not your children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

Kahlil Gibran, “On Children”

Adoption is purposefully not easy - prospective parents are put through vetting to ensure we are not handing over children to just anyone. Once in state care, a child can only be released once due diligence has been done to ensure they have a home that is fit for purpose.

Having your own children is much more straightforward, and the risk one has to deal with is more akin to government intervention as a last-chance resort. It is understandably so, it would amount to huge cruelty, risk of serious mistakes and not very cost-effective effort if we were to try and control one’s right to pregnancy and birth. For children under state protection we have the duty of care all the way until transferring that responsibility to another person or people, unlike those children that already start within the care of one.

In the case of adoption we can see the society, via social services, takes responsibility for minors in its care. Yet even afterwards the only balancing factors are the occasional social worker visits, the supervision of teachers, schools and, potentially, counsellors. At least in theory. In practice underfunded schools, underpaid teachers and overworked social care workers cannot ensure that issues do not go unnoticed, and are unable to provide the support required. The responsibility still falls to the parents and their immediate family.

Sadly, we cannot ensure all parents have the material means to provide for a child, the mental faculties to tend to its emotional stability, or even guarantee that they will have the psychological grit to maintain that support throughout the next (at least) two decades. If that is the case, and we agree that heavy-handed state interventions are far from the right solution, then are we doomed and have to rely on the parent lottery?

Our birth is not subject to our consent, it is a decision made for us by others that gives rise to our own existence. So much of our life will further be defined by those that made that decision, leaving us stuck within the limits of their abilities and the limits imposed by their parents, and the parents of their parents, and so on and so forth.

What happens if your parents or guardians fail at their responsibilities? It might be because of issues outside their own control - hereditary poverty, disability, limited opportunities, war to name a few - or because of their own failings. Those failings can amount to anything: emotional unavailability, lack of preparation to be a parent, disinterest in being one, desire to control one’s life, all the way down to abuse. Ironically we can more easily fix the former via social programs and state intervention, but the latter require their own input and will to change.

As a result much of our early life might end up governed by people who make decisions for us, without any guarantee that those are in our best interest or even that our care-takers have the right mental qualifications to make them. They might not even be willing to change, or worst of all - be actively malicious against us. This seems either extremely naive or insane to say the least, and leaves the boundaries of our growth, opportunities and development up to chance. Sure, not all families fail, but some will.

What can we do about it?

Do we then send all parents en-masse to therapy and hope for the best? Surely even then some of them will not see any improvement. Do we take away the children (as we should in case of abuse!) if we judge a family unfit, and move them somewhere else? While it works in some situations, in others this grey area might lead to unnecessary trauma. Not to mention, where do we find all those well adjusted families looking to take children in?

In engineering there is a concept known as fault tolerance. The idea is that a system is not built to not fail, the failure is bound to happen and the system is designed to accommodate for that. You can see that in daily life in all kinds of examples: planes can survive engine failures - they have more than one engine, and their flight paths are defined in such a way that there is always an airport within a gliding distance. Schools have substitutes ready in case of a teacher absence since it is assumed eventually someone somewhere will get ill. Even such a simple act as crossing the road is fault-tolerant, with drivers and pedestrians working together to control for the other party’s failure; not looking both ways can be fatal, but only if other safeguards (driver paying attention to the road, abiding speed limits, good visibility etc.) have failed.

What do aeroplanes have in common with parents? Well, not much, but the concept is still the same: we should assume some parents will fail, and rather than reacting to that failure the system should already be built to assume that will happen. They will fail to provide the necessary safety and security, or role models, or the education and acceptance of different viewpoints that lets a child grow up with the necessary safety, or freedom to explore and learn.

Since families in their set-up can be easily single points of failure - especially in patriarchal families where effectively men are the dominant parents, completely limiting mother’s say on their children’s upbringing - we need something larger, and less co-dependent. Thankfully such a thing exists already: a local community.

While it cannot necessarily solve some of the problems mentioned, they can alleviate them and make sure minors do not fall through the cracks. Having a good community will not make a violent home disappear with a flick of a wand. However, it would help bring issues to light, provide safe (if only temporary) refuge, foster hope and build bonds between adults and children. Having those communication channels open helps not only with isolation, but also provides us with a window into the lives of young people in the local area.

Furthermore, they make up for failures in mentorship of one’s family. By having this direct access to people who have trodden different paths in their lives we provide a wealth of information from the very start. Most importantly, this knowledge can be challenged and inquired about directly. On top of that, we pull young people out of the bubble of their own friends, schools, families and let them engage with adults as early as possible - ones who are not in position of authority over them, eg. teachers or professors. To think that so many people spend most of their early life knowing adults only as figures of power!

We already attempt to build those communities - youth clubs, sports groups or schools provide some form of taking responsibility for other people’s children and helping them grow up with the right role models. Those efforts are very often underfunded, and they still often might require a healthy family to begin with. After all, a parent has the right to decide on all elements of a child’s life - who they interact with, what ideas they are exposed to, even what kind of education they receive. Having grown up in Poland until I reached eighteen I could not myself choose to go to ethics lessons rather than religious education - it was down to my parents to decide.

The legalities that make up status quo

Control one’s guardians or parents have over their life is the first obstacle towards being able to fix the bad parent problem. It is not only very often cultural, but is embedded in the international legal system: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), signed and ratified by almost all UN member states, proclaims: “[t]he States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”.

United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child (UNCRC) on one hand guarantees the child the freedom of expression and the freedom to receive information on all ideas (Article 13), however it also states: “States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom (..) 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.”

While UNCRC wording is less extreme than that of ICCPR (and it does mention community!), it leaves a lot of room for interpretation: what does it mean to respect parents' rights to provide guidance? One can think this is limited by Article 13, however the vagueness of the wording implies that there is room to see it as the need to respect the right of parents’ to their children’s viewpoint - so far as the child is allowed to receive information on all ideas in accordance with Article 13.

There are more examples like this: in Poland parents are guaranteed the right to bring up a child in a specific viewpoint and religion. Similar provisions exist in the United States, where homeschooling can be abused to socially isolate your children. Chinese children might end up having to wash the feet of their parents in an expression of filial piety. Even as far as schools go the system young people are subjected to is one of authoritarian rule - can you appeal or challenge a teacher’s opinion or unfair judgement? If we were to apply any of those restrictions and expectations to adults we would see them as oppression - but we can easily get away with legally oppressing children.

Why is our legal system set up to allow this, and why are we, as adults, so afraid of being challenged by the next generation? Surely we should let one explore as much as they can in their early life, bring back questions to us that might challenge us, and make this relationship a mutual fruitful endeavour where our ideas will not go unchanged. Especially since we might have been right one day, but the world constantly changes and we might not be right anymore - would it not be amazing if your own kids made you aware of it as soon as that happens?

Expanding freedom

Legally, as shown above, and historically families have had a strong degree of control over their children. In the past - and present - we have seen strong opposition to teaching evolution theory, or including LGBT discourse, in school curriculum. The idea here is that everyone else should “keep their hands away from our children”, and one should have the right to bring them up as they see fit. We seem to have confused the duty of care we have with ownership of children, not seeing them as separate people (even if blood related to us they are still as separate as those without any bonds to us!), but as extension of ourselves, our will, desires.

Obligation to one’s children's well-being does not extend towards control over their hearts and minds however. In well-meaning, well-adjusted families this control might not be an issue at all, but it becomes exponentially worse in those that are volatile, oppressive or downright dangerous. Therefore it should be the duty of all of us to ensure anyone born into our society is informed about all their rights, choices, options and ideas there are, regardless of their families’ views.

While parents’ control early on in life is necessary for survival, as we pass through stages of our life our autonomy should increase. We should be provided with the power, support and a safe environment to choose the ideas we want to explore, no matter how “wrong” they might seem, with the duty of care extending only as far as making sure we are not under threat from harm or exploitation. Rather than having early life be spent under risk of indoctrination, it should be an exploration of the reality at large. Only after being exposed to all layers of your society can you make an informed choice on who you want to be, or what you believe in.

As a result the role of a parent becomes purely a caretaking one, and although they can be one of many sources of views that one gains during their growth, they are still only one of many. As one grows older we increase the amount of choice they are able to make, and provide them with a safety net. They are free to make mistakes, explore ideas and issues, clash with and question their mentors, teachers and elders. We build a community sandbox where one can test themselves, and get a feel of the world without being in danger.

Having taken away one’s family monopoly on their viewpoint we go further. Rather than submitting children to another state-controlled curriculum (we already have schools for this!), we unleash the diversity of the local community to shape us from an early age. The role of the state here is restricted to levelling the playing field to encourage the engagement of diverse opinions, races, genders and classes within the local society - the government should not mandate what is taught, merely impose sensible boundaries, and should strive to ensure that everyone has a voice. We pair one’s physical & educational growth with an ever expanding set of choices. After all, once we have reached adulthood this is the society we will be part of - better we grow up in it rather than in a bubble of our families and friends.

That environment can be created by a well-funded, developed and inclusive community, managed by local authorities together with resident representatives. By creating a system where all voices are heard, we can then make collective effort to ensure each of us from an early age is exposed to all colours and shapes of our society - liberal, conservative, white, black, Asian, religious, secular and so on and so forth.

With enough viewpoints and backgrounds included we have the foundation of our system. We allow all these people to organise events, workshops or classes. They can be sports coaches, programming teachers, set up book clubs or philosophy groups, language exchanges, or simply organise activities. This way local adults and children, as is common in large cities, stop being anonymous to each other, but now can put a face to a name.

By giving those options we increase the chance that those without the right role models can find them in other adults. Ideally we would want all parents to be at their best, if not possible, however, we should ensure that we can prove that the world does not end with one’s bad parents. There are plenty of stories out there of people being saved by well-meaning and empathetic teachers, or coaches who pushed someone enough for them to realise they are on the wrong path. Why not take it a step further and expand the opportunities for this to happen, and give legal grounding for the people around us to influence us. We might not make up for deprivation or poverty, but we can make those in need more visible locally.

Going down this path has plenty of benefits outside of families. It empowers those who are childless or have no desire to have children. Even if I do not intend to have children of my own, I can still find fulfilment in spending some of my time and effort to look after them or teach them a valuable skill. Such people can be engaged not purely for caretaking or educational reasons, but as extra role models. Diversity of their viewpoints, religions, lifestyles is their strength, giving young people from an early age role models and interactions with those they otherwise would have not met inside their family’s social bubble.

It relieves the pressure from parents, and removes the need for “total motherhood” or “total fatherhood”. It is no longer your sole responsibility (nor local school’s) to provide for the guidance of your child. The time freed in this model lets you explore yourself outside of the identity as a mother or father as well, which is especially pressing in times when a lot of mothers report being stuck in a single maternal identity the moment they have children. Which means it will also be beneficial to children for parents to explore their own wants, ideas and their freedom, and see what they can bring back into the family dynamics.

The goal is to break all of the family bubbles and see each person in a family relationship as someone with their own wants, boundaries and freedoms.

Role of government

From a practical standpoint what we need are funds to build this local network. First of all, we need someone to organise, vet and ensure transparency as well as safety of the system - similarly to how we have teachers doing the same at schools. Secondly, we need to make sure the funds can remove the logistical barriers for the system to work. With a safe public transit system, maintained by helpful staff, we can ensure that even those with uncooperative parents can take part in community activities. Even if a parent legally would not be able to restrict one’s choice, they can still obstruct the logistics.

While earlier youth clubs were mentioned, what we need more than them or community centres is striving to engage the local community to provide the much needed support, mentoring and teaching. The more people we involve, the more bonds we create between adults and children. The system can only survive and thrive if we have co opted a large, diverse population. In a multicultural, multi-opinion, multiracial community it would be a failure if only the white (or Asian, or black, or Indian etc.) majority ends up taking active part. The very purpose behind this is to ensure representation of ethnicities and opinions, and to challenge existing biases from an early age rather than confirming them.

This is where the role of the state comes in. As described earlier, its objective is to provide the funds, know-how, and the groundwork to get things going, while the community itself can provide what they believe to be useful. To ensure everyone’s safety local authorities would need some power to moderate the content of classrooms, activities, or to vet any potential volunteers.

On top of that, the local government can provide venues, free public transport, and the external talent that can help both sides - the kids and the adults - grow and learn. A good portion of education is consigned to a classroom setting, whereas we have people with the necessary experience living besides us, people who can shed even more light on science, art, humanities, or even share some plain old ‘what my job is like’ experiences. All we need is to give them the space, time and opportunity to do that.

All of this needs keeping in mind that it is not up to the state to dictate what is taught - only set the boundaries (.e.g. to avoid perpetuating hate or blatantly false information), and ensure the safety of all participants. The government already gets to dictate the school curriculum, but the type of learning described here is supposed to be driven by the ebb and flow of the local community; a form of a well-regulated, protected and safe free market of ideas, which will provide a much quicker feedback loop than the educational system can guarantee.

With the power to control the boundaries and have a say over the participants comes the risk of the state becoming a censor. Which brings us back to where we started: rather than parents limiting the access to ideas of a child, it would be the state (potentially under the tyranny of the local majority). In the end this is something that is inescapable. It is difficult to escape the clutches of institutionalised racism, or the dominance of one viewpoint, religion or political stance in the local government. While I believe a system like this would help crush those dominions, it requires civil servants and clerks who understand the pay off this approach will bring in.


There is no guarantee that any of us, whether in our role as teachers, guardians or more generally - adults - have the right ideas. Quite the contrary, the longer we live the more we internalise opinions that are entertained by the wider society and make them our own without question. Any future generation, if brought up with the ability to reject those views, can bring valuable input about those values that we have taken for granted.

Old ideas might have been correct once, but the nature of ever evolving society, technology and changing human dynamics means they might have slipped into error. In which case one should have the implicit permission, and support, to stray away from their parents’ or guardians’ mindset to explore something new. Whatever they find out on that journey should be exciting to all of us!

Even worse, not all will get the support, the love or quite plainly - might suffer from the failures of their guardians. We need to work with a simple assumption: having no control - and no viable metrics for even establishing good benchmarks - over the viability of any family as a unit capable of providing care means a significant portion (if not most!) will fail at this task.

Which begs the question: why have we abandoned the idea of using people around us, their knowledge, thoughts and experiences, to shape the next generation and let it shape them? Have them be a safe haven and help when our own caretakers fail us - one already assumes some form of common responsibility for a child when they see them lost, crying or in danger.

We can easily extend that to go beyond singular, emergency situations and take a common responsibility for children’s right to freedom from oppression of thought, freedom from neglect and harm. Those we take care of will then pass the lessons they learn onto the next generation.

Leaving us not only with a good degree of fault tolerance, but a system capable of constant self-improvement. A system where instead of one’s mind being restricted by a list of doctrines and dogmas, a pursuit of mutual understanding, knowledge and self-discovery is encouraged.