Do kids belong to their parents, or their community?

MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry channels Hillary Clinton's "it takes a village" line in a new ad, and an old argument gains new life

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Hillary Clinton popularized the saying "It takes a village to raise a child" in the mid-1990s, but it was hardly a new idea. Clinton was citing a traditional African proverb, but Africans don't have a lock on the idea of collective responsibility for the welfare of children, either. "Your children are not your children," wrote the Lebanese-born poet Khalil Gibran in 1923. "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."

Backlash against this sentiment is nothing new either. "With all due respect" to Clinton, said GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole in a 1996 speech, "it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child."

So: We shouldn't be particularly surprised that there has been a lot of conservative blowback to a provocative new MSNBC ad (watch above), in which host Melissa Harris-Perry argues that "we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities."

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Harris-Perry is talking specifically about investing in education, but Matt Lewis posits here at The Week that her ad is so "absurd" and "dystopian," Orwellian even, that it must be a "calculated attempt to troll us."

Sure, it's true that we need strong communities and institutions to help grow strong Americans. But the primary responsibility rightly belongs to the parents. Family is the fundamental building block of society.... The message [of Orwell's Animal Farm] is clear: Taking children away from their parents will come back to bite us in the end. [The Week]

Oh, please, says Harris-Perry at MSNBC. "I have no designs on taking your children. Please keep your kids!" At the same time, "I have no intention of apologizing for saying that our children, all of our children, are part of more than our households, they are part of our communities and deserve to have the care, attention, resources, respect, and opportunities of those communities." And, Harris-Perry argues, conservatives should understand this.

I find very little common ground with former President George W. Bush, but I certainly agree that no child should be left behind.... Those people who truly believe that the potential life inherent in a fetus is equivalent to the actualized life of an infant have argued that the community has a distinct interest in children no matter what the mother's and father's interests or needs. So while we come down on different sides of the choice issue, we agree that kids are not the property of their parents. Their lives matter to all of us.

I believe wholeheartedly, and without apology, that we have a collective responsibility to the children of our communities even if we did not conceive and bear them. Of course, parents can and should raise their children with their own values. But they should be able to do so in a community that provides safe places to play, quality food to eat, terrific schools to attend, and economic opportunities to support them. No individual household can do that alone. We have to build that world together. [MSNBC]

"It sounds warm and fuzzy to say, abstractly, that a child belongs 'to the entire community,'" says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. But "as someone who supports well-funded public schools, a social safety net, neighborhoods with 'eyes on the street' (per Jane Jacobs), charitable work on behalf of needy kids, and an ethos of looking out for any kid who finds him or herself in need of adult assistance, I emphatically believe that 'your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility,' that 'kids belong to their families,' not to their communities, and that the converse formulation is dangerous."

Kids depend on individuals, Friedersdorf adds, not "diffuse collectives," to get vaccinated, enroll in school, steer clear of peanut allergies, and get strapped into car seats. And having parents take responsibility for their own children is "a collective necessity in any pluralistic society."

Parents raising their own children as they see fit can disagree vehemently, even on deeply held values, and coexist with nothing more dramatic than incredulous bitching to their spouses about other nearby parents. Conceive of the community as ultimately responsible for raising kids and see how suddenly, intractably contentious and upsetting a formerly thriving place becomes. A secular progressive parent put in a small town of devout Mormons would be the first to tell you that he gets to decide how to raise his kids, not the community. He would be exactly right. [The Atlantic]

Of course, such views have plenty of detractors. The conservative "interpretation of Harris-Perry's video is entirely misguided," says one of Andrew Sulivan's readers at The Dish. "She is not saying that anyone has a legal interest in your kids."

Look, none of us want your kids, okay? None of us want to take them away from you, or force you to make certain decisions. She is saying that we all need to think of children as a collective asset of our society. I don't want your kids, but I do want your kids to grow up educated, productive, and thoughtful members of society. That's good for me, for my kids, and everyone else.... Society has an interest in the welfare of our kids, and we should continue to try to support them as best we can. It's called a civilization. Everybody should try it. [The Dish]

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