Until the twentieth century, little thought was given to the concept of children’s rights. Children were basically the property of parents, or, in some instances, considered little adults and sent to work in factories and on farms. In 1924 the League of Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and in 1959 the United Nations adopted a similar statement. UNICEF was established in 1946, and, through the years, many attempts have been made by worldwide organizations and individual nations to define and uphold children’s rights.
The Bible has little to say about children’s rights, instead directing instruction to parents about their children’s upbringing. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Many children’s rights are embedded within that command, but its focus is not on the child, but on the parent. God gives parents strong commands about training their children and holds the parent responsible for following those commands (Deuteronomy 6:1–2). Even when children grow up, God expects parents to set boundaries when it is within their power to do so. In 1 Samuel 3:13, God rebuked Eli the priest because his adult sons were wicked and making a mockery of God’s house. Eli knew about it but did not restrain them.
Although the idea of children’s rights being a legally protected guarantee sounds good, the reality can be disastrous. If “children’s rights” include the right to not be disciplined, then disgrace and dishonor are around the bend: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15). Many children’s rights advocates want those rights to supersede the right of parents to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6). Most children’s rights declarations tread on God-given parental rights, infringing on the parents’ rights to discipline as they see fit, give religious instruction in accordance with conscience, and even educate the child the way they believe is right for that child.
Cases abound in which a court, on behalf of a minor child, has punished parents for not supporting transgender surgery, hormone therapy, or other mutilating procedures for a young child, declaring the child’s “right” to self-determination. While every human being must be treated with dignity and respect as someone created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), special “rights” pertaining only to children should be viewed with caution.
Instead of special rights, children are given instruction in the Bible. God commands children to “honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). In Ephesians 6:1 and again in Colossians 3:20, children are told to obey their parents in the Lord, for this is right. We should note that abuse of any kind is never implied or condoned in any scriptural mandate.
Since God created the family and entrusted children to parents, He knows best how to raise them (Psalm 127:3). When children are reared with obedient spirits and taught to honor parents, they also become better adults. Except under extreme circumstances, it is the parents, not the state, who should be accountable for children. God gave children to moms and dads, not the government, regardless of how well-intentioned the court system may be.
Children do not usually know or prefer what is in their best interest. Neither is it always within a parent’s ability to provide these “rights.” Depending upon the particular children’s rights document, children may be given “rights” that are not possible. For example, a widow in Sudan who has lost her home to terrorists may be unable to provide her children with their “right” to balanced meals and a comfortable bed. Is she then breaking the law by giving them bread crusts while they sleep on the dirt floor? How far does enforcement of these children’s rights laws go? Those are questions worthy of serious consideration when attempting to draft legislation that guarantees every child certain rights apart from the parents. The Bible does not seem to support any such legislation and instead counsels moms and dads to take their parental responsibility seriously, as God holds them accountable for their children’s well-being.