You’ve probably seen some variation of the popular T-shirts that set out “Rules For Dating My Daughter.” They usually contain a number of threats towards anyone looking to court someone’s children, but ultimately the key rule is “you can’t.”
This is supposed to be a way of jokingly protecting one’s children from advances by prospective suitors, and I laughed the first time I saw it. However, thinking about it further, I realized the T-shirt wasn’t that amusing. In fact, these types of jokes have another effect entirely: they limit an adolescent’s agency and freedom.
Ontario’s newly announced health and sexual education curriculum has been the subject of a great deal of debate. Protests have erupted across the province, as have “strikes,” during which some parents are keeping their kids home from school to object to the new curriculum.
These jokes limit an adolescent’s agency and freedom.
These protests reflect the issue of who gets to make the rules for our youth. Debates and protests about Ontario’s new sex education curriculum seem focused on what kids are taught and when, but more so on which group of adults is in control and who among them gets to make the rules.
The battle, which has become politicized with the strong opposition from Ontario’s PC Leader, is centred on whether parents or the government should have the authority to determine the best interests of the child.
Setting up discussions about what our children should learn in school as a battle between parents and the government misses a fundamental aspect of what is at stake — namely, the health, sexuality and self-expression of the province’s youth.
It’s not just parents, educators, governments and communities whose rights and powers are at stake when we talk about sexual health education for kids. Children have rights of their own.
When they are small, their chief sexual right is the right not to be abused. However, as they grow and develop, they acquire rights as sexual citizens.
Not just politics: children’s rights under Canadian law
Protesting against the current provincial government about the curriculum is a displaced effort. The notion that children have rights is not a concept based in Premier Kathleen Wynne’s personal agenda. It is a matter of law.
The discussion of sex and sexuality set out in Ontario’s new sexual and health education curriculum is more than a reflection of the values of a particular political party or community group. Rather, it reflects the language of and case law interpreting Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Protesting against the current provincial government about the curriculum is a displaced effort.
Children’s rights in this provision complement others in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which applies to children as well as adults. Under the Charter, children as well as their parents have rights to freedom of conscience and religion and to free expression. Equally as important is a child’s right to become educated about things that will affect their bodies and their health.
Children’s rights under international law
Children’s rights are not a Canadian invention, but are set out in international law, as well as domestic provisions.
The rights of children, whatever their gender, sexuality, race or religion, are outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This convention was agreed upon by the vast majority of the world’s nations by multilateral international legal convention over 20 years ago.
As explained in the CRC, children are entitled to be supported in ways that ensure their full development to enjoy responsible life in a free society. This includes rights to freedom of expression, to identity and to autonomy.
Adolescents, whatever the values held by their families, are subjects and agents. Children own their own bodies and they have legal rights.
The interests of communities, as articulated by parents, community and religious leaders must be balanced against the rights of adolescents.
Yes, it’s sometimes difficult for any parent to accept that our children’s life choices are theirs, not ours. It’s a difficult journey to parent children who are subject to our influence, but not our control, who are subject to government regulation, but not government dictation in a free society. But this is the nature of the adventure.
The rights and freedoms of children aren’t just dictated by a radical politician with whom you may not agree. They are the law, nationally and internationally, and must be respected as such.
Sexual health, sexual citizenship: their bodies, their rules
In the past, in Canada and elsewhere, too often have governments, educators, parents and communities all failed to recognize and protect the rights of children, especially girls. The bodies, wills and minds, of adolescents have not been well acknowledged by our laws and policies, as recent protests may suggest.
The interests of communities, as articulated by parents, community and religious leaders (who are not usually young, or children) must be balanced against the rights of adolescents to know and understand their own bodies, rights and responsibilities.
Yes, adults and legislators have roles to play in guiding and safeguarding children. However, kids have developed to become responsible enough to make up their own minds.
With this in mind, there is only one set of rules for dating my daughters (or sons) that is consistent with the Charter and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it’s completely consistent with Ontario’s new sexual and health education curriculum as well:
“You don’t make the rules.
I don’t make the rules.
She makes the rules.
Her body; her rules.”
Rebecca Bromwich is a mother of four and has been a lawyer in Ontario since 2003. She received her PhD from Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies and joined the Faculty there the same year, in 2015. She also teaches at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.