Close your eyes and imagine with me. You are at the local school board meeting, just routine business, nothing unusual. You’re half asleep as the board drones through the minutes of the meeting and the regular agenda, and you’re wondering why you bother coming to these at all. Surely being a parent doesn’t require such dedication. Oh, there he goes again, on and on about the need for more education in the classics if we are going to raise solid citizens.

Then it happens. A member of the school board has been fidgeting for several minutes. He wants to speak, but he’s trying to be polite while the droning member explicates the virtues of learning the Greek alphabet in kindergarten, and how it made him the man he is today. Now, finally, the mic is free. All hell breaks loose – or should I say, all heaven? Because there is now a motion before the board to require students to bow their heads for a minute every morning while a prayer is read over the loudspeaker. Not a big prayer, you understand, just a small prayer, one that couldn’t possibly offend anyone. After all, Jesus was such a nice guy, children will learn good manners, turning the other cheek, and where necessary, occasional appropriate smiting if only they have their prayer in school. Without prayer in school, they’ll all grow up to be hooligans and thugs…even the girls.

Before you know what happens, you’re on your feet. You are waving the copy of the Constitution you just happened to stick in your back pocket before you left for work this morning…God only knows why. You are reading the First Amendment out loud. You are eloquent. You are passionate. You are…dare I say it…brilliant. You finish with your favorite flourish: “I will support to the death your right to raise your children as you see fit, but you just can’t insist that other people’s children are forced to pray to a God that may not be theirs.” You sit, flushed with success, to the sound of roaring applause…or, if you are in the American Midwest or South, to the sound of a chorus of boos and hisses. Still, you told them. They’ll stay told, believe me.

Next time, before you start that speech, I would like you to stop, take a deep breath, and think before you speak. Then, go ahead and wave your Constitution. Go ahead and read the First Amendment. Explain in all your usual detail about Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and give a full history of religious entanglement from the Greek pagans all the way through the Enlightenment – there is one member of the school board who will be pleased you learned your classics, anyway. But then, stop. Shut up. Sit down. Do not finish with your favorite flourish. Don’t acknowledge his right to raise his children the way he wishes, because that is a right that he does not – or at least should not – have.

Wait, gentle reader, before you get out your ALL CAPS and your exclamation points and tear me a new one. Hear my argument first. The reason I say this is not a legitimate parental right is simple: for this to actually be the right of a parent, it requires one simple assumption that should make you pause – the assumption that your children belong to you. That they are yours to shape and mold as you please, and not a living, breathing human being with their own rights as a human being. Oh, yes, I know, children are too young to exercise their rights without guidance and education. I’m all for guidance. If we just let children exercise their right to pursue happiness, they will push every shopping cart in the grocery store into my heels, and disrupt every single restaurant meal with the most ear splitting noises man has ever invented. So by all means, give them guidance and education. As a parent, that is your responsibility. As a parent, however, you have another responsibility: to realize that your children are not little Mini-Mes that you will raise to fulfill all the dreams you had but were too lazy, too unlucky, or too cautious to pursue. Even putting aside the fact that such a goal is unachievable (try it – your child will grow up to be a flower child, a serial killer, or a Republican. He will not turn out to be that lawyer/doctor/rock singer combination you always wished for but couldn’t do because, well, when you sing dogs howl and little children run away), it just isn’t right.

You see, we all spout that mantra – you have the right to raise your children the way you wish – without stopping to think what it means. It means you own your child, and you can force him to be what he doesn’t want. This is an age old tradition, of course. Parents have been molding, shaping, and forcing their children since…well, since there have been parents and children, I suppose. But we are more enlightened now. We are modern. We are 21st century. So why, in a world that denounces slavery and ownership of other human beings, do we still assume we have some sort of absolute rights over our children? Apply the Thirteenth Amendment to your children as diligently as you do your wife, your neighbors, and your employees (I assume you are being very diligent in your failure to enslave the adult human beings that surround you).

When you think about your role as a parent, think not of rights, but of responsibilities. The ones with the rights in this situation are those who are being molded, shaped, educated, and otherwise prevented from being hooligans and thugs. It is your duty to your child (and to society) to provide your child with the things he or she needs to survive this unfriendly world – food, clothing, shelter – and to give your children the opportunity to achieve whatever dreams they have, within reason, of course. If your child’s fondest wish is to be a serial murderer, your responsibility lies in a different direction. But otherwise, whether your child wants to follow in your footsteps and be a brilliant Constitutional scholar, wishes to take after her other parent and be a celebrated sculptor, or wishes to set off on his or her own path and be a veterinarian, a sanitation engineer, or a fry cook, your responsibility is to allow the child the freedom to make her own choices and find her own path through life.

So next time the man with the Bible in front of him at every meeting suggests that we force his child – and every other child – to pray to the deity this man believes in, stop him short. Tell him it is his responsibility to ensure that his children – and everyone else’s children, since he ran for (and won) a seat on the school board – is given the finest education possible. That means spending the school day on education – reading, writing, arithmetic, and evolution – oh, and the Classics, if the other droning fellow can persuade his fellows to vote with him. Then let him know that his children are people, too, and they have the right to make their own choices. You might want to sit close to the exit, though, so you can duck out quickly before people start throwing things. It’s safer that way.