My hometown in Ohio had what I thought was a heartwarming story a while back about preschoolers who were upset with fracking in the state’s only national forest. So they sent drawings to officials involved in the process to be included in the public record. (A chilling testimony for the future, if you ask me.) It was a great piece on young minds caring about the world.
Then I read the comments.
I wasn’t surprised that many people leaving messages blamed the parents for brainwashing. Or worse. They painted the preschoolers in the story as innocents who could not possibly understand the complicated economics of natural gas extraction. To the internet, these idealistic kids were being used by adults for political purposes. It never occurred to these cynics that a 5-year-old could have their own moral compass or their own ideas.
I’d seen the same thing during a campaign to pass our local school referenda. When students organized to march and hold a rally asking voters to protect their favorite classes and teachers, their profound experiences were denied by some in the community who saw them as grownup tools to tug on heartstrings. It wasn’t children protesting what they saw as injustice and talking about how their lives had been impacted by the arts — it was interpreted by some as a cheap emotional gimmick.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen these same kinds of charges leveled against students calling for tougher gun control laws in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass killing that ended 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Some will throw more shade at these children Wednesday when tens of thousands of students are expected to participate in the National School Walkout, a movement organizer Women’s March Youth EMPOWER says is “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.”
I’m here to tell you that children have agency.
We reduce children all the time. Our society sees them as needing protection, too naive to make decisions, too removed from the real world to understand. We often deny them the truth — sexual, ethical, or negative — when really it’s a lie we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good. If we just wait to expose them to the “real world,” we can preserve their … dignity? Prevent the deep cynicism we suffer?
Children protesting means they are questioning norms
My daughter is a fierce opponent of litter. I have no clue why. I didn’t tell her to constantly pick up garbage around the neighborhood, her school, at the park. She’s gotten a message or two about protecting the environment, cleaning up after herself, and being kind to animals and people. Litter, however, stirs in her a level of anger that I myself don’t quite understand. Just yesterday as we were walking from the car to her gymnastics class she picked up two pieces of trash along the road. I’ve come to accept that she cares and praise her for it. She has an opinion about it I’ll never shake. It’s positive. It does the world good. We adults forget sometimes.
One of my favorite answers to my kids’ questions these days has become “that’s another complicated thing the grownups are arguing about.” I no longer sugarcoat tough topics as above their heads. I do my best to try to present both sides to them — fairly — and then ask them what they think.
Actually, it becomes an exercise in trying to explain why the adults are debating. Because, often, they’ll see the obvious answer and need a fuller articulation of why anybody would ever take the other side. Like fracking. A 5- and 6-year-old probably do need some help understanding why an adult would want to pollute and spend the effort taking out of the ground a fuel that is dying as an industry yet somehow remains so important to our society. Why isn’t everything solar? Why do our cars still run on dirty gasoline?
Because here’s the real issue … when we answer kids’ questions honestly, you realize the hoops adults must jump through mentally to arrive at the present circumstances. That’s not necessarily an attack on adults. We all are blinded by our years of adjusting to culture, politics and history. We can’t remember what it was like to look at a problem completely fresh and not be bitter and jaded about the whole thing.
Adults, please quit treating children — especially older children — like they’re not capable of making up their own minds. Quit treating them like they can’t handle the world. Maybe it’s you who can’t handle the world. Maybe you’re afraid of the how much the world has beaten you down. But don’t put that on them. Children deserve the opportunity to see the world for the first time and come to their own conclusions about it. They’re not always being manipulated or foolish. Sometimes they know better than you.
A version of “Children Protesting” first appeared on Newfangled Dad.