Let's Give Children a Meaningful Vote of Support

One of the many surprising consequences of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has been the exposure of how deeply divided young and old Britons are about the Brexit. The UK edition of Huffington Post ran this headline: “EU Referendum Results: Young “Screwed By Older Generations” As Polls Suggest 75% Backed Remain.”

A reason cited for the Leave party’s win was the poor turnout at the voting booth by young Britons, but who can blame them? The political process failed to properly inform and mobilize young voters, and there was plenty of misinformation being presented by the Leave party that was never forcefully countered, so it appears that the Remain party never appreciated the youth vote.

But another reason for their nonparticipation at the voting booth could be that the voices and ideas of the young are often paid lip service and then ignored by those in power—at home, in school, and in politics—so is it any wonder the young are jaded about the political process?

In the United States we have a similar problem getting young people to vote in national elections. However, I think the issue is much deeper and requires action stronger than the common solution of educating our young people about the duties of citizenship and the power of the vote. After all, this is the legal purpose of forcing children to attend school—school is to make them into good citizens. If after years of compulsory lessons in civics in school students decide not to participate in voting, could it be because the school lessons are not aligned with the realities of the world and it is readily apparent to our young? A UK opinion writer in The Guardian noted,

“Young people are rejecting dog-eat-dog economics and welcoming diversity, while large chunks of our older and supposedly wiser compatriots do the exact opposite. If our leaders are willing to listen, this generation can build a new consensus and a fairer and more inclusive society. If not, they will replicate the mistakes of the Remain campaign – and that way lies disaster.”

The young are stakeholders in all our political decisions, yet their voice is ignored. Further, we infantilize the young (I’m including teenagers as “the young,” too) by keeping them in the walled garden of school for longer periods of time and then arbitrarily basing their participation in adult society solely by their age. What’s the difference between a 17 and an 18 year old other than 365 days? Why is one legally an adult and the other a child? Rather than viewing adults as guardians of the young can we start thinking of adults as enablers of the young— people who can help children of all ages participate in the political process and the world at large to the best of their abilities? Professor Toby Rollo summarizes this situation well:

“After all, don’t children need to be subordinate to keep them from running out on to the highway? Claims of this sort make little sense. Is the implication that a relationship of political equality with children somehow entails letting them get hit by cars? Is it that people who may need rescuing from time to time necessarily forfeit their citizenship? Of course not. Different human beings have different needs and the unique needs of the child do not disqualify them from the opportunity to shape the world they live in. To that end, recognizing children as fully equal means, for example, reevaluating why exceedingly dangerous patterns of private transportation are situated so close to public spaces used by children.

No world worth building comes with a blueprint. Like those who fought for abolition, desegregation, women’s liberation and every other upheaval of unjust society, we do not have a roadmap. Like those before us, we have only a few guiding principles related to democratic life: equality, reciprocity, autonomy, inclusion. That said, we do have some very qualified guides to help us on the journey: children. The political agency of children is always right under our noses. It manifests in early non-verbal requests for care, in protests over arbitrary rules, in concerns over fairness, in their contributions to the establishment of familial norms and in myriad other ways. Adults can begin the work of decolonial parenting by applying our intelligence to the removal of obstacles that prohibit children’s presence and participation in public life, and by restructuring political relationships in accordance with the child’s particular forms of agency. The result would be truly revolutionary.”
(From Toby Rollo’s essay, “Separate but Equal: False equality and the political exclusion of children.")

As John Holt discovered when he wrote his book about children’s rights in 1971, Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children, adults really don’t like to think of children being raised and taught differently than how they were: “What’s good enough for me is good enough for you . . .” Any ideas or evidence that challenge that position are forcefully put down as being romantic conceptions of children propagated by softhearted, dull witted, do gooders. Indeed, Holt’s proposition that children be given the right to vote is one of the most attacked positions in this book to this day, even by readers who otherwise support giving children rights.

The gaps between justice and race, income and privilege, gender and equality are all getting bigger yet we keep shrinking the pool of possible solutions by excluding the voices of our young people, largely because we think they can’t understand such important matters even though they are directly impacted by them.

Children are people to be reckoned with, not possessions to be manipulated by adults. Yes, children might not be able to verbalize and strategize in ways that adults prefer in political discourse but that’s not a reason to deny them a place at the table. We should be figuring out how children can participate in society now rather than schooling them to learn how to participate in civil society after they are credentialled. We need to recognize the deep thought and emotions that children have about the world rather than dismiss them as being “too young to understand.”

I’m reminded of this issue by the horrible death of Philandro Castile that was recently recorded on video by his fiancee while her daughter watched from the back seat. After witnessing the shooting, then seeing her mother break down in the police car minutes later, four-year-old Dae’Anna consoled her mom with these words, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

Dae’Anna’s words can be dismissed by adults as cute and touching, but there is a deep humanity, feeling, and wisdom in them that we should honor and recognize. Our children are not ignorant to what is happening in our world and we should be including them far more in it, instead of keeping them in walled gardens, removed from decisions that affect their lives because adults assume they aren’t capable, smart enough, or ready to engage with the world.