I Took My Kids to the Protest
“Children don’t belong at protests.”
I’ve heard many perspectives on this issue in the years I’ve hovered around activist spaces. They all bounced around in my mind as I debated whether to take my own kids (ages 6 and 4) to one of the Des Moines protests after Darren Wilson was declared a free man despite killing Michael Brown.
I had good reasons not to. For one thing it was really cold out. For another it was dark. I had someone who could watch them, so it wasn’t necessary. To top it off, I was going to have to carry the younger on my back.
Meanwhile, there are some good arguments for leaving children at home.
Whatever the issue being protested, young kids don’t have deeply informed perspectives yet. Not views that can be described as truly their own.
In this sense, so the argument goes, a child at a protest may be being used at a certain level. She’s not there as her own fully-informed agent. He didn’t freely choose to be there (or not). They can’t fully understand what’s up. Put this way, kids at protests are like props put in place by adult actors.
That right there is enough to make me uneasy.
But the ante gets upped because children are so compelling. They’re cute, tug on our heart strings, get held up as symbols of innocence and of our futures. If there’s press at a rally, they’re usually all over the little ones and play on our collective emotions in the process.
Put this all together and there’s a case to be made that bringing your children to a protest is a kind of manipulation. Worse, this manipulation involves the use of someone over whom you have lots of power and who is too young to give actual consent.
I’ve never seen this dilemma captured better than when friends shared a photo of themselves with their son (who they actually had taken to a protest). He sat in his stroller with a sign around his neck that said “Too Young to Have an Opinion.”
But the depth of the atrocities and the powerful resistance movements unfurling in these last months leave these very reasoned, respect-based arguments, sounding increasingly empty and evasive to me. I was reminded of this when I saw a picture of my sister’s family at one of the protests in New York and read what she said when the press asked why they were there.
“I had to be here,” she said.
I knew she, like me, had debated whether or not to take her young kids. I assume we aren’t the only parents to have struggled with this.
So here’s where I am.
For starters, the question of when a person has “their own opinion” is pretty fuzzy. I’m not at all convinced the 19-year-olds I teach have “their own opinions.” But I’d never say they shouldn’t thus vote or rally.
In fact, my kids do have an opinion about justice. They don’t articulate it the way I do, of course. And over time they may come to disagree with me about what justice looks like. They’ll surely develop their own take on how to best work for it.
But, ask them right now if they think people should be treated with kindness and fairness. They’ll tell you “yes.”
Ask them if we should do something when someone isn’t being treated with kindness and fairness. They’ll tell you “yes.”
They have a deeply informed perspective on this. Kindness and fairness are a big deal in their lives.
“Okay,” one might say, “but believing in fairness and going to a protest against police violence are two different things.”
Sure. That’s true.
“Thus, you’re imposing adult responses on children who can’t yet articulate their own.”
My 6-year-old also doesn’t always know how to handle it when kids don’t want to play with her at school. She often isn’t sure what to do when she’s having conflict with a friend or feeling stuck about a decision because she has “mixed feelings” about it (a new concept for her lately).
That’s precisely where my job starts! Helping her with the “what to do” parts of life, in response to her own experiences and values, is one of the central parts of parenting. (One of the hardest too.)
Right now this means many things: talking about options with her, helping her brainstorm possibilities, inviting her to try on responses that feel right to her.
Most often it just means modeling. It’s in watching adults model appropriate responses to challenges, conflicts, pain, difficult decisions, and uncertainty that kids learn how to do so in their own lives.
And modeling and imposing are two very different things.
Protesting is no more imposing adult responses on a child than is taking a child along to the voting book in November. A lot of adults did that last month!
My kids think “the government” is an actual place and that Obama is really in charge of it. They can’t understand what making pencil marks in circles has to do with being a citizen. But such kid-size understanding of how stuff works isn’t reason to leave them at home. When I take my kids to the voting booth I’m modeling what I believe citizens should do.
It’s the same with protests. There we model what citizens should and must do when our formal modes of participating are simply not enough.
Leave our kids out of that and we’re leaving them out of a lot.
The work of nurturing kids into their own fully-informed agency is not about identifying the right moment when they are to be let in on something they can now fully understand. This is all a process.
There’s no one age of consent where a child just decides she is ready to rally. We, the adults in her life, are teaching her today what that choice looks, feels, sounds like in our lives as she learns to live in to her own.
So I decided last month my children need to start being included now.
There are other complexities here for me. I won’t encourage my kids to chant slogans they can’t understand and I wouldn’t take them to a “die-in” at this point. I might not have taken them if they weren’t white. The stakes for and impact on my kids are different than they are for my sister’s. Also, the racial dimensions of the conversations happening and the violence of what’s being discussed (shooting, killing, death) at protests this fall raises other issues.
I’ve got a lot to figure out in terms of what it means to engage these many layers.
But I am clear I must bring them into spaces where they watch me, with others, model appropriate responses to injustice. Now is the time they should witness and feel the energy and connection of people gathered to raise our voices together and insist things must be changed.
There’s a movement happening right now. Protests alone won’t get us where we need to be as a nation. But they are critical to build and sustain this movement’s visibility and make so very clear that there are many of us saying “enough.”
So quite simply, we need to be there. We have to be there.
And I think we need to take our kids with us when we go.