This little girl was one of dozens of children brought to the Ohio statehouse last week to speak on behalf of the “heartbeat bill” that, if passed, will ban abortion past six weeks (to put the time frame into perspective, the day you miss your period you are technically already four weeks pregnant). These children also passed out teddy bears that play the sound of a fetal heartbeat to each Ohio congressman. This could have been me. No wait, strike that, this was me.
I began marching the political campaign trail before I can even remember. From when I was a very young girl, barely in grade school, I went door to door, worked the polls, attended rallies, marched in parades, and manned the phone banks. Political activism was a normal part of my life, just as it is for many other young people in conservative Christian homeschool families, especially through organizations like Generation Joshua and TeenPact.
I think political activism is a great thing to teach kids. However, there is a major problem with the approach taken by my parents and other like-minded parents throughout the country.
I wish I could just say “children are too young to have informed political opinions” and leave it at that. However, I think the reality is more nuanced. When presented with a variety of issues and facts, a seven-year-old may be able to take a semi-informed position. Some kids are surprisingly astute. However, regardless of his or her maturity a seven-year-old will almost certainly not be able to completely grasp the gravity of adult concerns issues. In contrast, by the teenage years a child can most certainly form informed political opinions.
The problem is this: The girl in the picture above is not forming her own political opinions. She merely serves as the parrot of her parents’ views.
My parents never laid out all the facts and sides and arguments on issues like abortion. Instead, when I was quite small they simply told me that abortion was “killing babies before they are born.” They showed me (not quite accurate) pictures of what fetuses look like, told me they have fingers and brains and hearts just like me, and told me that abortion was murder. They told me that women who have abortions are selfish and cold, and that abortion doctors kill babies for money and participate in “a holocaust of murdered babies.”
Small children don’t have the ability to completely grasp political issues, but to the extent that they can they need even explanations of the facts and arguments, not propaganda.
My parents took pride in how young we children were able to express ourselves politically. They smiled to hear a child of five or seven or nine explain that property taxes were slavery, that abortion was murdering babies, or that gay marriage is wrong because every child needs a mommy and a daddy. They spoke of how politically aware we were, how confident and intelligent we were. Did they realize, I wonder, that we were merely parroting their own views, and not actually forming views of our own?
I would like to say that this changed once I became a teen, but it did not. The simplistic understandings my parents gave us as young children were never amended. At thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen I had still not heard any political side but that fed me by my parents and the resources they used to educate and inform me. Every political magazine, every economics book, every Bible study, it all gave me a completely one-sided picture of every issue. Abortion was still about “murdering babies” and I continued to parrot my parents’ views, uncontaminated by any other source of information or perspective.
My parents took us children along with them to score political points. They openly talked about how powerful it was to have a three-year-old hold an “I’m A Child, Not A Choice” sign while participating in the annual Life Chain, or to have a young teenager be the one to speak to reporters at (traditional) marriage rallies. They would intentionally push us forward to answer questions or spout out our formulated positions, smiling proudly as we performed.
What my parents didn’t realize was that this sort of behavior actually turns some people off. Here are two quotes from Ohio state senators:
“I’m not at all supportive of the bill, and I’m not supportive of them sending kids into my office with a teddy bear that mimics a heartbeat, either. I thought that was a very cheap exploitation of kids. I would rather them come in my office and ask to sit down and talk about it, rather than send a kid into my office.”
“It is an emotional kind of tactic, bringing young children in and having them bring teddy bears. I think that’s a little low.”
As I read these quotes today, I couldn’t help but think of my own childhood experiences. I was that child, trotted at age ten into my state senator’s office to tell her how much I loved being homeschooled and how important it was for homeschooling to remain legal. I wonder, now, what my state senator thought.
Today, I do think this sort of political use is exploitative. First, you should not use your children to make a political statement. Why not, like one of the state senators above suggested, just go to your senators or representatives and make your case? Injecting kids into the issue is nothing but an emotional appeal and it allows parents to step back and let their inexperienced child do the talking for them instead of doing it themselves. Second, you should not turn your children into politically propagandized robots. Sure, you can tell your children where you stand on an issue, but whatever happened to letting children and adolescents explore and make up their own minds? A small child does not have enough experience or understanding to put together mature political positions, and should not be expected to. A teen is quickly gaining the necessary maturity, but should be allowed to explore all sides unhindered and to form his or her own political opinions.
A child of any age who only receives one side of an issue, that of his or her parents, and then echoes that, however vehemently, is not mature or politically savvy.
There is another thing, too. If I had suddenly endorsed liberal political positions, or even moderate ones, I would have faced consequences within my family. My parents would have been angry, would have treated me as an erring and rebellious child. They would have begun a one-sided information campaign to bring me back to their views, and resorted to emotional manipulation until I did. It was not just that I didn’t have access to other political information or arguments, but rather that my parents’ home was not a safe place emotionally in which to explore alternate viewpoints or experiment politically. And this is not healthy.
Sally is not a Democrat or a Republican. She is not pro-life or pro-choice. She is not liberal or conservative. Sally is a child, she is not old enough to understand the world of politics, and I don’t expect her too. As Sally grows, I want her to understand the arguments for each side of an issue, because no matter what all it is, one thing politics is not is simple. I want her to understand that these are complex issues. I will absolutely not tell Sally that one political position is “right” and all the others are “wrong.” As she grows into her teenage years, I want Sally to be able to form her own political views, and to feel like our home is a safe place to do so. If Sally comes home from school someday and tells me she’s a libertarian, that’s fine.
I don’t expect Sally’s political views to be a mirror image of mine, and I don’t expect her political views at the immature age of seven to be the same as at the more mature age of fifteen or at the more seasoned age of twenty-three.
I don’t intend to stake my success as a parent on what political views she adopts. You have to understand that that for parents influenced by the ideas of the Quiverfull movement part of the rationale for having large numbers of children is to raise a (rhetorical) army to “retake the country for Christ.” The idea is to gain a larger voting block, to raise conservative politicians, campaigners, volunteers, and interns. I kid you not, that is the whole point. That’s also a large part of why they homeschool – to remove their children from influences that might teach them other ideas and instead train them up in “Truth” with a capital T. If a child raised in a Quiverfull family turns away from this “Truth” and become moderate, liberal, progressive, or politically apathetic, that child is seen as a failure.
Personally, I don’t stake my success as a parent on Sally adopting any one political view, let alone mine. I don’t stake my success on Sally echoing my religious beliefs, or lack of them, either. Sally’s mind, after all, does not belong to me. It belongs to her. I do care whether Sally grows up to be fulfilled person, and I care whether Sally grows up to be a loving and caring person. But I do not intend to stand over her as an ideological policeman, judging whether or not her beliefs are acceptable.
I have to confess, I did take Sally with me to a rally for Planned Parenthood once. I worried that this was using her as a political tool, but then I realized that I was bringing her there to say something about me, not to use her as an emotional weapon. Namely, I wanted to make the statement that being pro-choice does not mean being anti-child. I wanted to smash the image that feminists are all childless single women who “selfishly” flee the attachment of children. I would never have pushed Sally forward to make some sort of canned statement, because it wasn’t about Sally, it was about me, and who I was, and why I was there. There was another woman there with a baby, and she told a reporter that she was there because she wanted her daughter to grow up to have access to the same reproductive resources she had. I don’t think that’s the same as simply using your child as an emotional tool either. I mean, if that’s all the parents at the Ohio statehouse were saying – say, that they didn’t want their young daughters to grow up to have access to abortion – I wouldn’t have had a problem with that either.
As Sally grows, I do want to teach her the importance of political activism. However, I will not push her forward to spout off formulated positions, I will not feed her my political views boiled down to simplistic formulas that fail to capture the complexity of political issues, and I will not put labels on her. If a reporter or politician comments on her presence, I will say that I think it’s important for her to learn about the political process, not that she’s a good little [insert here]-in-training. And more than that, Sally will know that her political decisions are her own to make. As she grows, if she does not want to come to a rally or a parade or whatever it is I’m participating in because of my political views, I won’t make her.
Sally is not my tool. Sally is a wonderful little person yet to form her own beliefs. Rather than try to make her bloom into the species of flower I want her to be, I intend to let her bloom without hindrance. I will always be there to hold her hand or answer her questions, but I will not use her as a political shield or as my political mouthpiece.