I Was Grace Evans; Or, Using Children as Political Props

When I first heard about an eleven year old girl speaking against marriage equality before a Minnesota hearing, I immediately wondered if she was someone I knew. Why? Because it was so, so familiar. The truth is, I’ve been there. I never spoke before a house committee, sure, but when I was that age my father was quick to push me forward to speak to reporters in support of “traditional marriage,” or against abortion, or in favor of gun rights, or what have you. And I saw this pattern repeated again and again in my family’s circles, both in our state and beyond. It turns out that I don’t know eleven year old Grace Evans, but I did grow up in a subculture that considered using children as political theater props was a good tactical move.

While most have been considerate in responding to Grace’s comments, I’ve seen some people online tare into her rather viciously. I think this is unfortunate. If my own experience is any guide, Grace honestly doesn’t know any better. She likely does not know any LGBTQ individuals, and all the information she has on the issue probably comes from her parents and her church.

Is Grace Evans a bigot? Perhaps technically. But it’s not like she has much choice in the issue. I know I didn’t when I was her age. The thing that’s hard to untangle is that Grace probably thinks that she’s freely forming her own opinions here—and would likely adamantly refute the idea that she might not be. But the sad reality is that she doesn’t have access to the full amount of information she really needs to make up her mind on this issue—and also that familial and social pressures circumscribe her ability to make a truly free choice. I know I thought I was thinking for myself when I was her age, but in retrospect, I really wasn’t.

Some day Grace Evans will grow up. If she’s 21 and still opposes things like marriage equality or LGBTQ rights, I won’t give her a pass. By then she’ll be old enough to know better. But to be honest, I suspect that when she meets LGBTQ individuals and hears other perspectives, she’ll reevaluate.

I want to get back to something I mentioned above—the use of children as political theater props. I’ve actually written about this before. Both sides do it, though the Right definitely seems to be the biggest offender. Growing up, I was one of these political pawns. I attended rallies, lobbied legislators, worked the polls, and campaigned for political candidates. This wasn’t the problem. The problem was that my parents assumed my political opinions should be given just as much weight as those of any adult out there even as they were raising me such that I had no freedom to explore other views or espouse other positions. And more than that, the problem was that my parents consciously and intentionally used me as a political prop. They fed me lines and glowed with pride as I repeated them to reporters, voters, or other conservative political activists. The problem is that Jeff Evans had his daughter Grace deliver that speech instead of delivering it himself.

As my children grow, I don’t want them to feel that I am dismissive of whatever views or lack thereof they may hold, just because of their age. As I’ve often said, I think children are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. But at the same time, I feel like as long as Sally and Bobby are children I will take their political positions with a grain of salt and expect their views to grow and develop over time as they grow, rather than assuming that their views will be static and that, at eleven, they have everything figured out (even if they think they do). But also, Sally and Bobby won’t have their ability to form their own views circumscribed by a curtailing of information or an expectation that they hold the same politics that I hold. And perhaps that’s part of why I look at Grace Evans the way I do—it’s not just because she’s a child but also because I grew up without the freedom in forming political opinions that I intend to give my own children, and she is almost certainly growing up without that freedom as well.

What do you think? To what extent should children’s political opinions be taken seriously?


Addendum: One of the commenters, Plunderb, made an excellent point that that I agree with entirely. I think is worth attaching here:

In general, I think it is important to listen to children’s political opinions when those opinions stem from their own experiences. I have no problem with an 11-year-old speaking up at a town meeting about the need for better parks or at the state legislature about a disease/disability that she lives with. Which is why I don’t have a problem with LGBTQ parents using their children as “props” when that consists of the whole famy going to a rally and saying, “Here we are. This is our family. This is our life and these laws matter.” Where I get dismissive is when children are expressing political opinions about other people’s experiences.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Phatchick

    As a kid, I was the perfect little baptist kid. And like this kid, it was because that was all I knew about the world. Children’s views are, understandably, slanted towards their parents, since that’s where most of their information comes from (at least for the first few years). I now cringe at some of the things I said and did when I was that age, and I suspect as she gets older, so will she.
    I now take kids and politics with a large package of kosher salt.

  • Lakeland

    The reason the senators didn’t answer her was because it would be rude to say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard” to an 11 year-old.

  • Ursula L

    I could, sort of, see a parent using a child as a political prop about something that doesn’t directly affect the child.

    But in this case, the child is afraid – terrified! – that one of her parents will be taken away if this law passed.

    So why are they putting her terror on public display, instead of comforting her by letting her know that even if the law passes, they promise they will both still be her parents? Because her parents know they won’t abandon her (we hope.)

    This isn’t merely a child parroting the parents’ opinions as her own. Which any child will do on occasion, even if raised liberally. This is parents leading a child to believe that they will abandon the child if a particular law passes.

    The problem isn’t merely that the child delivered the speech instead of the parent. The problem is that the parent, when hearing that the child had this fear, didn’t immediately provide reassurance that the fear was unjustified at a personal level and that the child was loved and would not be abandoned by either parent.

    If the parents were merely using the child as a political prop, that direct, personal fear would not be there.

  • Christine

    I think that I’m in total agreement with you, Libby, when I say that they should be taken very seriously and not seriously at all. They honestly believe what they say, and that should be respected. But I think that there is very good reason that children do no (and should not) have the vote, and it’s not just because their parents have too much control. Children have not had a chance to see the world (especially if their parents actively shelter them), and their brains have not finished developing.

    None of that means that this is not a sincerely-held conviction that the child might have (for whatever reasons), nor does the fact that they are children, and literally immature, mean that their beliefs are to be less respected than those of adults. I’m not going to let my 14-month-old walk down the stairs on her own, but I will respect the fact that she would really like to do it, and not just dismiss that as her being too young to know any better. (She’s right that it would be fun. It’s the head trauma and trip to the ER that wouldn’t be.) Nor would I try to make her think that she doesn’t actually want to do that, just because it’s a bad idea.

  • ako

    I think you’re right about taking those beliefs with a grain of salt. Don’t dismiss them, but don’t treat them as equivalent to adult beliefs, and bring more of a gentle approach to an eleven-year-old (even if they’re saying harmful and bigoted things) than you would with an adult.

    I started taking an interest in politics at a fairly early age, and my parents were pretty open-minded in sharing their beliefs without pushing for me to agree, exposing me to different opinions, and asking challenging questions. My beliefs as an adult fall largely into the same part of the political spectrum, but I have a much better grasp of nuance. When I was young I had more of a tendency to divide things into good guys and bad guys, and base my positions on emotional reasoning. A lot of what I came up with was my own idea (including trying to organize an anti-war rally in middle school, and discovering how hard it was to get people to show up for a protest), but it was definitely coming from a very adolescent approach to the world, and I had my share of dumb moments and believing stuff because it was the first argument I’d heard on the issue and it sounded impressive to a twelve-year-old.

  • http://naomikritzer.livejournal.com Naomi Kritezr

    I thought about this a lot last fall. I live in Minnesota, which had an anti-gay amendment on the ballot, and I did phone banking to defeat it. I have two daughters, both of whom were also strongly against the measure, and they donated some of their own money (which I allowed) and asked about volunteering. I considered letting my 12-year-old volunteer but didn’t end up allowing it. I didn’t think her phone skills were up to par for the phone banking (essentially, we were cold-calling strangers and trying to engage them in conversation about same-sex marriage). They allowed kids to door-knock provided that they had an adult with them, but that really did feel like using her as a political prop. Which….she was explicitly fine with! But I wasn’t sure that I was.

    One thing I had no control over as a parent were the arguments at recess. My kids attend a public charter that has a small but very vocal population of extremely right-wing parents. (It’s because this is a classical model school.) The elementary schoolers and even the middle schoolers tended to echo their parents’ beliefs on the subject of same-sex marriage, and not in a terribly sophisticated way. My kids reported participating in loud slogan-chanting matches on the playground during recess, which were usually won by the pro-same-sex-marriage contingent but which created some rifts between friends, not surprisingly. I told my daughters that most of their friends who were anti-gay-marriage now would grow out of this view when they got a bit older and in the meantime I suggested that not talking about it would be a viable option (and got roundly ignored).

    I will say that my 12-year-old believes strongly that her opinions are her own opinions — even when she can’t articulate the reasons for them very clearly. I can imagine being tempted to haul her up in front of the cameras to say something like, “I have both a mother and a father and I love them both and can’t imagine having them as part of my life. And my friend M___ has two mothers and he loves them both and shouldn’t have either of his moms taken away either. I see no substantive difference between our families.” She would be ECSTATIC to be allowed to do that…

  • Plunderb

    In general, I think it is important to listen to children’s political opinions when those opinions stem from their own experiences. I have no problem with an 11-year-old speaking up at a town meeting about the need for better parks or at the state legislature about a disease/disability that she lives with. Which is why I don’t have a problem with LGBTQ parents using their children as “props” when that consists of the whole famy going to a rally and saying, “Here we are. This is our family. This is our life and these laws matter.” Where I get dismissive is when children are expressing political opinions about other people’s experiences. I find those little girls at the Life rallies so pathetic. Like, what, I should make decisions about my pregnancies from a tween? I wouldn’t even take a music recommendation from you, let alone family planning advice. They’re so sincere and so ignorant and it’s just sad. In short, take kids seriously when they remind you that their experiences matter. Ignore them when they insist that your experiences don’t matter.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      In general, I think it is important to listen to children’s political opinions when those opinions stem from their own experiences.

      This is an excellent way to put it! Yes, I’ve had the same thought—I see a big difference between someone like Grace Evans, who is unaffected by the issue, speaking and the child of a gay or lesbian couple getting up and talking about her experiences. I should have mentioned this in the article—this is why I’m not bothered when the child of a lesbian couple holds a sign saying “I love my two mommies,” etc. Also, I wonder if, when the Left uses children as political props of a sort, it’s generally more legitimate—in the sense discussed above—than when the Right does it. I’d have to think on that one.

    • WordSpinner

      “In short, take kids seriously when they remind you that their experiences matter. Ignore them when they insist that your experiences don’t matter.”

      I think that is a decent track to use when dealing with adults, too, though I think you can be more agressive about opposing adults who are insisting that your experiences don’t matter.

    • luckyducky

      I agree 100%… I used to go past Planned Parenthood on my way to work and would get queasy when I say the whole famn damily groups “praying” outside the fence because they cannot possibly have an informed opinion on the matter, they can only parrot, and the kicker is that they parrot in a way that is devoid of empathy.

      I mentioned this once and was accused of hypocrisy because I drag my kids to political functions all the time. I’ve been unable to articulate why this is different other than that I usually take them because (1) childcare is unavailable/expensive, (2) I want to show them how to be politically active, and (3) my political activity generally targets institutional actors (i.e., people running for/holding office) not private individuals.

      I am not generally take them to prove a point to anyone else (frankly, what it usually communicates to me is that that person is capable of procreating… not a particularly rare capability) though I fully support children — particularly those old enough to form an opinion (>7yo?) demonstrating about parks, schools, and things that directly affect their families (i.e., medical coverage, LGBTQ parents’ rights, SNAP, etc.)

      • luckyducky

        I would like note: my now 6yo insisted on voting for Romney (best guess: being ornery, not a decision based on the candidates themselves) in his school’s mock election and was genuinely upset — as in announced his displeasure with me to the entire polling place — when he saw that I did not vote for the mayoral candidate he supported (that candidate came to their school and read to them, the other did not). So, I am not exactly raising a child who is predisposed acting as prop and support everything I support in lockstep. While I think he made poor but inconsequential choices, I am proud he’s a little rebellious and already pretty passionate when it comes to this… I mean, who wouldn’t vote for someone who read your class Cat in the Hat? At least it wasn’t My Pet Goat.

  • smrnda

    I wish someone had done the adult thing and explained to this girl that taking away one of her parents isn’t a possible consequence of same-sex marriage. Her question doesn’t even make sense given the issue since the issue is same sex couples (two parents/guardians) not single parents (one parent missing.)

    I doubt that her or her parents even realize that her question doesn’t make sense in this context, probably because in an ideological bubble, you already know you’re right and don’t have to prove it, and weak arguments start to sound persuasive when nobody disagrees to begin with.

    This makes me wonder how much attention are paying to the actual words people say, and how much is just knowing what side someone is on and then registering that they’re feeling very strong emotions. Same sex marriage upsets this kid, so it’s bad (at least to some.)

    Overall, I think it’s impossible to be sure what your real opinions are until you’re old enough to leave home. Parents have a lot of influence over one’s opinions, and since children haven’t lived independent of that influence it’s hard to realize that it’s actually there.

    I think there is a place for kids to express opinions, but it should be them stating the facts of what’s going on in their lives. If a kid gets up and talks about a negative school experience, I’d pay attention since they’re telling me what they go through and aren’t being used by someone else.

  • LJH

    Related: the Republican “wonderkid” who turned liberal when he grew up:

    Also, somewhat tangentially related…I’m originally from ND where anti-abortion legislation is making headlines, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to have a civil discussion with those who are against a woman’s right to choose. One of the reasons women cite for having an abortion is a lack of access to contraception, which results in an unwanted pregnancy. But I don’t think they always mean “I can’t afford contraception” or “I didn’t know how to get it.” I think a huge component to “lack of access” is pressure from the family to think, “I believe contraception is wrong,” the same way family can pressure you into thinking “I believe same-sex marriage is wrong.” The intense feelings of guilt and shame that come with acquiring contraception are enough to drive women (not just teens) away from it. And it’s horribly sad that some would rather shame women into denial, so that when they do “give in,” as they see it, to sex, they aren’t prepared to shield themselves against unwanted pregnancy.

    Just an idea I’ve been pondering and wanted to share with you…

  • John Small Berries

    “To what extent should children’s political opinions be taken seriously?”

    I’d hold them to the same standards that I’d hold adults: to the extent that they can demonstrate a rational basis for those opinions (and, preferably, support them with verifiable facts).

    There are adults who hold some abysmally stupid opinions; conversely, there are some pretty bright kids out there who are capable of forming sound arguments for their own opinions. To dismiss an opinion simply because it comes from a child is an ad hominem fallacy: one is judging the opinion solely on the basis of who holds it, rather than upon the strength of the argument supporting it.

    Sure, many kids don’t have enough information about particular topics to form rational opinions about them. But some do. (And the very same statements can be made about adults!) To decide that a person’s opinions suddenly switch from worthless to worthwhile just because they’ve reached an arbitrary birthday is ridiculous. It’s the arguments for the opinion that should be evaluated, not the person holding it.

    As to children are parroting the opinions of their parents, I think all parents try to pass on their values and opinions to their children, to one extent or another. Better parents (in my opinion) also teach their children to think, rather than demanding that they simply accept what they’re told — otherwise they may very well grow up into those adults who blindly repeat the opinions they hear from others.

  • Lucreza Borgia
  • jose

    Why not. He’s exploiting the aww factor, not different to putting on a suit to look more presentable. A resource like any other to further a political position. It’s easy to spot, too. I’m far more concerned with corporate millionaires funding fake grassroots groups that go on demonstrations about how ignorance is strength and labor rights are harmful.

  • Rilian

    I think what they’re saying is, if same-sex marriage had been legal, then grace might have been born to two people who were not married and then only one of them would have taken her and raised her with their same-sex spouse, which would mean that she would be without either a mother or a father, and they think that it’s vitally important to have both of those. “Which one of my parents could I have done without?” “Which one can any kid do without?” It’s still a stupid argument. But I guess they also want to outlaw sex outside of marriage and invitro for unmarried people, so they can make sure every kid has a mother and a father. I don’t think they really care for the children though. It’s just about getting everyone to follow the shoulds of their religion.

  • saramaimon

    there really is no difference btw this and a xhild who holds up a two mommies sign that was written for her by adults. one you agree with one you don’t but lets have consistent standards.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I thought I was pretty clear here. I said specifically that both sides use children as political props and that it is a problem when people on either side assume that a child’s beliefs are perfectly thought out and maturely arrived at. I said that I take any child’s political views with a large grain of salt, most especially when those children don’t really have the option of disagreeing with their parents and don’t have access to unbiased information, or the arguments of the other side.

      When did I say I agree with a child holding a two mommies sign written by adults? I don’t think I said that. Let me see if I can explain what I did say.
      As Plunderb outlined above, I do see it as legitimate for a child to speak on policies and issues that directly affect them, or that they have directly experienced. For instance, a child who was bullied speaking about anti-bullying legislation, or a child with a disability speaking about new school special ed policies. But note that I used the word *speaking.* If a child is too young to speak for herself, then it should be the parents who talk about the way XYZ policy will affect that child. (Note that I did not say that they should speak about what the child *thinks* about XYZ policy, but rather how it would *affect that child.*) Do you know why I’m making this distinction here? Because, quite simply, I don’t see this as using children as political props. It’s relevant for a child to say “I support this anti-bullying legislation because I was bullied and here is how this new policy would have helped me had it been in place” in a way that it’s NOT relevant for a child to say “We need to pass this bill banning abortions after there is a heartbeat because it will save babies from being murdered.”

    • Anat

      If the child holding up the sign saying ‘I love my two mommies’ agrees that s/he loves both mommies that sign reflects the child’s personal and relevant experience – the child’s loving family is evidence that a family with 2 mommies can work and be happy. The child in this case, who doesn’t want to give up either of her parents is not making a relevant claim because nobody is proposing to take either of her parents away, nor is anyone proposing to ban families with different-sex parents or replace one parent with a stranger of opposite sex or anything of that sort.

      Instances of ‘situation X works for us’ serve as an argument that at least in some cases X should be legal. Instances of ‘but my situation is not-X and I want to stay not-X’ are irrelevant to whether X should be legal. They are only relevant as an argument against making X compulsory, which in this case nobody is doing.

      • Christine

        The problem with having a child hold that sign is that you have to explain to them why that sign is needed. With a 12-year-old, sure, that makes sense. But if you have a young child (say 4- or 5-years-old) then it becomes very difficult to explain it in an appropriate way to the child that makes them want to hold said sign, without exploiting them.

  • Aimee

    Her whole argument is a bit, well baffling. I actually can very much see this as coming from her more or less directly, because it is so similar to how my kid (5) thinks about divorce. My mom and dad are divorced and it bothers my kid a lot because she doesn’t want me and my husband (her dad) to get divorced. It is like halfway formed empathy- she is putting herself in that situation by modifying her current life. It isn’t an accurate comparison, but it is all she can wrap her head around.

    So Grace is trying to imagine if her parents were gay and that makes her upset and have a knee jerk negative reaction because to her that would be a loss of one parent she knows and loves (even if in exchange for another parent). When it would be more accurate to see that her family and a gay couple with children are not nearly so different – each parent brings something of value to the family. The difference is that the gay couple is currently being treated as unequal under law. As she gets older she will probably fully make that connection.

  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    Her argument is not her own. She says her daddy protects her and her mommy teachers her about what it means to be a girl. That’s traditional mumbo jumbo. Its as sexists as it is bigoted. There’s no way the arguments are entirely hers.

    • Christine

      Does this mean that only girls need to have a mommy and a daddy? It must be ok for boys to have two fathers! Heck, do boys even need to be protected? They’re supposed to be protectors, right? That means that even a lesbian couple could have a boy (we’d have to figure out a way to do this without aborting half the pregnancies of course.)

    • BonnieLB

      And it’s so generic. Fathers always teach this, and mothers always teach that. It makes mothers sound kind of interchangeable with other mothers, and fathers interchangeable with other fathers. Blah.

  • Carys Birch

    I don’t think Grace was genuinely afraid if losing one of her parents,I think she was regurgitating the right’s common assertion that you can’t have a healthy family without a married bio-mom and bio-dad. Which erases a whole lot of families outside of gay couples! Kids raised by single parents, adoptees, kids raised in step/blended families, kids raised by grandparents or other relatives… Really what kids need is stability and a network of adults that love and support them. Saying it must be a married biological mother and farther is a lie the right doesn’t even pretend to believe, but has no hesitation teaching to kids who have not yet developed the critical thinking skills and experience to see how blatantly false it is.

    I don’t hold Grace Evans especially responsible for what she said, I was legitimately brainwashed at that age, almost reflexively afraid to have independent thoughts. I hope she gets a chance someday to think for herself.

  • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/ Marta L.

    Child activists make me a bit uneasy, not because I don’t think children can have well-thought-out opinions, but because it’s very difficult for adults to address them without coming off as mean. You can’t even ask hard questions. This isn’t unreasonable – children should be encouraged to develop their opinions and express it, and often lack the self-confidence you need to go against an adult – but it also means that the moment a kid takes the podium, it kills or at least reroutes any debate between adults.

    Now, sometimes kids have a valid perspective that you can’t get any other way. An adult cannot describe the psychological trauma of Newtown, the way losing that safe harbor affects a child in particular. And sometimes the kid is just there and his opinion is sought out just like you would anyone else in a certain situation. I’m not against this per se, but I do think there’s a cost to the conversation that needs to be factored in. The same is true for other people who rightly or wrongly aren’t seen as “fair game” for rigorous debate. Families of people who have been killed, or victims of traumatic crimes like rape – we naturally want to “go easy” on them. This isn’t a bad thing, but it makes it hard to make room fo their political opinions in a way that doesn’t shut down the debate.

  • Chris

    As a pretty strong Democrat Atheist Liberal, I had to cough out my coffee when you blithely stated that the Right does this more than the Left. Sorry but that’s just not true. It’s either equally or more toward the Left as far as I can tell.

  • Kimberly

    On the gay marriage issue in particular, I have to say that in my experience, the children of same-sex couples often want very passionately to defend the validity of their families–and for that matter, just to tell the world that they exist.

    I think it’s also notable that the adult children of same-sex couples almost universally express the same opinions and feelings that their juvenile counterparts do.

  • randplaty

    What exactly is a political theater prop? We don’t know the reasons why she decided to speak up. It’s presumptuous to assume she is being used. Address the arguments, rather than questioning Grace’s motives. That’s the least we can do to respect her as a person.