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When We Make Political Pawns of Children

(Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

“Every January, toddlers hold signs with messages that they cannot possibly understand. But children also hold signs they might passively understand, and teenagers hold signs they probably understand, if only imperfectly.”

In 2019, virtually every sphere of consumerism provides an opportunity for political expression. With the emergence of global online marketplaces like Amazon, a seemingly endless selection of politically-branded apparel, accessories, and homeware is available. Even the most bizarre (and otherwise apolitical) products are never more than a few clicks away. From Donald Trump shower curtains to Bernie Sanders barbecue tongs, it’s all for sale. Assuredly, most of the people who buy these products are adults; such ostentatiousness demands a level of political resolve that tends to come with age. It is, therefore, disturbing to observe how much of this merchandise is designed for young children—and perhaps even more disturbing, how much is designed for infants. The market for politically exhibitory baby onesies serves as a strangely specific but damningly symptomatic example of this phenomenon. While independent retailers sell the lion’s share, some politicians have taken to selling onesies directly on their official websites. Kamala Harris sells her “FOR THE PEOPLE” line in sizes ranging from 3-6 months to 18-24 months. Justin Trudeau’s “Future Liberal Prime Minister” onesies shrink in the dryer, so he recommends shopping a size up. Indeed, for expectant mothers and fathers, there are plenty of options for turning babies into adorable, unassuming little billboards.

And while this sort of gaudy parenting might be of little consequence in the earliest stages of life, the line between impenetrable infancy and impressionable childhood is blurry. As children grow, onesies become t-shirts, and the once innocuous projection of a parent’s partisan inclinations soon forms the basis of an incipient political worldview. Lamentably, this sartorial tendency seems to be indicative of a broader cultural issue: the premature and domineering politicization of youth. Far too regularly, children are pressured and primed for a lifetime of tribal fidelity by their overbearing parents, teachers, religious leaders, and by the dogmatism of public institutions more generally.

Some of the largest political stories of recent months are illustrative of this intergenerational hegemony that so regularly facilitates civic engagement.

In a matter of days, kids who were otherwise unexceptional became leading figures in the national conversation. Or, more accurately, they became props.

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, the annual Women’s Marches have occasioned displays of objectification so brazen, and of individuals so young, that they ought to offend the sensibilities of any reasonable adult—certainly those of any reasonable parent—regardless of party affiliation. Every January, toddlers hold signs with messages that they cannot possibly understand. But children also hold signs they might passively understand, and teenagers hold signs they probably understand, if only imperfectly. Indeed, a sort of developmental gradient exists, and considerations of autonomy do become valid at a certain age, even if that autonomy is tempered by external political pressures.

The March for Our Lives is another movement worth considering. Following the horrific Parkland shooting, an unlikely handful of Florida teens were thrust to the forefront of what is perhaps America’s most contentious issues of domestic policy: gun control. In a matter of days, kids who were otherwise unexceptional became leading figures in the national conversation. Or, more accurately, they became props. In the wake of the shooting, mainstream media became absolutely fixated on these kids, and not just as eyewitnesses to an event of pressing public interest, but as emergent pundits with searing insight to the endlessly complicated issue of regulating firearms. As if they were lawyers, journalists, academics, or some other group with informed positions of policy, the aggrieved Parkland kids were spotlit on cable news and in town halls by a media class all too eager to weaponize the tragedy for political gain.

To be certain, the issue also manifests in conservative culture. Though the Covington Catholic High School scandal is now remembered as a smear campaign perpetrated by lazy journalists and unscrupulous activists (with the distinction between the former and the latter growing increasingly unclear), the forgotten tragedy of the incident is that the boys of Covington Catholic, like so many children, were merely acting in accordance with their staunchly religious, socially conservative, and overwhelmingly Republican upbringing. They were not at the Washington March for Life of their own volition. Or at least, to say that the boys chose to attend the rally is merely to recognize their present complacence with a lifetime of developmental indoctrination. The boys may agree with their school’s motto, “to embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ… spiritually, academically, physically, and socially,” but given the pressures of the attendant adults, any such agreement is obviously hollow.

All of which is to say, discrete conditions for political inclusion are ultimately arbitrary. Adolescence is a strange time and an even stranger concept. The transition into adulthood is characterized by a nebulous interlacing of biological and psychological development within a socio-legal framework, but that framework is clearly flawed. Sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one—age really is just a number. And while there is obvious practical utility in establishing age limits for certain kinds of political activity, developmental inconsistencies between individuals mean that some children are more apt for political inclusion than some adults. The original IQ standardization (the quotient of a mental and actual age, multiplied by 100) is demonstrative of this uncomfortable reality. People mature at different rates, and they become interested in politics at different rates. Once they have matured, they understand political issues with varying degrees of clarity and precision. Unfortunately, these constructs are neither strong nor disposable.

While raising kids necessarily demands the imposition of certain moral, cultural, and indeed, political values at the expense of others, parents ought to promote free-thought rather than factionalism. Stimulating the next generation to deal with political matters critically and independently demands that any sort of partisan ritualization be put off for as long as possible. There is a sort of intricate continuum between imposing values rigidly on the one end and being categorically apathetic to the intellectual growth of the child on the other; negotiating this continuum is tricky, but at the present moment, it seems as though there is an increasing contingent at the former end of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle, there is a healthy medium: an approach characterized by curiosity and introspection, and devoid of puppeteering and posturing through those too innocent for party politics.

Samuel Forster is a freelance writer and a graduate associate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. You can follow him on Twitter @ForsterSam

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