If you haven't already heard this story, I'll give that a moment to sink in. I know I needed one.
To be clear, this piece was inspired by Parentwin's post, but it is not a direct reply to it. Let me start by saying that I don't disagree with Parentwin's conclusion that kids should not be used as public service announcements. They shouldn't. However that doesn't mean that they have no place in politics. I'm not going to attack that mother's reasoning for doing what she did. Not because I agree with her decision, but because I think she's been attacked plenty, and I don't think attacking her does anything to address the issue.
Thankfully, her child was not harmed. I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that this particular occurrence does not lead me to the conclusion that children do not belong at protests. That said, I don't think any one would argue that children belong on train tracks. They don't. The knee-jerk reaction to sensational stories like this is that kids should never be at political protests, ever. The truth is that incidents like this are the exception, not the rule. The issue to me is not that children have no place at political protests, the issue is that as parents, we need to ensure that we are involving our children in a safe and age appropriate manner.
I have had no qualms about bringing my child to political protests. When our governor began what I perceive as an attack on the schools and workers in our state, my daughter was at my side (strapped to my front, actually) at local, peaceful protests. We took in the situation to ensure that it was, indeed, peaceful before joining the crowd. We congregated with other families in a spot with an open area to our backs for quick exit, on the off-chance the crowd became rowdy or law enforcement became hostile. We've stopped to chat with Occupy protesters at the local park. We will continue to participate, as a family, in safe, peaceful protests.
Some have said that by doing so, we are using our child as a political pawn. I disagree. We are doing what I think most parents do, which is to teach our child our values. We guide by example, and we include our child in activism because activism is important to us. At the risk of offending people (Hi mom!) I might argue that bringing a child to (again, safe and peaceful) political protests is really no more controversial than bringing a child to church.
Now, bear with me, I'm not naive enough to imply that politics and religion are the same. What they do share in common, however, is that most people have very strong values and beliefs associated with them. If parents who include their children in political activism are forcing their beliefs on them, aren't parents who involve their children in religion doing the same? I don't think so, in either case. In both cases, parents are guiding their children in the development of their values. They are leading by example. They are exposing their children to what's important to them. They are practicing what they preach. And I don't have a problem with that.
Discouraging children from learning the facts and using critical thinking skills to draw their own conclusions about the issues? Problem. Forcing children who express disagreement with such beliefs to participate anyway? Problem. Placing children in dangerous situations to prove a point? Problem. Including children in safe activities that support the parents' beliefs and values? Not a problem.
There is a chorus of parents insisting that children should never be at protests, because you never know when a protest could turn ugly. The bottom line is that most protests are peaceful, we just don't hear about the peaceful ones on the news. You never know when a car might crash, but that doesn't mean you should never take your kids in the car, it means that you should understand the risks and minimize them as much as possible.
Rather than call for parents to leave their kids at home, I encourage them to be proactive in seeking out safe opportunities for activism. Know the location you're going to. Assess the situation for safety before you join in. Know where the exits are. Seek out other families and stick together. If there's a family friendly area designated, stick to it. If there isn't, stay on the outskirts of the crowd, and leave immediately at the first sign of risk. Get acquainted with the law enforcement present, unless they're hostile, in which case, see "leave immediately at the first sign of risk". Keep your kids close to you. Bring snacks and activities for them in case they get bored. Be vigilant in reassessing the situation, and if there is any indication that safety could be compromised, don't wait it out, just leave.
And for crying out loud, don't put your kid on a train track.