You know when there’s a controversy whether to include both sides to the Holocaust in a Texas school district, the culture wars have once again invaded the children’s lives. Similarly, in Southern Pennsylvania, books by people of color were banned (or per the official Central York School statement: “frozen” for an entire year.)
These discussions by the school boards are impacted by the bills passed in government, as in the case of House Bill 3979 requiring public school teachers to present various points of view when teaching about current events and social issues. Often, the impulse to clutch pearls and to “think of the children” is a rhetorical device to further political causes. As the larger climate in a racialized society such as the United States grapple with a history of slavery and the fight for racial justice--with the most current iteration being the black lives matter protests in the summer of 2020--what the children learn in schools have become a new battleground for those who land on opposing sides of this culture war.
Is this fair to the children? There may be those who argue that children should be left alone, and not be made into pawns in our culture wars. “Society should fight battles for our children, not on their backs,” according to this op ed in the Boston Herald. The misguided assumption in this sentiment is that children are somehow immune to the social events that impact us all; that we as adults can create a better world and hand it to them when they come of age.
It’s a bit like if parents hold town halls over what to fix for dinner, and insist that children not get involved because we should cook for them and not burden them with our adult controversies. Children should just get to play and have fun! And yet, at the end of the day, kids sit around the dinner table and are expected to finish their plates.
Our children live in the same social realities as the rest of us. When it comes to race, those who claim children are color blind and that racial bias is a learned trait in adulthood avoids the question of when exactly that bias is learned. We know that 3 month old babies recognize color, and although in elementary school kids may play across racial lines, by middle school they begin to self segregate. By adolescence, meaningful interracial relationships are rare. If adults can articulate that we are due for a racial reckoning, the kids have also been internalizing the same racial strife.
I believe that as long as children are affected by our social reality that they should have a right to participate in changing that reality. My children’s book You Are Revolutionary empowers kids to go out to protests and lift signs up in the air. But because I am personally progressive and align myself with progressive causes, some have accused me of recruiting children to the Left side of the culture war, even as I call for children’s agency to determine their own ideologies. I’ve seriously reflected on this possibility and examined whether there is some hypocrisy on my part because I also know children are impressionable and will often absorb the values of their caretakers. In a way, it is an evolutionary instinct, to please the one whose survival you depend upon. I do think being cognizant of this power dynamic is an act of concern for a child’s autonomy.
However, there is a difference between exploiting a child’s face or story to further an adult’s agenda and giving our kids the resources to participate in the issues that impact them. It would be a false equivalency to conflate the two.
The key is to ask ourselves where is the locus of control? Does it lie with the adult, or shared with the child? When we offer support and guidance in the form of giving them clear explanations, the right to make choices for themselves, and the access to accomplish their goals by sharing our resources--that does not equate to manipulation. An invitation to participate in social change is not recruitment for a culture war.
When the locus of control lies beyond the adult’s agenda, it comes with the potential outcome that the child ends up disagreeing with our cause, declining to participate in activism, and both of those options remain firmly in the children’s agency.
But we also have to accept the outcome that they might gladly accept the invitation to participate in social change, and when they do, to honor their voice and respond to their demands.
In Southern Pennsylvania, the students did just that. They organized a protest in front of the school, contributing to the decision to reverse the ban. They did not do this without the support and guidance of adults, and the victory of their activism is shared with adults who also mobilized against the ban. If our culture wars take place in the same arena where our children reside, then the best way to fight is not to the exclusion of the kids, but alongside them.
Cindy Wang Brandt (BA in Bible, Wheaton College, IL, MA in Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the author of Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness and YOU ARE REVOLUTIONARY a children’s picture book advocating kid activism. Brandt is the host of the Parenting Forward podcast and the Parenting Forward conference. She's also the founder of the popular Facebook group Raising Children Unfundamentalist. She has contributed to various publications and blogs, including the Huffington Post, Sojourners, SheLoves Magazine, Geez Magazine, and Taipei Times. Her most recent op-ed, “Should children protest? They deserve a voice in shaping policies that affect them.” is in the Houston Chronicle supporting youth-activism over Texas’ new restrictive reproductive law. Cindy lives in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, with her husband and two children.