Mass Shootings

Doe-Eyed Youngsters for My Preferred Policies

The benefits and flaws of policy disputes get sidelined when activist movements adopt kids as human shields.


Resist Kid
Lorena De La Cuesta / Sopa Image/ZUMA Press/Newscom

We're seeking wisdom from the mouths of babes, these days. So I asked my 12-year-old son if the country would be a better, safer place if the government tried to disarm some or all Americans to reduce violent crime.

"I think that would have the opposite effect," he said. "The fewer people who are armed, the fewer people there would be to fight against criminals."

So there we have it: the launch of Pre-Teens Against Infringements of the Right to Self-Defense, right here in my living room.

If you're less than bowled over by my son's insights, you're forgiven. He's short on experience and incompletely developed in his analytic skills. He also is one person, offering an opinion heavily colored by his parents' views and the particular American subculture in which he's raised.

There's no logical reason why his participation in the discussion—which his mother and I encourage as a stepping stone to full engagement in the world around him—would be more convincing than the arguments of pundits, criminologists, and philosophers, just as there's no logical reason to pay special attention to the teens now calling for more-restrictive gun laws in the wake of the Parkland shooting. There's no logical reason that is—but we keep conscripting the tykes into political disputes in an effort to end debate, not advance it.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion, where conservative pro-life activists regularly bring their children to protests in hopes of intensifying the emotional appeal of their cause.

"Across the U.S., kids of all ages are woken up early on Saturday mornings and brought to local abortion clinics to protest with their parents," Jenavieve Hatch wrote for the Huffington Post this past September. "While anti-abortion leaders see children as an integral part of their protesting strategies, abortion rights advocates see young people being used as pawns to harass women making private health care decisions."

Hatch describes a former child participant in anti-abortion demonstrations, now grown, as wishing "her parents hadn't pushed her so hard to actively participate in a cause she didn't quite understand at the time."

Of course kids don't fully comprehend causes into which they're drafted by adults. They haven't yet entirely developed the skills, let alone the perspective, to completely grasp the consequences of changing laws and threatening people with enforcement. Most adults don't know the historical records of the policies they favor, or the potential trade-offs and dangers inherent in legally favoring one set of values over another, and in the face of resistance. Expecting kids to rise to the occasion is asking a lot.

"These young people are at an age that they haven't actually lived long in the life to experience the competing issues that adults have to confront in their lifetime," the premier of the Australian state of Tasmania complained in response to kids hauled in as props at an anti-abortion protest.

So why are kids pulled into these debates by adults?

That's easy. Kids are pulled into political discussions by adults who want to trump debate and shame their opponents into acquiescence. Adults—most of us—are hardwired to protect children, which causes some awkwardness on the path to grinding their policy prescriptions to dust. British researchers have noted that Charles Darwin "originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them which allows our species to survive," and described their own discovery that part of the brain "is specifically active within a seventh of a second in response to (unfamiliar) infant faces but not to adult faces."

Teens might lie on the outer limits of that protective instinct, but most of us still hesitate to engage them as readily and ferociously as we would go after other adults in a heated argument over law or politics. So kids provide very effective human shields for activist movements who co-opt them or simply harness their enthusiasm and put them forward as convenient faces for a cause.

Does this mean that the Parkland survivors and other teens adopting the gun control cause have no actual understanding of the issues? No. These are young people, not yet adults, but rapidly approaching that status, and they're entitled to develop their own opinions—positions that will be molded by their own experiences and the world around them. Many of them are, no doubt, sincerely developing a preference for more restrictive gun laws, just as my son appears to be evolving his own views in quite the opposite direction.

But these kids' opinions are certainly not worthy of more respect than those held by adults of wider experience and (sometimes) greater wisdom. They should be heard, but their opinions are by no means trump cards that should constitute the final word in any debate.

That is, kids' opinions shouldn't logically end debate. But conversational human shields are all about bypassing logic.