Q: I read where recently tens of thousands of students across the world skipped school to protest their countries’ failure to address climate change. This comes soon after many students in the U.S. walked out of schools to protest guns. I overheard my daughter talking to friends about another possible walkout from school. These protests seem to be sparking some change, but I’m wondering if encouraging it is a good idea.
My experience with thousands of teen-agers over the years is more or less what you would expect: They are earnest, passionate and obstinate about their convictions.
However, they generally are not fully informed, are not strong critical thinkers, and can be quite gullible. Most importantly, they themselves are not fully developed. That means they often change their minds as they mature. They may see something as the most crucial issue in the world today and then adopt the precise opposite conviction in college, or forget it altogether.
Those aren’t criticisms. It’s just the way things are when your frontal cortex has yet to connect. I actually love those things about teen-agers. Their capriciousness makes teaching fun and unpredictable. I like that they are open to changing their minds because you can actually, you know, change their minds (unlike most adults).
I saw a mass walkout at my school last year. Some of the kids knew exactly why they were doing it. Most, when asked, did not. Many just saw their classmates leave and decided to follow to get out of class for a while (I don’t blame them). So what some thought was a show of force was mostly just a demonstration in peer pressure. Sic vita est.
But I should clarify: We’re not just talking about teens anymore. The U.S. initiator of the global warming walkout you mention was a 12-year-old girl. The “protest movement” is getting younger and younger. Some if not all of this must fall on the shoulders of the adults in their lives. Many are well-meaning, but many simply want to use children to draw attention to their cause.
There are consequences to that. Parents, teachers, and partisans who deploy students in this way may be helping their cause, but they’re hurting our kids. The children at the center of the protests don’t seem to be political savants; they’re simply afraid. These are deeply frightening issues for kids. And while gradual enlightenment is good − indeed necessary − emotional fanaticism isn’t.
Consider that the number of kids committing or contemplating suicide is on an alarming rise. The same is true of teens struggling with anxiety and depression. Do we think that ushering them so hurriedly and with such fervency into the dark, divisive issues of the day is helping?
Yes, these issues may indicate that our kids’ futures and potentially their lives are at stake. But what about the reality of the here and now? Their minds are developing right this minute. What are we doing to protect them from the terrible thoughts that will overwhelm a lonely teenager somewhere tonight and help cause her to take her own life?
We shouldn’t shield them, but we shouldn’t immerse them, either. We should expose them to the harsh details by degrees. Instead of stoking fears or pushing activism, we should be preparing them to one day actually solve the problems. Since they aren’t always logical, reasonable, or inquisitive, we should focus first on teaching them to be so. In response to the global children’s protest, Australian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison said, “We don’t support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.” This is sage advice.
We should get them ready to be tomorrow’s leaders by encouraging critical thinking. I am totally against teachers indoctrinating students into political ideologies of any stripe, but parents have a different role. You have the absolute right to teach your kids that your worldview is better than the others. But I would challenge you to discuss all sides of an issue and show your kids exactly why and how your perspective is better. Without that aspect, you’re simply brainwashing them.
As for the protests, I would encourage students to stay in school until they’ve acquired more knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Childhood and adolescence are far too fertile times to spend on belligerent, single-minded crusades. Besides, let’s be realistic: most people have a hard time taking seriously the opinions of those who have never held a job, driven a car, or bought their own fireworks.
So my advice − here and in general − is to focus more on what is going into your child’s mind rather than what is coming out of it.
If your child is determined to walk out, I suggest an alternative recommendation: walk over. Make a friend of someone who is lonely, afraid, or discouraged. Your child might just discover that a better way to change the world is to do it one friend at a time, with conversation instead of shouting, in pairs and circles instead of mobs.