Children's Voices in Politics

by Michael S. Cummings (Author)
©2020 Monographs XXVIII, 536 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 19


Is the official political silencing of children in a democracy rational and just, or is it arbitrary and capricious? How might democratic polities benefit from the political engagement and activism of young people? Michael Cummings argues that allowing children equal political rights with adults is required by the basic logic of democracy and can help strengthen the weak democracies of the twenty-first century. A good start is for governments to honor their obligations under the ambivalently utopian UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children’s political views differ from those of adults on issues such as race, sex, militarism, poverty, education, gun violence, and climate change. Young activists are now sparking change in many locations around the globe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Preface: Teach Your Parents Well
  • Introduction The Death and Life of Democracy in the Twenty-First Century
  • Chapter 1 Children’s Right to Utopia and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Chapter 2 The Construction of Childhood in Political Philosophy, History, and Culture
  • Chapter 3 Youth as Scientists, Innovators, and Leaders
  • Chapter 4 The Bane of Ma/Paternalism
  • Chapter 5 The Boon of Ma/Paternalism
  • Chapter 6 Children’s Political Beliefs
  • Chapter 7 Embers of Empowerment in Contemporary Youth Activism
  • Chapter 8 Leading Scholarship on Children’s Activism, 1990–2019
  • Chapter 9 The Logic of Democratic and Aristocratic Theory
  • Chapter 10 Children to the Rescue at the Polls, in the Streets, in Office
  • Chapter 11 Many Paths to Empowerment
  • Conclusion Youthquake
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Preface: Teach Your Parents Well1

When a child is born, it is likely to cry out because of the shock to its system. My mother taught anyone who would listen that babies don’t cry randomly, that their crying is for a reason. They are hungry or cold or in pain or in some other state of need. Crying is an evolved response to need. Yet anticipating an infant’s life in a society that is not very attentive to citizens’ needs, some authorities – from parents to pediatricians to parenting gurus – warn parents against responding to their children’s cries lest these apprentice humans become “spoiled” and develop unhealthy feelings of entitlement to the good things of life rather than acquiring the proper tools of the trade of living: self-denial, self-discipline, responsibility, and plain old hard work. These hard-knocks advocates tout the scheduling of children’s benefits, rather than responding to their needs, as the path of parental and societal wisdom.

Such disciplinary tools may be useful and even vital, but research in child development suggests that inattentiveness to the voices of children costs them dearly and imposes further costs on the society they will populate. Cross-cultural studies carried out by researchers at the Harvard Medical School have found that inattentiveness to infants’ crying causes ←xi | xii→permanent physical and emotional damage to them. “Parents should recognize that having their babies cry unnecessarily harms the baby permanently,” says Harvard’s Dr. Michael Commons. “It changes the nervous system so they’re sensitive to future trauma.”2 More generally, a 2019 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a strong link between harm suffered by children and their increased incidence of disease later in life.3 Pioneering research published in 20164 overturned existing assumptions by showing that “new neurons fan out all over the frontal lobes [for up to six months] after birth … the frontal lobes carry out our most distinctively human functions – speech, reason, planning, the regulation of emotions.” Consequently, this newly discovered “external gestation” means that “our cuddling, rocking, cooing, singing and smiling – as well as our non-response to a cry or a dirty diaper – affect our babies at a time when their brains are far from complete, when some cells are being wired up from scratch.”5 Although this book will explore damage done by nurturers who seem hard of hearing, it will focus on the political fallout of ignoring or denying children’s voices on matters of public policy that concern them.

Eighteen years of official silence are unlikely to morph suddenly into active citizen engagement at the turn of a page in the day of the political calendar when the disempowered child magically becomes a “mature,” enfranchised citizen. It should come as no surprise that except for the elderly, the lowest age-based turnout in U.S. elections comes from newly enfranchised 18- to 24-year-olds. Between 1966 and 2010, as polls reflected Americans’ decreasing trust in U.S. institutions including government, overall U.S. voter turnout in Congressional elections declined from 55 to 42 percent; but the already lower turnout for 18- to 24-year-olds dropped even more precipitously, from 31 percent to 21 percent. The youth vote ←xii | xiii→spiked for the presidential election of 2008, helping propel Barack Obama to his historic victory, dipped somewhat in 2012, rose again in 2016, and set a record for midterm elections in 2018, although even then over half who could have voted did not.6

Listening to children does not spoil them, nor does it mean that children automatically get their way – just as a citizen’s right to vote does not entitle him or her to carry the day politically.7 Rather, listening to children incorporates their voices into the dynamic creation of popular sovereignty that is a defining component of a democratic polity. Popular sovereignty is not just “there” but must be created, and young people can become part of its creation and re-creation. The other defining component of democracy is the equal importance of each voice in building the sovereignty of the people, and this equality is the sticking point for those who prefer children to keep quiet and listen to their elders.8 The claim for political voice calibrated to political virtue, allegedly absent in children, will be examined in several chapters, and the power of its logic – whether for meritocracy, gerontocracy, or some other form of aristocracy (rule of the best) – is considerable. But we shall see that its alluring internal logic operates on suspect and sometimes-faulty assumptions.

←xiii | xiv→

The logical problem of a democratic polity that disenfranchises the young is that it sneaks in meritocratic criteria of political virtue but then illogically applies them only to one age group while giving all the others a free pass. Indeed, adultist democracy presumptively flunks young people on a political-virtue or political-IQ test without ever letting them take it. The fact is that millions of them would pass the test while millions of their elders would flunk it. As I have argued elsewhere, “if the political literacy bar were set even moderately high, then the electorate would shrink from a democratic river of mediocrity to an aristocratic rivulet of virtue. And some of the few who passed this embarrassing muster would be children” (Cummings 2001, p. 195).

One child who would likely have passed it before turning 18 is my daughter, Eliza Cummings, who, along with other children, was recruited in 2005 at age 9 and again at 10 to testify before the Colorado State Legislature. The 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women had heard of Eliza’s leadership accomplishments in school and invited her and other youth to testify on behalf of a parental-leave bill to grant parents the right to attend their children’s education-related activities without being punished at work.9

At nine, Eliza did not yet type and so dictated her three-minute speech for me to type. I occasionally suggested rewordings, but her usual response was “That sounds like you, Dad, not me!” In the legislative chambers, after waiting nervously for my 9-year-old to become the sixth person to testify, I was flabbergasted when she went off text and winged her speech, occasionally glancing down to grab a word or phrase. Afterwards, I asked her why she hadn’t read her speech. She said, “Well, nobody that went before me read a speech, so I didn’t think I should either!” When I noted that the previous witnesses had all been adults, she replied, “So what?” It took three more years for the hotly contested bill to pass, with business groups ←xiv | xv→opposed, so Eliza learned a valuable lesson in political persistence. Parental Leave is now the law in Colorado.

Eliza was likely inspired by the previous actions of her older brother, Anthony Cummings, who in 2004 had become the first student at their school to refuse to take the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) test. “A bright fourth-grader at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary is protesting what he calls a flawed exam by refusing to take the state’s standardized test,” reported TheDenverChannel.com. “Anthony Cummings, 10, said the CSAP has many problems and should be eliminated altogether. With permission from his parents and to the dismay of his principal, he sat and read a book about individual rights under the U.S. Constitution while his classmates took the exam last week.”10 According to the Denver Post, “He’s only 10, but Anthony Cummings knows that age cannot trump tenacity. The fourth-grader at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary is on a quest for what he calls education justice.”11 The tenacity of Anthony and other CSAP opponents came in handy, as it was not until 2011 that the CSAP exam was replaced by a new test, the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program test, reflecting some of the concerns of the CSAP critics.

As we shall see in Chapter 10, one of the eight most common objections to children’s having a political voice that counts is the belief that their political opinions merely parrot those of their parents. It is worth noting that in Anthony’s case, I argued against his boycott despite agreeing with his criticisms of the test, saying that the zero score he would be assessed, in lieu of his likely 95–100, would hurt his school by bringing down its CSAP fourth-grade average. On these grounds, I persuaded him to take the test in 2003 and 2005 but not in 2004.

Chapters 7 and 8 document cases of young people shaping public policy in their societies around the world. They suggest ways in which these and similar initiatives can contribute to the practical-utopian creation and re-creation of robustly democratic societies in the twenty-first century and beyond. As I argue in Chapter 11, voting is not the only way, ←xv | xvi→or even the main way, for young people to make their views known, but their lack of official voice delivers an important message with widespread ramifications for modern democratic societies. If children’s right to vote and to serve in office, as espoused in Chapter 10, makes headway in the twenty-first century, the success of this practical-utopian transformation will both reflect and strengthen the many trans-ageist initiatives that are well under way around the world.

Many readers may be unaware that the world’s governments have already embraced a utopian vision of dramatic betterment for the children of the world.12 The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) addresses the complementary themes of children’s vulnerability and their potential for empowerment.13 The world has thus recognized not only children’s need for protection and provision against abuse and neglect but also their right to a political voice and participation in policies that affect them. My book cover combines the themes of children’s vulnerability and their empowerment, as it shows Girl Scouts from Aurora, Colorado celebrating the passage into law of their bill prohibiting smoking inside vehicles containing children. Thus children are vulnerable to adults’ second-hand smoke, but they have empowered themselves to help prevent this abuse.

Foreshadowing the Trump era, international child-rights attorney Emily Bartholomew expresses these twin themes in the poignant case of children crossing international borders while separated from their parents or guardians:

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If there is any group of children who are not listened to, it is separated children … these children are, by definition, vulnerable, and in serious need of protection. At the same time, having made an often arduous journey on their own to flee their country of origin, and undertaken the responsibility to look after themselves, these children are also, by definition, extraordinarily independent, brave, and resilient.14

Similarly, Nadine Labaki’s powerful, Oscar-nominated 2018 movie Capernaum (chaos, miracle) about child refugees in Lebanon captures the dilemma facing 280 million children around the world who need somehow to empower themselves while in dire need. Such vulnerable minors epitomize both the serious problems and the promising opportunities explored in this book. On the one hand, the adult political regimes of the world have yet to implement most of the provisions of the CRC as detailed below in Chapter 1. On the other hand, real progress has occurred, and a movement of child activists and their adult advocates and allies is spreading steadily across the globe.

For readers of the Ralahine Utopian Studies Series, let me specify what makes the CRC and the growing movement for children’s rights utopian as opposed to merely reformist. Lyman Tower Sargent defines a literary utopia as “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which that reader lived” (2010, p. 6). This definition works well not only for the fictional works I explore in Chapter 11 and for the empirical evidence presented in Chapters 4, 5, 7, and 8 but also for Sargent’s two other faces of utopianism. As critics have noted, democracy, defined as power holders being fully accountable to the people, itself remains a utopian vision more than a practiced reality, and this book is an exercise in utopian social theory, most explicitly in Chapters 1, 3, 9, and 10, and in utopian practice, especially in Chapters 7 and 8. The global struggle for children’s rights is the very kind of messy, imperfect, self-critical ←xvii | xviii→utopian praxis favored by Tom Moylan and others influenced by him as both “critical utopian” (2014 [1986]) and “critical dystopian” (2000) thought and practice.15 According to Moylan, “The struggle for a new society must remain radically open both in the course of the oppositional struggle and in the creation of the new society itself” (2014, p. 26). Just as I have criticized the self-defeating political correctness of many would-be progressives, critical utopians reject the notion of utopian correctness or perfection.16 The critical utopia of children’s rights, of the equality of citizens of all ages, challenges adult regimes everywhere to consider whether any adultist utopia, no matter how attractive it may be in other respects, is likely to be a dystopia for children.

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Since 1989, child and youth activists, their adult allies, and sympathetic child-rights researchers have viewed the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as an ongoing project for change that requires continual critical review, revision, and creative application: “Historical evidence suggests that societies do indeed change in accordance with utopian ideas even though the utopia is rarely instituted in precisely the form that the utopian or visionary envisaged” (Goodwin and Taylor 2009, p. 241). Taken as a body, the hundreds of cases of child activism reported in Chapters 7 and 8 argue for viewing the global struggle for children’s voice, participation, and empowerment as one of both practical and critical utopianism. Moylan foreshadowed the child-rights utopianism of the CRC when he identified the shared quality of his diverse critical utopias as entailing “a rejection of hierarchy and domination and the celebration of emancipatory ways of being as well as the very possibility of utopian longing itself” (Moylan 2014, p. 11). The challenge to adultism posed by the movement for children’s rights and opportunities since 1989 is just such a rejection and celebration with just such a possibility. Like most other youth activists for particular causes, the gun-control and climate-change activists of today are not seeking perfection from politicians – “a false goal in the first place” (Moylan 2014, p. 41) – just a right to an equal voice and to less violence in their lives.

In Utopia as Method: The Imaginative Reconstitution of Society, Ruth Levitas (2013) provides one way of conceptualizing the material that follows in terms of three aspects of any utopian project. In her archaeological mode, the historical “shards” of social problems, empirical constraints, and imaginative possibility are excavated, exposed, and assembled in my Chapters 1, 2, 4, 5, and 11. In the ontological mode, children are examined and revealed as full – not deficient, partial, or future – human beings and as expert agents of their own destinies in Chapters 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11. In the architectural mode, the utopian vision of a better future for children is developed in Chapters 1, 6, 7, 9, and 10, as well as the Conclusion. Chapter 8 shows that a generation of scholars has taken this utopian project seriously. Levitas explicitly recognizes the utopian character of the CRC, with its valorizing of children’s self-actualization “impl[ying] prophetic identity, helping children imagine and become their best chosen selves” (p. 199). ←xix | xx→And she wisely wonders why this inspiring vision should not also apply to adults: “A decent society is one which enables people to develop their capacities.”

A leading and fruitful anthology of utopian scholarship typifies the foregrounding of issues of gender, class, ethnicity, and culture while marginalizing those of age: In its intervention in critical and cultural studies, the book’s focus “is informed by feminist, Marxist, ethnographic, and post structuralist theories”17 – but by virtually none of the child-rights theories explored in this book.18 This common omission across many academic disciplines calls for an analysis of the diverse and extensive issues explored in my book. Nevertheless, like the classical political theories addressed in Chapter 2, this utopian scholarship contains insights valuable to the project of envisioning and realizing a world of equal rights for people of all ages, even when the scholars’ focus is elsewhere. And some of its leading thinkers, including Moylan and Sargent, have invited this book’s exploration of age, politics, and utopia.19

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The CRC’s 54-article vision of a better world for children was made purposely ambiguous and imperfect, by privileging children’s rights to protection, provision, and participation while simultaneously valorizing parental rights, cultural traditions, and standing law. These qualifications permit state parties to the CRC to make “reservation” to specific articles. As radically transformative as the CRC is in attacking adultism and dramatically expanding democratic voice to young people, its utopia remains imperfect, only partially realized, requiring a “permanent revolution.” The role of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is, every five years on a staggered basis, to prod the ratifying state parties to improve on their lagging records of legal enforcement and moral encouragement of children’s rights.20 It was only by incorporating these ambiguities that the writers of the CRC, including the United States, were able to achieve buy-in by conservative governments fearful of the radical implications of the CRC’s unprecedented embrace of children’s participatory rights in the areas of public policy, civil liberties, and personal choice. The CRC is both an inspiration and a challenge to the growing movement for children’s rights worldwide.

←xxi | xxii→

The Building Blocks of a Trans-Ageist Practical Utopia: A Preview

Here and in the Introduction, I argue that people of all ages learn and flourish best when they learn from one another and build their lives together in mutually respectful democratic dialogue. Parents can teach their children well, and children can return the favor. Respecting children’s voices does not undermine parental authority; quite the contrary, voices respected become voices that are respectful. I survey common explanations for the disengagement of citizens in today’s ailing democracies, give them their due, but add this book’s central claim: we come to politics too late following a childhood of disenfranchisement and political marginalization. Partisans of today’s youthquake are fighting back, for instance in the movement of young Americans demanding and achieving new gun laws and in the youth climate-change protests that have spread around the globe. Communities are strongest when they unite people while respecting their differences, a lesson taken to heart by young practical utopians.

In Chapter 1, I discuss the transformative potential of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we take notice of the global rise of child activism following the ratification of the CRC, the most widely endorsed international legal agreement in history. To protect our children’s futures, we must urgently address the global crises of violence and climate change. Wars kill millions of people, especially children and the parents of children who are then orphaned. Global warming threatens to kill the planet and all of its children. Concerted progress in these two critical areas cannot wait – but if undertaken responsibly, it can help bring governments together to promote other shared goals as well, including equal rights for children. With the CRC, the governments of the world have taken a giant step forward toward guaranteeing all the world’s children protection against preventable harm, provision of life’s basic necessities, and participation in the public policies that affect their lives. Adult leaders must be held to these promises. A generation of youth activists and their public and private supporters are already doing so. So is the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and allied nonprofit organizations.

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The movement for children’s rights has many ingredients, a key one mentioned in Chapter 1 being the basic values we teach children and adults alike. A culture’s shared values can either nurture or undermine the practical-utopian movement of equal rights for children and people of all ages. A zero-sum, entropic game of winners and losers – in pursuit of power, status, wealth, and conquest, or else revenge – is anathema to the CRC, because gains for children will be perceived as losses for adults. Indeed, the children themselves will become enemies to one another. The antidote to this entropic plague is to reshape culture toward win-win values such as family, love and friendship, knowledge, craftsmanship, community, exploration, citizenship,21 adventure, humor, art, creation, and the simple pleasures of daily life.

Such synergistic values are the core element underlying the many articles of the CRC. The shared achievement of these win-win values does not depend primarily on self-sacrifice or pure altruism. Each child’s achievement of them, even if self-interested, increases the likelihood that others will also achieve them, creating a values-achievement whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. One child’s gain, one adult’s gain, need not be anyone else’s loss but can ripple outward in an expanding wave of value attainment and shared self-actualization. Societies need not be divided against themselves by entropic values into classes of winners and losers, metastasizing multiple social pathologies such as poverty, depression, addiction, crime, and domestic violence. Neither does the world that our children will both inherit and reshape.

In Chapter 2, I deconstruct the concepts of “childhood” and “adulthood” by examining the different ways in which they are conceived, or ignored, in different historical periods and across different cultures. After critiquing the treatment of childhood by influential political philosophers, I examine historian Philippe Ariès’ landmark 1960 book Centuries of Childhood. In the Middle Ages, young people began to participate in ←xxiii | xxiv→community affairs as soon as they could walk and talk. In traditional Iroquois society, youth participated in the longhouse discussions that shaped public policy. Centuries later, it came as no surprise to many First Nation Canadians when 14-year-old Wikmemikong/Anishinabek activist Autumn Peltier was named Chief Water Commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation across Canada, following in the footsteps of her great aunt Josephine Mandamin, who had been Protector of the Great Lakes.22 Along the western frontier, American children of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries assumed important economic roles in their communities. Indeed, if we go back to the short lives of our Paleolithic ancestors, our early human leaders were mostly teenagers and young adults. Cultural anthropologists generally confirm Ariès in construing the adult–child dichotomy as socially constructed.

In Chapter 3, “Youth as Scientists, Innovators, and Leaders,” early twentieth-century American cultural radical Randolph Bourne foreshadows today’s youth activists such as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg in arguing that youth are both more scientific and more visionary than their elders and are in fact the natural leaders of society. Utopian thinker Ernst Bloch broadens and enriches Bourne’s perspective while hoping that socialist dystopias can eventually realize their utopian potential. Queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam views children as both more realistic and more open-minded than adults about the uncharted, transnormal diversity of the human experience. These seminal thinkers did not appear out of thin air but reflect their at-once conflicted and fertile historical times. This chapter serves to break down some barriers to critical and creative thinking about age.

Supporters of the adultist political monopoly predictably claim that adultist governance takes better care of children than if children were to participate on an equal-opportunity basis with adults. Chapter 4 looks at the record of adultist governance around the world and in the world’s most powerful capitalist democracy, the United States. It finds the adultist record wanting, to put it mildly. Indeed, in some respects, the adultist ←xxiv | xxv→governing performance is disgraceful, and children suffer grievously as a result. For instance, regarding the plague of mass shootings in the United States, members of Congress privately say they favor background checks and gun control, but they fear the electoral consequences of publicly opposing the most powerful U.S. lobby, the National Rifle Association, and its even more militant offshoots. For children, the ma/paternalists do not deliver on the goods as promised.

Granted, as documented in Chapter 5, a large number of heroic adults and valiant adult groups do admirable things for children, including engaging with them in the political process. But these efforts of well-intentioned and efficacious ma/paternalists fall far short of what children need and deserve, far short of what the wealthy modern world is capable of, and of what the governments of the world have promised them in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. This adultist deficit implies that including rather than excluding children from political participation, especially in public policies that affect them, is well worth a try.

But what practical difference would it make to include children in the political process if they merely parrot the political views of their parents and other adult authorities? The evidence presented in Chapter 6 refutes the parroting hypothesis. Children are indeed influenced by the politics of their elders, but sometimes the influence is negative, and even when it is mostly positive, many children have shown themselves able to think for themselves and to disagree with their parents, at least on some issues some of the time. This chapter discloses that on average, children worldwide disagree with adults on a wide range of important political issues from ecology to race to sex to poverty to gun control to world peace.

Chapter 7, the heart and soul of my book, illustrates the increasing political activism of children, tweens, teens, and young adults around the world. Chapter 8 samples a substantial and growing body of scholarship documenting and analyzing the new youth activism: its causes, characteristics, and effects on public policy, as well as its strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and potential. Many academic sub-disciplines contribute to the growing scholarship on children’s rights, participation, and empowerment, especially child development, the sociology of childhood, critical pedagogy, child-labor economics, the history and anthropology ←xxv | xxvi→of childhood, political socialization, utopian studies, and children’s literature and film studies.

In Chapter 9, I contrast the logic of democratic and aristocratic (or meritocratic) political philosophy and show that adultist politics is inconsistent with both. Critics of children’s political rights charge that minors lack what I call the KRRESII political virtues23 and are therefore too politically immature to vote properly. But this critique ignores the fact that in modern democracies, adults do not have to demonstrate the virtues that children allegedly lack, as reflected in political scientist Alan Wolfe’s 2018 book title The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity, a critique of Donald Trump, his followers, and their enabling U.S. political culture. In fact, the evidence shows that many minors are politically more mature than many adults. What these KRRESII critics unintentionally imply is that voting should be an earned privilege rather than an automatic right of citizens. But that is the position of aristocratic thinkers all the way back to Plato. It sits uncomfortably with the democratic logic of Rousseau, Jefferson, and more recent egalitarian theorists.

In Chapter 10, I make my case for the political right of all children to vote, run for office, and take it to the streets – comparing my position with the arguments advanced by 1970s pioneers of children’s rights such as educator John Holt and psychologist Richard Farson as well as more recent advocates such as legal philosopher Samantha Godwin and ethicist John Wall. As if by some magical cycle of enfranchisement, the United States has extended the right to vote to a large and noisy new group of citizens roughly every 50 years, beginning with the Jacksonian Revolution of the early nineteenth century. The most recent group to gain the franchise, in the middle of the Vietnam War, was 18-year-olds through the 26th Amendment in 1971, so it is perhaps no coincidence that youth activism has been accelerating rapidly in the decade leading up to 2021. Since the ←xxvi | xxvii→ratification of the CRC in 1990, the voting age has been lowered in many parts of the world, and initiatives are spreading to lower it further.

While children still lack official political voice, Chapter 11 explores multiple venues in which children’s voices and political agency can be nurtured and expressed: families, schools, media, music, film, and fiction. Academic disciplines such as political science, sociology, and psychology have tended to view these institutions as socializing children to adult values, beliefs, and norms rather than engaging children as agents of their own destinies. My discussion corrects this one-sided approach by viewing children both as recipients of adult influence and as creators of their own lives, with special emphasis on their participation in civic life. Basically, the adults who control these venues of action and expression can use them either to subject or to engage the young. I resist thinking of adults as “empowering” youth, because empowerment is not given but comes from within as long as it is not blocked from without. As psychoanalyst Anna Freud said, “I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within. It is there all the time.” As young people strive to realize their own innate powers, adults can nurture those powers rather than manipulate, sidetrack, or quash them.24

The Conclusion explores the implications of the “youthquake” of our troubled and trying times. The evidence of youth activism I will present gives hope for people of all ages that children’s voices can further awaken the robust democratic activism that the crises of our world demand.

←xxvii | xxviii→

1 In “Teach Your Children,” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young not only urge parents to teach their children what the parents believe in but urge the children to return the favor: “Teach your parents well,” so that together the family can help “make a world we can believe in.” It’s a world of hearing one another’s voices, of caring, and of being free. Scholars are making the same case, for instance Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her lively book Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Hints of this role reversal echo throughout The Diary of Anne Frank, such as this passage from August 3, 1943: “We’ve just had a third air raid; I clenched my teeth together to make myself feel courageous. Mrs. Van Daan … is the greatest coward of us all now. She was shaking like a leaf this morning and even burst into tears. When her husband, with whom she has made up after a week’s squabbling, comforted her, the expression on her face alone almost made me feel sentimental.”

2 <http://naturalchild.com/research/harvard_attention.html>, accessed March 2, 2014.

3 Mike Stobbe, “Trauma from Childhood Linked to Adult Heart Disease and Other Illnesses,” Associated Press, November 6, 2019.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Children’s rights, voice, and participation Children’s political empowerment in revitalizing democracy Adultism as a form of ageist oppression
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XXVIII, 536 pp., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Michael S. Cummings (Author)

Michael S. Cummings is founding Chair and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado President’s Teaching Scholar. He is author or editor of nine books and dozens of articles and book chapters, including the APSA award-winning book Beyond Political Correctness: Social Transformation in the United States. He is a long-time activist in electoral politics and progressive causes, especially the rights of children and people with disabilities. He drew inspiration from the early activism of his children, Anthony and Eliza.


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