Using children for politics
As election fever and fervour build up, images on billboards and other political propaganda see children ‘blossoming’ in primo piano. This is not new.
For example, last year’s divorce campaign saw adorable-looking children, as piteous as can be, used in both the pro and anti camps.
The absurdity is that as Roger Hart, a renowned scholar, aptly states: “Children are undoubtedly the most photographed and the least listened to members of society.” (1992: 8)
Let’s face it. Children are definitely influenced by our politically crazed community. What’s more is that political views are typically picked up by children from their families.
Trying to change this is quite a problem. ‘The party’ is very much a family legacy and any crossing-over is still considered treacherous.
Even so, I am hopeful this leaning will gradually change.
Keeping in mind this context, a number of questions promptly emerge as we see children spread all over our campaign trail.
Should we promote children’s issues during political campaigns?
How can politics remain controversial, debatable and relevant to children without necessarily having to lock horns into partisan, prejudiced and bigoted political arguments? How much politics should children be exposed to?
I don’t believe that this issue has ever really been meditated thoroughly. The conjecture that, in our society, people like to show off their children as a priced ornament is a datum that oozes into electioneering.
The consequence of this is that children from time to time are unashamedly pressed to do political advertising. They are browbeaten by political parties and politicians to ‘adorn’ their activities/events, which is different from getting children betrothed in such activities. Children seem to be habitually ill-used by political parties and politicians to reinforce the fabricated perception that they are important actors in this social project.
It is clear that there is cognisance and a general puzzlement that children on one hand need to be ‘protected’ but then they also need to be ‘engaged proactively’ in terms of political participation, particularly during election campaigns.
It is an accepted fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of Children (1989), the Broadcasting Act (Chapter 305) and other smithereens of legislation are frameworks that should be shielding children, even though it seems there are gaps in the system that need to be contemplated.
What is the route we need to take?
The basic premise is that children learn about politics through conversation. Discussing with children gives them a chance to ask questions, challenge situations that come on the table.
While debating, they come up with their own viewpoints.
Essentially, children need to be encouraged to think freely, even when it pertains to strong, political topics. So, in many ways than one, I believe, it is good that minors are socialised into political thinking.
Nonetheless, children need to be shielded from situations where they are used solely as props or for boorish marketing purposes in political partisan activities.
What is undeniably critical is that we avoid negative representations of children as we saw unfolding during the divorce debate.
What are the provisos we need to set in place as we engage in this debate?
Firstly, we need to ensure that children remain curious about the world. Ensuing parental/guardian consent, it is paramount that children give their own informed consent. We also need to keep in mind that, no matter how much information you give children, they are continuously seeking more.
As follows, we also need to use the structures that exist in our community, namely PSHE and citizenship education in schools, with non/informal education to help children appreciate that it is the bigger picture that should matter.
Additionally, we must find ways to transpose political debates to children to help create a critical political mind. It is our duty to respect children’s ability to discern and understand what they want for themselves and their communities.
All of this should be contextualised by understanding the delicate and tension-filled moments children can find themselves in during election campaigns.
This really needs to shake us from the head down. We ought to do away with the myth that children are mindless and any engagement in electioneering should be done in the right way.
In a country where we inhale politics with every breath, it can either be perceived as an itchy and bumpy experience or else it can become an opportunity for children in Malta to be dynamically engaged.