Highlights for Children, the venerable children’s magazine, tends to focus its moral lessons toward young readers. So it might have taken readers by surprise on Tuesday when its chief executive Kent Johnson issued a statement aimed at grown-ups, including the Goofus in the White House, condemning the Trump administration’s family separations and asking readers to advocate for detained immigrant children.
“Our company’s core belief, stated each month in Highlights magazine, is that ‘Children are the world’s most important people.’ This is a belief about ALL children,” Johnson wrote. “…This is a plea for recognition that these are not simply the children of strangers for whom others are accountable. This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and to have the opportunity to become their best selves.”
Even skeptical readers itching to condemn Highlights for partisanship ought to listen to Johnson’s reasoning. It’s a powerful reminder that there are things we owe children and that we’re failing to provide to not just migrant children but also children who were born in the United States.
Migrant parents who are trying to bring their children to the United States are doing so in pursuit of those rights to safety and opportunity. What’s particularly horrifying about family separations and the appalling conditions in which some migrant children are reportedly detained is that these policies pervert those aims in the most profound way. Even if you think adult migrants should be deterred from or punished for breaking the law, creating conditions in which their children are filthy, hungry, lice-ridden and cold is an obscene and unacceptable way to do it.
Immigration is hardly the only area of policy in which children’s rights are minimized or ignored. Take vaccination, which opponents often present as a matter of parental choice and personal liberty. Never mind that the evidence is overwhelming that vaccinations are safe, that they do not cause autism and that megadonors have funded a misinformation campaign about this vital treatment. Given these facts, perhaps parental choice is the wrong framework for making policy about vaccination.
As the bioethicist Johan C. Bester wrote in 2018: “The correct lens through which to view vaccination is moral obligation — we are obligated to provide children with protection against measles. Parents who have children eligible for vaccination are obligated to facilitate vaccination. Parents who have children that cannot receive vaccination are obligated to advocate for sufficient vaccine uptake in the general population. … Measles vaccination rightly belongs to the realm of parental obligation, a duty owed to the child and to society.”
Similar dynamics are in play in the debate over the role that access to guns plays in school shootings. One solution would be to limit access to the weapons used in these shootings. But because it’s apparently more important to us that adults have relatively easy access to guns, we instead pass on all sorts of costs to children and count them as the price of that adult freedom. School districts bring law enforcement officers to campus, resulting in more children being criminalized for behaving in fairly normal, rambunctious ways. Students are subjected to macabre active shooter drills, some of them over and over again.
“People say guns are related to freedom and patriotism — but living through instances of gun violence on a daily basis and children having to go through active shooter drills is not what freedom looks like to me,” Parkland shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg told The Washington Post Magazine.
Thinking about what we owe children doesn’t mean we have to give them everything they want. We’re still adults, and we know that it’s better for children to eat protein and vegetables for dinner than to subsist on candy, and that they will have more opportunities later in life if they go to school than if they run away from home and live in a tree in the backyard.
Rather, focusing on what we owe children is a way of forcing ourselves to reassess our own decision-making and to examine whether we’ve truly been prioritizing their interests rather than our own.
If you’re refusing to vaccinate your kid, is it truly because you’ve examined the most credible scientific evidence? Or is because you’re so paralyzed by fear of an autism diagnosis that you’ll do anything to give yourself the illusion of control over the uncontrollable, and you’re willing to expose your child to the risk of a preventable illness to manage your own fear?
If you’ve decided that measures other than restricting the ability to buy certain guns are the key to ending school shootings, what do you think children get out of active shooter drills in particular as opposed to, say, massive investments in mental health, better law enforcement training and, at minimum, serious gun safety laws?
And if you’ve looked at photographer Julia Le Duc’s shattering image of a Salvadoran child and her father drowned in the Rio Grande and thought only of his conduct as a parent, what are you telling your children about how other adults ought to feel about them? “Let our children draw strength and inspiration from our collective display of moral courage,” Johnson wrote. “They are watching.” And what they see isn’t merely how we feel about other children but what we think adults owe them.