The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why children have such powerful moral authority

Malala Yousafzai speaks during the Goalkeepers Conference hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) met with constituents in her office recently, but it was far from a routine visit with voters. In fact, the constituents were mostly nonvoters — children in third grade to high school who were mobilized by the Sunrise Movement. They carried a large handwritten letter asking the senator to vote “yes” on a resolution favoring the Green New Deal, a plan to address climate change with economic stimulus programs.

“That resolution will not pass the Senate, and you can take that back to whoever sent you here,” Feinstein said. She pointed to the high cost of the program and the lack of Republican support. “I know what can pass, and I know what can’t pass.”

Short and long versions of the videotaped encounter went viral, prompting a range of social media reactions, with some accusing the Sunrise Movement of turning children into political props. But many others called Feinstein “rude,” “dismissive,” “disparaging” and “tone-deaf.” The senator responded that she heard the children loud and clear and remains “committed to doing everything I can to enact real, meaningful climate change legislation.”

Children often call on us to be our better selves — urging us by their example to speak up or join a cause — especially if we listen to them as if their voices matter. That showdown with Feinstein was far from the first time young people have carried the day with the moral authority of their voices.

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, believes the Children’s Crusade — the 1963 children’s march in Birmingham, Ala. — turned the tide of the civil rights movement. Law enforcement officers responded to the children as if they were adults, but “pictures of the bravery and determination of the Birmingham children as they faced the brutal fire hoses and vicious police dogs were splashed on the front pages of newspapers all across America, and helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of the civil rights movement’s fight for justice,” says Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

What gives children the moral authority and often sheer chutzpah to act single-handedly or organize collectively for civic causes? When you get past the outrage, Feinstein’s relative receptivity to her young interlocutors shows that children’s voices can sometimes get people to talk more directly about important issues. While some children may simply be following the lead of friendly adults, those who work with children know that kids often ask tough, profound questions and want serious, honest answers. It is perhaps the honesty and sincerity of children’s questions and actions that resonate most strongly. I’ve even heard kindergartners gasp audibly when I tell them about Malala Yousafzai’s campaign for global education and that girls don’t go to school in many parts of the world.

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There is also the dogged persistence of kids, from school age to college age. That persistence can be endearing in children, but it’s rarely even feasible for adults. Even politically committed adults typically have to return to daily obligations, lacking the time and energy that author Phillip Hoose says are critical to youthful success. Young people can truly commit to their commitments, with one more day of marching, sitting-in or rounding up followers. In the process, they’re often able to reach grown-ups who can actually implement change. In his book “It’s Our World, Too!” Hoose also points to the importance of young activists’ firmly defined senses of right and wrong, as well as the power of being underestimated and the availability of school as a place to organize.

Children — especially by their teenage years — also display a sense of invincibility in the face of risk, which is often amplified by their exasperation with being under the thumb of adults. Hoose took the title of his book from an 11-year old boy who was told he could not sign a petition to stop the spread of nuclear weapons because he was too young. “It’s our world, too!” the boy said, and he promptly started a petition for kids.

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg embodied many of these tendencies when she initiated school strikes last year calling for dramatic action to stop global warming. Her persistence, time and energy — as well as the truth of her arguments — brought attention that evades many adults. She sat outside the parliament building in Stockholm every day for three weeks during school hours. Thousands of young supporters staged school strikes in Germany, France, Britain and Australia. Nearly 10,000 rallied in Brussels in February.

Amy Neugebauer — founder of Giving Square, a youth philanthropic organization based in Montgomery County, Md. — told me Feinstein treated the children “like adults to be defensive with, not with the sense that this was a critical opportunity to engage them around why they believe what they do.” Environmentalist Bill McKibben acknowledged in the New Yorker that Feinstein had gracious moments with the children, but that she actually demonstrated “why climate change exemplifies an issue on which older people should listen to the young. Because — to put it bluntly — older generations will be dead before the worst of it hits. … This means that youth carry the moral authority here.”

A similar moral authority was evident during the newsboy strike of 1899 that inspired the musical “Newsies.” During the strike, young boys successfully urged readers and advertisers to boycott the newspapers of publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Not only were the boys well-organized and strategic, their youth gave them the advantage of being widely perceived as David fighting the millionaire publishers’ Goliath.

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The Internet also plays a role in the reach of children’s voices.

“Pre-Internet, you had to work harder” to organize, Hoose wrote in an email exchange.

Young adults have organized mass protests and even national revolutions on Twitter and other social media. Henry Jenkins, U.S. media scholar and professor at the University of Southern California, posits that “young people are seeking to change the world through any media necessary.” He cites a 2012 study showing that the overwhelming majority of American youths across all races has access to an Internet-connected computer, and 51 percent of the young people who were studied had engaged in at least one act of participatory politics during the previous year. They have power because they use their Internet savvy to connect with each other and build supportive communities in ways adults simply can’t imagine. Emma González quickly built a Twitter following of 1.2 million as she and fellow students from Parkland, Fla., worked to garner the most attention possible for their #NeverAgain response to the shooting at their school.

Our most famous contemporary exemplar of youth activism, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot by the Taliban for her determined support of girls’ education, has rallied thousands of supporters worldwide because of her self-effacing sincerity, the honesty and passion of her arguments, and her dogged determination to change the world — one child, one teacher, one pen and one book at a time. Young people relate to Malala because of her age but also because she speaks with the authority of one willing to risk great danger to continue speaking. The Malala Fund’s online newsletter, Assembly, features stories of girls working for change. Melati and Isabel Wijsen, for example, began campaigning against plastic bags on their Indonesian island of Bali when they were 10 and 12 years old. Tess Thomas, who edits Assembly, says young activists often “begin speaking out because they see an issue affecting their community that isn’t being addressed by those in power. Their solutions are effective because they understand the problem from personal experience and they know what works in their communities.” The Wijsen girls’ persistence and sincerity ultimately led to a ban on single-use plastics in Bali in December 2018.

Organizations such as the Giving Square and Youth Activism Project — whose Web page announces that “there’s no minimum age for leadership” — focus on engaging children as legitimate contributors to our communities now, not just in the future. Children’s honesty and sincerity, their single-minded determination and their unshakable faith in the rightness of their cause gives them a moral authority that few adults can surpass.

“Deeply listen to kids, their ideas, their concerns,” Neugebauer said, “because they will make us think and make us better people.”