It’s been impossible for any of us to ignore politicians over the last 18 months. And that includes children.
Children, in my experience, see the world with a degree of clarity that is its own kind of wisdom
While the political convulsions of my childhood seemed hazy and far away – a BBC newsreader keeping world events tidily behind their desk where they couldn’t spill out of the TV into our lounge – the pandemic has reached its sly hand into every classroom, playground, park and home.
Its spiky fingers have turned children upside down, shaking certainty and fun (as well as elastic bands and half-sucked Haribos) from their pockets. They have been sent home from school to be taught (though, in our case, I use the word loosely) by their exhausted parents. They have seen exams discarded, friendships paused and plans abandoned
Even before this hard introduction to government, children were more aware than some of their elders that climate change is a problem they are likely to inherit more or less unsolved. They had noticed Donald Trump in the White House (the children I know quickly developed uncompromising opinions about him, almost as if they recognised the type). They could hardly miss Brexit, or BLM.
Our children are more aware of politics than ever. They see more than you might think and their questions – if we stop to listen – are far sharper than you might expect. So why don’t we take their views more seriously?
One reason is obvious: they do not have the vote. Politicians do not need to consider the views of children – only their parents. The Cambridge politics professor David Runciman has suggested that should change. He has even, perhaps playfully, suggested extending the vote to children as young as six. “What’s the worst that can happen?” he asked. Parents of six year olds could think of a few pithy answers. But his point – that democracy has been improved every time the franchise has been extended – is a powerful one.
Even if we don’t send six year olds into polling booths, however, I think we should listen to them. It is in part a matter of fairness. They will live with the consequences of today’s decisions longer than the rest of us. And children, in my experience at least, see the world (particularly questions of justice) with a degree of clarity that is its own kind of wisdom. They are quite capable of considering complicated trade-offs if you take the time to explain issues in terms they can understand. We package political ideas in unnecessary jargon that excludes not just children but plenty of adults too.
So that’s the other thing we should do: we should talk to our kids more about politics; we should bring them into the conversation – at home, and at school. Schools do teach citizenship but provision seems to be very uneven.
Earlier this year a cross-party group of MPs and lords came together to form the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy, to look for ways to strengthen that provision. Dr James Weinberg from Sheffield University, an academic adviser to the APPG, says research shows that the teaching of political literacy is “peripheral” in many schools.
It is easy to make a high-minded case for why this matters. We live in an age of viral misinformation. Polls have shown a declining faith in democracy. Those of us who grew up in a mature democracy might be tempted to regard it as a natural or permanent state. But what if it isn’t?
I would make a less alarmist case for talking to our kids about politics and listening closely to what they tell us.
We live in a noisy, argumentative, sometimes ill-tempered but always fascinating political environment at a moment when big forces are at work, shaping our shared future, for good and ill. It is exciting to be a part of that cacophonous conversation. Why leave children out of it? Surely it is simply good for them, and us jaded old adults, to hear their voices too. Who knows? They might teach us a few things.
If I Ran the Country by Rich Knight is published by Wren and Rook (£8.99)