[Content note: child abuse]
Someone posting in a Facebook group–doesn’t matter who or which group, since they were merely voicing an opinion held by many–said that censoring high school graduation speeches is acceptable because “I just don’t think people that age are mature enough to have free speech.”
(I will say that it was a group related to humanism, and I’m not sure what the fuck kind of humanist accepts the denial of constitutional rights to entire classes of people. Not my kind, at any rate.)
There are two issues to discuss here, one surface-level and one a little deeper. I’ll dispatch the surface-level issue first.
I actually do think that there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in high schools, just as there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in certain spaces for adults, such as colleges and workplaces. The best argument I can think of is that these spaces need to promote certain goals and functions, and free speech, while a very important part of our public life in general, can quickly overwhelm these goals and functions. The creation of a safe learning/working environment is more important than letting everyone say exactly what’s on their mind all the time. However, that has nothing to do with “maturity” and everything to do with the particular goals of particular spaces.
First of all, what is “maturity”? Do people suddenly obtain it on their 18th birthday? Are all adults “mature”? If not, should they also be denied their First Amendment rights? How will we determine who is “mature”? Should people with developmental disabilities be denied First Amendment rights? Should people who have demonstrated a lack of impulse control (a potential marker of immaturity)? Should a 30-year-old who goes to wild parties every night and gets drunk and can’t hold down a job be denied First Amendment rights? Should everyone be required to take a maturity examination before they are permitted to exercise rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution? What would that examination entail? An interview? A neurological test?
I am not a constitutional scholar, but note that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans a similar concept, literacy tests for would-be voters, and that legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
So hopefully that complicates this question of “maturity” at least a little bit.
The whole point of rights is that they’re not just for people we like or agree with. They’re not just for the people who have their lives together and always think rationally and critically. They’re not just for adults, or just for white people, or just for Christians. They’re not just for people whose brains work the way we think people’s brains should work. Rights are rights because they are for everyone, especially the people you don’t agree with.
Now on to the thornier part of this discussion, which is this: the attitude displayed by this person towards children and adolescents is very common, and very harmful.
It harms in several ways. One is that engaged, altruistic, passionate adults do not generally develop (at least not easily) from ignored, insulted, condescended-to children. If we tell children that they have nothing of worth to say or contribute until their 18th birthday, believe me, they will not wake up that morning with a sudden desire to write letters to the editor, vote, volunteer, and generally speak up for what’s right. They will be insecure and trapped by impostor syndrome. Not a recipe for an active citizenry.
Oh, I’m sure you’ll say that you hang up all your child’s artistic creations on the fridge and forward their best book reports to Grandma and Grandpa, but let me ask you this: do you think your child has important and insightful observations to make about politics, culture, ethics, art, literature? If your child said something with which you disagree, would you engage them in a spirited debate, or would you shut them down with “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Aww, that’s nice, sweetie”? If your child has criticisms to make about the way they receive their education, or about the extracurricular activities they participate in or the house or neighborhood in which they live, do you actually listen to them and see if there’s any way that the adults in your child’s life (including you) could be doing better?
If you’re reading this and you have children, chances are you do all that stuff, because you’re great. But do most American adults?
At this point someone will usually say “But what if my child says that they are morally opposed to eating vegetables or doing homework or having a bedtime see I can’t possibly take my child’s ideas seriously.” Here’s the thing, though. Even adults sometimes (often) say things that are totally unreasonable. If you truly respect another person and value their thoughts, you can engage their totally unreasonable opinions with reasoned debate. Obviously, In The Real World, we don’t always respect other people and value their thoughts, and that’s (broadly speaking) fine. But you should respect your children and value their thoughts. You can also take this opportunity to model good critical thinking and argumentation skills, by engaging their opinions respectfully and directly.
And I know that parenting is hard and you can’t be a good parent 100% of the time and sometimes you will say “Not now honey” or “That’s nice” because you’re exhausted and juggling 100 things and that’s how it is. I’m not giving parenting advice. I’m absolutely not here to judge who is a Good Parent and who is a Bad Parent. I’m simply offering a reframe. Children saying silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly people. You can engage silly ideas seriously, and thus send the message to your children that 1) backing up one’s arguments with evidence and reason is important, and 2) their arguments are important enough to be met with kind counter-arguments, not outright dismissal and condescension.
Ah, but do I have children, you may ask. No, I do not. I helped raise two children, though, and I carried those children out of a wrecked car and over broken glass once (no, I did not cause the accident), and I taught one of those children to speak, and right now I’m living at home and engaging in all sorts of serious intellectual discussions with those children on the daily. Today I had a discussion with a 13-year-old about the ethics of business, or, why ripping off other children to get nice Pokemon cards for cheap is wrong. This weekend I had a discussion with a 10-year-old about police brutality and racism. Given our privileges and where we live, it’s very possible that I have been, and will remain for some time, the only person to directly address racism with her.
I was also very recently a child. Probably not many of you reading this can remember your own childhood as well as I do. I was a very lucky child because my parents have always endeavored to send me the message that my thoughts are valuable, no matter how old I was. Yes, sure, they sometimes engaged in a bit of condescension, for which I usually called them out and sometimes won the resulting argument. But the fact that there was an argument, and not a “That’s just how it is,” is what matters.
More importantly still, my parents basically lived the whole idea of “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” You would probably be surprised to know that although they (probably) don’t even read this blog and (probably) wouldn’t agree with a word on it, they have tirelessly encouraged me to pursue writing professionally, to publish more and more widely, to speak publicly, to ask for payment and recognition. It never seemed to occur to my parents that just because I sometimes said something foolish meant that I shouldn’t have spoken at all.
As a child, I was often stung by my parents’ quick criticism, their rush to ask me for evidence and examples and clarity. I can’t say that it was always easy or pleasant. But I always knew that they loved and valued me. And moreover, that constant process probably contributed to the strength of my writing now.
Perhaps as a result of this aspect of my upbringing, I was editing my high school literary magazine at 16, writing a monthly column for a print newspaper at 17, and publishing in campus magazines and newspapers starting at 18. I started my first blog at 12, as soon as blogs became a thing. And I don’t mean an online diary, although I’d encourage people of all ages to do that to build their writing and communication skills. I mean, I was blogging about politics and society. At 17, I was trained in pro-Israel activism (I used to be a conservative; it went away) and used those skills online–the same skills I now use in the service of the causes I now support. At 18, I started this blog. At 21, my writing first started to go viral online, and that’s when I was invited to join FtB. At 22, I gave my first solo conference talk. (SSACon! W00t!) At 23, I started freelancing professionally.
None of this would’ve happened if the closest adults in my life had not said to me, directly and indirectly, over and over, that my voice matters. It mattered when I was 12. It matters now at 24. It will matter when I’m old and nobody thinks I’m pretty anymore. Maybe it will even matter after I’m gone.
Most children don’t have all the privileges I have that contributed to my ability to put my opinions out there like that. Moreover, not all of them have adults in their lives who encourage them to speak, and who hear them when they do.
And yet, even now, at 24, I hear constantly of how useless and naive and dumb people my age are. You’ve seen the tired millennial-bashing thinkpieces. Despite two degrees and a list of professional accomplishments and leadership positions that’s too long for a standard resume, people who are older constantly talk down to me as though I’m, well, a child. Their child, someone else’s child, doesn’t matter. I’ve thought (not too seriously, but still) about quitting writing publicly plenty of times, and it was almost never because of the violent threats and harassment I receive, although that sucked. It was usually because someone on my own “side” (ha, not really) made me feel like I was worthless and my thoughts are too. (There was one particularly horrid incident where a man insisted over and over, in an increasingly abusive fashion, that I should not write a blog post about a particular topic because, despite my degree in the fucking field, I was not qualified. I must’ve cried. I don’t cry about the internet a lot. I don’t really cry a lot at all.)
If that’s my experience, imagine the experience of young people of color, young trans people, young people from a poor background, young recent immigrants, young people who could not access university education.
We do not, as a society, value our young people. You may think we’re sexy (the white, gender-conforming, able-bodied ones, anyway), you might love it when we spend money on your products, you might love having a few of us at your events to make them seem hip and cool, but you do not value us.
Now for the most difficult and painful part, and that is this: when we do not value young people’s voices and experiences, we create a culture where child abuse is rampant.
This is always the hardest point to defend because adults immediately start telling me all about how they abhor child abuse and how dare I suggest otherwise.
Of course you abhor it. I’m sorry if I suggested otherwise. I am confident that if you believe that a child is being abused, you would do the right thing and notify the authorities.
But would you believe that the child is being abused?
Would you believe them, or would you assume that their mom (your friend from the PTA, who’s always so friendly and nice) couldn’t possibly do such a thing?
Would you believe them, or would you assume that their coach, who always finds you after the game and tells you what a great team player your son is, would never do that?
If we tell children that their experiences don’t matter and adults are always right, why would they even bother to accuse an adult of doing something so wrong?
If we tell children that they’ll understand when they’re older, why wouldn’t they just shrug and try to cope until it stops?
If we tell children that they are not mature enough to be granted one of their constitutional rights, which they learn about in school, which other rights will they assume they don’t deserve?
When will we start to matter? When we turn 18? When we turn 21? When we get married and have kids? When we pass your mandatory maturity exam? When we have stable jobs with benefits and 401(k)s? When we’ve paid off all our loans? (That day may never come for me, thanks to people who are much older and wiser than me.) When a neurological test shows that our brain is no longer developing? (You realize that brains continue to grow and change for our whole lives, right?)
Do any of these sound like rational, just standards by which to judge whether or not someone’s opinions matter?
I commit to doing a better job of listening to children, starting with the ones in my house. Their intellectual and moral development is more important than me getting to feel superior about myself.
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