Every once in a while a blog post about ‘childism’ makes the rounds on social media, which is described as being a “prejudice against young people” that’s on par with sexism, racism, and homophobia. But the Director of the Childism Institute, Dr. John Wall, argues that that definition implies children are simply victims of whatever adults throw at them – when actually they are active agents who create meaning for themselves.
Dr. Wall’s most recent book is called Give Children The Vote – when I picked it up, I have to admit that I rolled my eyes. I was prepared to remain skeptical…and was surprised to find that by the end of the book, the idea of children’s suffrage actually made a whole lot of sense.
Changing our minds…changing the world
A big part of what happened to me as I researched this episode was that I changed my ideas about two things I’d long assumed to be true: that we need to protect children from adults who look down at them, and that children shouldn’t be able to vote. As you’ll hear in the episode, my daughter was actually part of this process on the voting topic – we talked about whether she thought she should be able to vote, and she demonstrated the major capabilities that Dr. Wall said children need to be able to vote responsibly.
So often we get stuck in a rut of imagining that the way we see the world is The Right Way, and if our child doesn’t see it that way then it’s because they aren’t yet mature enough to know how the world really works. But what if we could see that the ways children view the world – in fact, the ways we used to view the world before we were taught that rational arguments supersede all other kinds of knowledge – as something that actually has value?
Not only does it have value, but it might create insights into the challenges we face – from the small ones in our daily lives to the really big ones like what we’ll do about climate change and how we’ll address really big social problems.
Our children need us to see and value their creativity, because there are so many other places in the world that don’t value it – and that will squash it out of them pretty quickly.
If you’d like to learn how to support your own child’s intrinsic creativity and love of learning, I invite you to join me in the FREE You Are Your Child’s Best Teacher masterclass. Click the banner to learn more!
Dr. John Wall’s Book
Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy (Affiliate link).
Parenting Beyond Power
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Discover practical insights and fresh perspectives that can make a positive difference in your parenting journey.
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Abebe, T., & Biswas, T. (2021). Rights in education: outlines for a decolonial, childist reimagination of the future – commentary to Ansell and colleagues. Fennia 199(1), 118-128.
Barajas, S. (2021). Unearned advantages? Redefining privilege in light of childhood. Children’s Geographies 20(1), 24-36.
Biswas, T. (2021). Who needs sensory education? Studies in Philosophy and Education 40(3), 387-302.
Britta, S. (2020). The Children’s Polylogue-Doing Philosophy with Children in Intercultural Encounters. Философский полилог: Журнал Международного центра изучения русской философии 1 (7), 55-69. Retrieved from: https://www.childism.org/_files/ugd/8edd45_91282ebbaf034a3fbdfe322bb4b3156a.pdf
Hart, R.A. (1992). Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship. UNICEF. Retrieved from: https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/100-childrens-participation-from-tokenism-to-citizenship.html
Josefsson, J., & Wall, J. (2020). Empowered inclusion: Theorizing global justice for children and youth. Globalizations 17(6), 1043-1060.
Sporre, K. (2021). Young people – citizens in times of climate change? A childist approach to human responsibility. Theological Studies 77(3), a6783.
Stirling, B. (2020). Childhood, ecological feminism, and the environmental justice frame. Etudes canadiennes/Canadian Studies 88, 221-238.
The Childism Institute (2021). Childism: An introduction. Author. Retrieved from https://8edd4583-272f-402d-a88f-f13f889bc034.usrfiles.com/ugd/8edd45_d69ea07ff9674dd180245bd409542504.pdf
Thomas, N. (2007). Towards a theory of children’s participation. International Journal of Children’s Rights 15, 199-218.
Wall, J. (2022). Give children the vote: On democratizing democracy. London: Bloomsbury.
Wall, J. (2019). From childhood studies to childism: Reconstructing the scholarly and social imaginations. Children’s Geographies 20(3), 257-270.
Wall, J. (2018). Theorizing children’s global citizenship: reconstructionism and the politics of deep interdependence. Global Studies of Childhood 9(1), 5-17.
Wall, J. (2011). Can democracy represent children? Toward a politics of difference. Childhood 19(1), 86-100.
Wall, J. (2008). Human rights in light of childhood. International Journal of Children’s Rights 16, 523-543.
Wall, J. (2007). Fatherhood, childism, and the creation of society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75(1), 52-76.
Hi, I'm Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be soJenny:
do you get tired of hearing the same old interest to podcast episodes? I don't really But Jen thinks you might. I'm Jenny, a listener from Los Angeles, testing out a new way for listeners to record the introductions to podcast episodes. There's no other resource out there quite like Your Parenting Mojo, which doesn't just tell you about the latest scientific research on parenting and child development but puts it in context for you as well. So you can decide whether and how to use this new information. I listen because parenting can be scary and it's reassuring to know what the experts think. If you'd like to get new episodes in your inbox along with a free infographic on 13 reasons your child isn't listening to you and what to do about each one. Sign up at YourParentingMojo.com/subscribe. You can also join the free Facebook group to continue the conversation. Over time you might get sick of hearing me read this intro so come and record one yourself. You can read from a script Jen provided or have some real fun with it and write your own. Just go to YourParentingMojo.com/recordedtheintro. I can't wait to hear yoursJen Lumanlan:
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I found my guest and their topic today via a bit of a circuitous path. I was listening to a presentation that was part of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education conference and heard a fabulous quote from Dr. Toby Rollo that I immediately thought would make a great epigraph for my book. And the quote was, "What if I told you that your ideas about politics are actually just your ideas about childhood extrapolated?" I got in touch with Dr. Rollo. And in our conversation, he mentioned he's writing a chapter for an upcoming book on childism and that there's a childism institute, which I had no idea existed. So I went and dug into the research on the institute's page, and I knew that we needed to talk with its director. So he's here with us today. Before we start the conversation, I'd like to note that we spend a lot of time talking about ideas that are deeply grounded in respect for children in the show Whether or not you agree that children should be allowed to vote, perhaps you'll see from our conversation that to even consider the idea of childism as Dr. Wall defines it means that we hold children in high regard; it means we want to hear their ideas about themselves, our families, our lives together, and the wider world. When our children are sharing their ideas with us, they're learning and we're learning too. They're learning to observe, to create new ideas, to connect ideas, and to explain them to others. And we might learn that the way we've always thought about something, the idea we assumed was true, might not be true after all; there might be a different way to see it that allows us to understand the idea more deeply and even consider their perspectives of those whom we normally see as opposed to us. If this idea of learning with and even from your children sounds enticing, I would love to see you in the free You You’re Child's Best Teacher workshop that I'll host in just a couple of weeks between August 29 and September 9. We'll spend two weeks at a really relaxed pace learning how to see children's learning where we would never have imagined it's happening and explain that it's happening to folks who might doubt that it's happening and be and really believe that you can be the one who supports your child intrinsic love of learning, which they already have and they're already doing if we can just learn how to see it. The workshop is totally free and you can sign up at YourParentingMojo.com/bestteacher. The workshop gives you a bit of an introduction to my learning membership, which gives you so much more support in making this transition over the next year and beyond. Enrollment technically opens in September, although it's actually available in presale mode right now. So if you already know you want to join, you can go to YourParentingMojo.com/learningmembership and sign up, and we won't charge you until September 25. So to head into our conversation today Dr. John Wall is professor of philosophy, religion, and childhood studies as well as the director of the childism Institute at Rutgers University Camden. He is a theoretical ethicist who works in political philosophy, post-structuralism, and children's rights. His latest book is Give Children the Vote on Democratizing Democracy, which argues that denying children the vote in democratic societies is both unjust and counterproductive. We're going to talk about some of the major objections made to the idea of children's suffrage and why Dr. Wall believes it could lead to not just better outcomes for children, but also stronger democracies. Welcome, Dr. Wall It's so great to have you here.Dr. Wall:
Thank you for having me.Jen Lumanlan:
My first question is really related to my curiosity over what has been a really long-running interest for you in the topic of childism, which we're going to define in a minute, but I'm wondering what your childhood was like and what experience has shaped your work today.Dr. Wall:
I grew up in the UK in England and moved here as a 13-year-old, and that's partly what shaped my interest in children because I realized my childhood is very different in the two different places. There's a sort of culture shock, but it was more a shock around how our children felt to be, how they are understood and what are their places so that was part of it. And also, that created in me a kind of existential angst that larger perspective on things, you know, things aren't the way they seem necessarily. So that put me in that perspective. As a young adult, I did some social work with children before going to grad school. So that also raised a lot of questions around the ways in which policies handle childhood in this country and what children are in relation to adults. And then in graduate school, I was involved in a long project on religion and family. And I had not at that point thought at all about studying children or childhoods, and this project was about there were 21 books that came out of the project, and not a single one, believe it or not, was focused on children. They were pretty much all about marriage that we were into the same-sex marriage debate at the time. I was in favor of same-sex marriage but other kinds of debates like that. And I thought that's really strange that there's nothing really about children as subjects. You know, this will be good for children, but not what the children thing. And then I just had the good luck to come to Rutgers University, where there happened to be a center for children and childhood studies. My first book had nothing to do with children. I never thought about them as an academic subject at all. My dissertation doesn't really children It was in political philosophy. And I met Myra Bluebond Langner, who's one of the founding childhood studies scholars in the US, and through that other people. And then I gradually started to get involved in religion and childhood studies issues as well. There was an emerging group I helped to found the project to the American Academy of Religion on Children, and I just became fascinated with the subject, and it doesn't let me go. And I've written three more books since then, and they've all been about children. I got beyond my own childhood, I realized, but I do think it's rooted in a sense of childhood as having great creativity and playfulness. And my first book was actually called Moral Creativity, and it was about creativity in ethical life. And then I realized, yes, children are really creative in many ways, and their own creativity is not part of how adults think about even creativity, let alone everything else.Jen Lumanlan:
Okay, but now you have to take us back to the beginning and tell us what was so different about living in the UK and living in the US as a child.Dr. Wall:
Absolutely. Well, I mean, it's hard to generalize, but the difference I experienced had to do with, well, it was really policy things. I was very interested in politics as a child, and why wasn't there universal health care for children? Why would I tell them about health care in the US? I just couldn't understand. It didn't make any sense to me. Schools, I came here and moved to a supposedly great school district and all that kind of stuff from ordinary public school in England, and it was just a very different experience. I didn't feel like I was being taught to think critically, which of course, I'm not saying everything is wonderful in the English school district. But I was lucky, I think to grow up in England during the 60s and 70s, when there was a great investment in schools and I had some really wonderful teachers, it just seemed quite routine, it seemed pair seemed very flat. I took my first standardized test on my first day in school. I was like, "What the heck is this?" Fill in the blank or whatever. And I've now realized that this is a capitalistic, neoliberal kind of model of schooling. I didn't realize that at the time, of course, there was also cultural things. There's all these nerds and jocks and stereotypes of children that you had to somehow fit into, and I have not really experienced those kinds of stereotypes in the same way as a child in it. So I just felt like there was less respect for childhood in general, not to say that everything was wonderful growing up in England either.Jen Lumanlan:
Right. Yeah, I don't remember being that way anyone. I came here a few years later. Okay, so I want to move into talking about childism, because this is sort of the crux of your work, and I first learned about this concept on a blog that was very popular in the respectful parenting world called Happiness is Here. And it defines childism as a prejudice and or discrimination against the young and a systemic condition that promotes stereotypes of the young, and the author goes on to say in a blog post, "We recognize sexism, we recognize racism, we recognize homophobia, but we don't recognize childism." But you see childism a bit differently there, right? Can you tell us how you see it differently compared to what I just described? Yeah, absolutely.Dr. Wall:
What you described is Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s definition, and I want to just give a little historical background actually first on that because she used the word childism to mean the same thing as what has more traditionally been meant by the word adultism, and there's been this concept of adultism since Patterson DuBois, in 1903, coined the term adultism to mean discrimination against children and the adult in position of power over children. In the ‘70s, Jack Flasher developed this idea in a very influential way. As well, John Bell, Barry Checkoway, and others in the '90s developed a concept of adultism to mean different things like prejudice or discrimination, or disrespect for children, or marginalization of children. There’s many different nuances to this concept of adultism. When I developed the concept of childism, this was prior to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s idea I was vaguely aware of the concept that had been developed prior to mine, which was in the 1990s by Peter Hunt, and he had developed this concept of childism in contrast with adultism. He was a literary theorist who was attempting to say, "Well, yes, there's adultism in how you think about literature," but what would be childism in contrast to that? Well, it would be reading like a child or trying to understand how children read, and so these ideas are not really used anymore, because they were critiques of it. And I agree with those critiques that it can be a centralizing, you know, there's not one way that children read literature, just like there's not one way that women or men or racial minorities or any other group read the literature or does anything. So the concept of childism I was trying to develop came out of my early research in political theory were grounded in third-wave feminism. Womanism was the immediate inspiration, which is African Americans, third-wave feminism, but also environmentalism, decolonialism, and things like that, you know, where I wanted to develop a term similar to those for age, but not old age. Ages have been used also around children, but it tends to have this other connotation, so I wanted to develop a term with childism, which I started using publishing about in 2006, and effort to positively think about how to transform societies in response to children. So this Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s concept of childism, I thought it was very unfortunate that she was coming out of psychoanalysis. Her career was in prejudice around sex, and religion, and disability, and homophobia, and so absolutely, you know, just as feminists need to uncover patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, and all those kinds of things that's absolutely important, but if feminism was only those things, it wouldn't have gotten as far as it has. So I think it's just unfortunate to use the name of children to refer to the negative prejudice against children I also think that it is very useful to use it in that way. I mean, I have nothing against deconstructing childism in that sense, but I would just prefer to call it adultism. And so the idea in which childism is, as I developed it, came out of childhood studies, which I don't think Elizabeth Young-Bruehl was aware of being in psychoanalysis, even though it had been around for 20 years by then. Childhood Studies as a field of study which has attempted to understand children as agents in their worlds and also socially constructed persons does not own childhood, and it was a bit of a reaction to developmental psychology at the time, which sort of tended, not always, but sort of tended to have a more rather universalistic sense of children, and also, the concept of development has a sort of inherently adult aesthetic dimension to it, because you're looking at what a children developing into, which is adult, so you then measure them by how far developed they are. You know, that's not true of all developmental psychology, but that was the idea at the time. So I was building out of that kind of field of study that children are agents. They're complex beings. They're very diverse beings in different parts of the world. Their worlds are constructed very differently, but they do act and have voices and participate in their work, and so my concept of childism, the way I define it, is an effort to empower children's experiences and lives by transforming the structural norms around them, just like third-wave feminism. One of the differences between third-wave and second-wave feminism is that third-wave feminism didn't want just equality to men, because of course, that could be defined entirely on men's grounds. How do you define equality? I wanted to do the similar thing with childism is not just define children in relation to adults and define children's agency in relation to adult agency or voice or whatever, but actually allow for concepts like agency and voice and rights and politics and democracy or whatever to be themselves transformed. I see it as deconstruction and reconstruction in the same step, you reveal adultism and the ways in which people and societies assume that children are less than adults. And children do it as much as adults, I think often, but you also attempt to transform those assumptions so that we no longer think about children as losses on adults.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, so that the whole view is seeing children as capable beings, rather than seeing them just as victims of whatever adults decide to put in place.Dr. Wall:
Yeah, exactly.Jen Lumanlan:
So, thanks for that comprehensive look at what childism is. It seems to me that it is situated in a very specific historical time, right? And the way that we think about childhood and what children are and what their role is in our society has shifted over time. Can you sort of maybe give us a lay of the land in terms of how that has happened and how we got to be where we are today?Dr. Wall:
If we're thinking about the present situation, I'd be happy to talk about the deeper history, but I think just in the past few decades, there has been a bit of a reaction to what happened to children prior to that. Actually, this is really only in the sort of so-called Global North, and it's a totally different story in other parts of the world, which has been talked about I think, but you know, at least in places like the US, this concept developed of children as being in the private sphere as being separated off from the world, and therefore needing to those be protected from the world and not forced to be involved in the world, given this protected sphere in the home and the school where they can supposedly grow and mature into adult, and again, that's very different than other parts of the world, but what's happened is that children themselves have started to revolt against that imposition on them. And you know, a very visible example of that is the climate movement, where those children are more impacted by the climate emergency because they can see that they're going to be living with these consequences in a very profound way throughout their lives, whereas the old people who make really in charge and plant most climate policy don't have to be treated like such an emergency because they're not going to be dealing with it for their whole lives, and of course, they might generally worry about their children, but they're not, they don't feel the effect on their bodies in the same way so we're seeing things like that. And it's not just Greta Sundberg and 15-year-olds, I'm talking about six-year-olds, seven-year-olds eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds. I mean, it's this all ages of children are very worried about this. I see in my college classes people coming in who've been worrying about this for years, and they can't understand why nothing's happening but it's the other things, you know, it's gun control, and again, I hate to use the metaphor of feeling it in their bodies, but unfortunately, children have to live with this fear they have to have classrooms. I have an adult daughter who is a teacher, and she has a roped off on the floor in her classroom where you go and tape if there's an active shooter in the building. So children understand they're not stupid, they're not naive, they're not separate from the world, they are a part of the world and the policies that are made about anything effect on gun control. You would like to think that that's nothing to do with children, but of course, it's fundamentally through children and children are very hurt by that, so the Black Lives Matter movement is another example. Children are organizing, they're marching there, they see the racism that they have to grow up with is simply false that children can do or even should live in the separate bubble, which was an ideology that developed. Yeah, I want to get into that there's a deeper history behind that as well.Jen Lumanlan:
There is we can spend probably half an hour in that rabbit hole, even though it was a very interesting rabbit hole for me to dig into, reading your work, but I think we're sort of where to go from here as you're thinking about expanding human rights, right? And I want to quote from one of your papers, "Over history, this has been human rights' greatest achievement. It has gradually expanded the construction of society from kings to landowners, majorities to minorities, men to women, and now adults to children. The purpose of human rights is to help us live interdependently as plural others in common." And yes, I am imagining there are a good number of folks here in the US, and probably in other places as well, who really don't agree with that statement, who don't think that rights should be extended to children, and these are people who see that their children's we're having rights is sort of in direct conflict to them. The right that is invested in them by God to bring up their children, however they see fit, and I'm thinking also back to the UN Convention on Human Rights, which are 595 countries, with two holdouts, one of which was Somalia, which didn't have a functioning government, and the other of which was ours, truly.Dr. Wall:
You mean the Convention on the Rights of the Child, I guess.Jen Lumanlan:
Yes, yes. Thank you. Thank you for that correction.Dr. Wall:
Actually, Somalia has now ratified.Jen Lumanlan:
Oh, okay.Dr. Wall:
The only country left is the US, even South Sudan has ratified it, which is a country that was created after I wrote that statement, so yeah.Jen Lumanlan:
Why are you pushing for this? And why are you pushing for it here specifically?Dr. Wall:
Well, the belly of the beast or something. What childism does has allowed me to do is see human rights from different perspectives and recognize that what is meant by a right has meant different things and in the US in particular, when the word right comes into our minds, we tend to think of a freedom or liberty or something like that, something an independent individual exercises on an autonomous basis, and this is actually a difference, I think, from England and some other European countries, and certainly from places in Africa and South America and Asia, where right is understood more as an obligation of societies towards the child to provide educational schooling, or health care or something along those lines, but then the US has quite an unusual country, and then we're sort of the ultimate privatization country, you know, we have this family idea as very private and separate more than anywhere else I can actually think of to be honest. So, why I'm doing it here because I simply live here, there's no complicated answer to that. I do find that the issue I run into here talking about children's rights is this issue primarily is the conflict between parents and children. It's one of the reasons why the US is the only country not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but it's not the only reason is I mean, the US also just doesn't ratify conventions. The process of the Senate ratifying convention is so difficult and complex hardly ever happens anywhere although we have ratified lots of older conventions. Of course, everybody recognizes that children have rights of some kind. As adults, you're not allowed to sexually abuse children or kill them, you know, neglect them. I think, at least in this country, we find it easy to understand that children have those kinds of protection rights where you can't harm a child, at least. And we have a little bit harder time, but we can still recognize another kind of children's rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a provision right, which is to be provided things like an education, or health care, or a home, which is one of the provision rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, security, things like that. We're not necessarily great at that, but we do recognize that that could very much be a right of a child, but there's a third P, as they call them, the three P's, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The third P that is talked about by UNICEF and the UN is participation rights, and this is one of those things that the CRC was fairly unique in developed. There had been two previous international agreements in 1924 and in 1959 that were also widely ratified but did not contain this third P, only the other two P's. These are rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion, and things like that. When a country signs the CRC, they can make provisions against that and a lot of countries that are more religious, like Iran, have made reservations around religion for example, but the general idea that children should have the freedom to participate as much as they can or want to influence society is part of the CRC. I don't really know why we have such a problem with that in this country when it comes to parents. There are actually seven rights in the CIC about parent, you have the right to parents, and you also have the right to be protected from your parents if they abuse or neglect you. It very much mirrors US law, and in fact, US lawmakers were involved very deeply in developing the rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child so you know, children do in the US have the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression. Rights are always balanced against each other, and so you might not have all rights or freedom. You can't express yourself freely if you're doing and also hurt somebody else in between hate speech or something like that, or hurt yourself in some way but generally speaking, children do have those rights so I just think it's a bit of a bogus claim. I don't think it really makes sense. We actually have, and this will give me a chance to get a little bit into the deeper history, we have a very lucky idea of human rights from John Locke, which is that everybody is born a blank slate, and they need to become rational before they're ready to exercise their freedoms and their rights, which, of course, when John Locke lived, and also when the US was founded, only meant White adult rich men who could do that gentleman or whatever. When the US was founded, only 6% of the population had the right to vote for example, which was a very specific group of people and that idea has been gradually whittled away for many groups, but for children, not because of this Locke in concept that they're born Black and so they don't have anything to use to exercise their freedom. In Europe, they tend to have a more resilient concept where children have wisdom and abilities and something unique to bring, but it needs to be kind of protected from corruption, which has its own problem. Anyway, that's a chance to get into some of the history.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, just a snippet. There's a long, long history of the ways that our thinking has shifted on that topic, and so I guess that leads me to then. Childism is a little bit different from a lot of the other isms that we might compare it to, things like feminism and post-colonialism, because some children can't speak for themselves. Newborns and toddlers are not going to be able to lead a social movement, so how should we think about that?Dr. Wall:
What I've been arguing is that the idea of social movements that we have is an adultistic idea. Only powerful individuals who can stand up for their own rights should be leading social movements and having political voices, and I don't think anybody is really that way. I don't think I am really that way. I'm manipulated by my environment. I depend on other people for my well-being. I need politicians to listen to me. I need what political theorists call "responsive democracy." I don't just need to influence them, or I need them to listen to me as well and be responsive is an interdependent relational concept of democracy. So yes, you know, toddlers and young children may not have the resources, they certainly don't have the money to influence politics the way I do, for example, or suddenly, like Bill Gates has, you know, but politics itself will be changed and can make itself responsive, and children do have voices and do have ideas and do have experiences and live concrete and diverse lived experiences that need to be attended to and understood. For that to happen, politics needs to be thought about in a much more interdependent way and much more. I've developed a concept of empowered inclusion, which means empowerment is not about just taking away the barriers to empowerment, it's about actively giving empowerment and making sure that marginalized perspectives are actively welcomed into the situation and I think that would benefit not just toddlers, but adults as well. And lots of people.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, I agree, because right now it is the adults who control the show, right? We decide if it's okay for children to be involved in politics in some way. We decide what that's going to look like and how they're going to be involved, and this took me all the way back to undergrad when I did a class where we learned about Sherry Arnstein's ladder of participation, and I didn't know that it was adapted by Roger Hart to be more applicable to working with children. So, this ladder, it sort of starts with bottom, where children are assigned but informed, right? So we're telling them what's going to happen to them or what is happening, then they're consulted and informed, then adult initiated with decisions or shared with children, which is where a lot of the things like youth parliaments and those kinds of things seem to end up, and then above that we have child-initiated and directed, where the children actually decide what the issues are we're going to work on, and then child initiated and shared decisions with adults. And so, I'm wondering, do you see examples around the world where we have been able to get out of this idea of adults are going to be the ones who say how this is going to happen and toward a view of children being the ones who decide what they're going to engage with and how they're going to engage and actually share genuine decision-making authority?Dr. Wall:
Absolutely, certainly I do. It tends to be invisible, too often invisible eyes because of the normative frameworks that adults bring, which is around children not being capable of those things. I do want to say, first of all, Roger Hart himself, who I know has rejected this flatter, because it's not that you have different states of being, it's more like stages of grief, you know, that those turned out not to be linear stages, but all happening at the same time, I am simultaneously tokenized, manipulated, and you know, able to initiate actions and share with other people and every once in a while, someone actually listened to what I have to say.Jen Lumanlan:
We’re listening.Dr. Wall:
And I think it's the same for children, obviously. We're all at every level at the same time. Ideally, you want to have an influence over you, and I also want to just say that, again, just briefly, historically, children have, generally speaking, had lots of influence in power. In an agricultural economy where children are working on the farm from the age of four, they have a deep economic influence and power, and they represent their families and things of that nature by running businesses. I mean, we now live in a very different situation, and we have big for ideological, technological, and lots of other kinds of reasons, but I mean, there's many examples I could give you. This is kind of what Childhood Studies is all about understanding the lives of children as active and with voice and powerful, and just like women and men, or any other group. People in general are active in their environments and have an influence and have opinions and ideas about it, even if it doesn't make any difference. That's more on the environment than on them. You know, I've mentioned Black Lives Matter, gun rights, legislation, environmental issues, and concerns. There's a wonderful book by Michael Coming from 2020 called Children's Voices in Politics, where he interviews hundreds of kids and has a lot of interesting talks with them about their experiences of all of this. I've been involved in political issues with children where, for example, a 10-year-old girl came and spoke at a conference. Charlotte Anderson, the kid governor of Oklahoma, has a lengthy and cogent, and much more intelligent argument for her own right to vote than I've made in an entire book. We had a conversation with her about it all, and it was a fascinating discussion. There was an organization called crabset in Germany in the 1990s of children growing out of a children's playground movement, were also arguing for the right to vote and other kinds of rights, and they sued their local representatives and all this other kind of stuff just on their own. But in a broader sense, if you look around the world at places where children are not necessarily constructed as entirely private individuals like they are here, you find things like child labor activists. There's a child labor movement that started in Peru and spread around the world to Bolivia and India, and because children do work in many different kinds of semi-formal, formal, informal, under the radar, or illegal or legal ways around the world, in Bolivia, they formed a union that was powerful enough to lower the voting age from 14 to 10, which the UN was against and fought them on. But because Evan Morales was himself a child worker when he was younger, the President approved at the time, he understood what they were saying, and recognized you need to lower the voting age so you don't exploit children at 10. It's not illegal voting age that you want to be exploited. Migrants in Sweden protested the conditions and the fact that they're not treated and other children have also been out protesting. I got to know about children's Parliaments about 15 years ago for my graduate student of mine from India, and they began in Rajasthan, India, but there are about 30 countries in the world that have children's Parliaments in them. For example, in northern countries, often they can be rather tokenistic or what have you, because they tend to be the brightest or the kids most interested in politics, from the most upper middle class families who go to make a speech, you know, and make it look like children are having some influence, but then they're ignored after that, but in other places where children are much more integrated into the public arena, like, for example, there's a city in Brazil called Bauru Sao Brazil, where the children actually control a third of the entire city budget and they have introduced sewer systems, better street lighting, the anti-discrimination laws, all kinds of things like that, also the infrastructure for the schools and making sure the school teachers get paid better, so they actually come and teach. In India, I interviewed a child parliamentarian from India, not from Rajasthan, but from the south of India, who said that the adults come to them. A child parliament is classified as 5 years old, usually, there's a lower house of five to 11-year-olds and an upper house of 12 to 17-year-olds. He said adults go to them because they view the adult system as so corrupted by parliament that they recognize that children get more done and it's unsafe at night because there's no streetlights in the main street of town or whatever it might be. When the children go to the officials with this problem, they tend to get more done and it's not just a children's issue that children are concerned about all kinds of issues. So it's fascinating, as many examples with any other group of people.Jen Lumanlan:
I've read some of the examples that you mentioned in the Global South, and you've introduced me to some others, and I can see that in some places children are having a real voice. Obviously more familiar with examples in Eurocentric countries, particularly here in the US, and I see the students who were the victims of the Parkland shooting in making impassioned speeches, doing so much work leading marches, saying this will never happen again, nothing's changed. It happened again. The state of Maine has a Youth Council, and they actually have the power to introduce legislation. I wasn't able to find any legislation actually introduced, and it just seems like, you know, Greta Thunberg, has made again, impassioned speeches arguing we need to do something about climate change and do it now, and yes, everybody agrees she's an amazing author and she argues persuasively, and then nothing changes. I just want to sort of gently push back a bit on this idea that children really have agency in these situations. So how do you square that?Dr. Wall:
No, I think you're absolutely right. We have a children's ombudsman in New Jersey, where I work, and nothing ever happens there either. First of all, I will say, it's also true for most adults that nothing ever happens. I mean, if my political will was followed, we would be living in a very different country right now. Parkland students actually managed to push through legislation in Florida. That was the first time that gun legislation had really been changed in Florida for decades, and of course, they haven't solved the gun problem in the US. That's a very complicated, long problem, and I would say about Greta Sundberg, you know, she could be argued to be the most powerful human on the planet at the moment. Her ideas have radically changed how most people think about the climate issue, and it started when she was 15 years old. There might be the Donald Trump's of the world who say, "No, it's a hoax or whatever," but the world has been transformed under Greta Sundberg's direction, and okay, there isn't necessarily concrete legislation coming out of that, but I do think power is kind of complex and generally only works from the grassroots up, and if you want an example of a grassroots movement, the Fridays for the Future movement is, I don't mean to keep exaggerating things, but when has there ever been a global grassroots movement that's been so powerful and visible ever in all of human history? I don't know. I can't think of one that's so influential. It's frustrating. And I agree that the system is still so adultistic that it's very hard to have children's voices actually make a difference, but the adultism of the system also makes a lot of adult voices very hard to understand as well. It really gives power to a few wealthy adults. We live in a time of declining democracy and rising authoritarianism. And why? Because we have this neoliberal adult cystic idea of individuals competing for power, because supposedly the rational fewer leading things, and it's just, you know, it's a very problematic situation.Jen Lumanlan:
Okay, so what should we be doing, then? How should we be doing things differently?Dr. Wall:
Well, I'm hoping this is a segway to my latest bookJen Lumanlan:
It is. it's getting there. Yes. I think this sort of broad set of ideas of ways that we can engage with children, right? And one of those is allowing children the right to vote, which I have to say, when I picked up your book, I sort of looked at it and I thought, I don't know if I'm going to go for this. And by the end, I was fairly well convinced. Can you walk us through maybe how does children's voting fits within a broader way that policymakers should engage with children, and then specifically, maybe tell us about your arguments on that front?Dr. Wall:
Historically speaking, people have usually not had the influence they need to have on societies without the right to vote, and however much you can argue, and I would also agree that there are many other forms of power that are more important than the right to vote, going back in time through women and the poor, racial minorities, non-rich men, and non-aristocratic. Generally speaking, you have very little ability to influence your society, even as a democracy, unless you have the right to vote, and it's partly a symbolic thing that you're considered a first-class citizen, a full member of society who deserves the political arena, but partly it is actually a real that you actually really can change policies. So since women got the right to vote, all kinds of policies have had to change around being pregnant and being able to work or domestic violence or equal pay, you know, of course, they certainly haven't been as successful as they need to be, they haven't completely overturned the power dynamics of patriarchy, but without the right to vote, women today will be in totally different situation than they were 100 years ago, so that's part of the argument I'm making in my book about called give children the vote. Let me just lay out the three main points in this book. So one of them is, I know I'd like to come back to history at all, but one of them is that we tend to think as adults that history has always had the same form of voting, or the same form of democracy, and just more and more people got it, but that's completely not true. When the US was founded, for example, only very rich White men owned land. Land-owning men were allowed to vote, and that was borrowed from the English parliamentary system that grew out of it, and it was the same in England, France, and other places at the time which had democracies, which wasn't very many pleased. That was 6% of the population. So, what did they think democracy was if they convinced that it was only this very tiny portion of the population who could vote, not women, not minorities, not poor people, and anybody who didn't own land? They viewed democracy very, very differently than we view democracy today. Basically, they viewed it as a gentleman's agreement, you know, as to how to proceed with things, because gentlemen are the ones educated and rational enough to make the right decision, when poor men got the vote for different reasons. This was in response to the rise of industrialization and the proletariat and the idea that there's a public sphere that lots of people belong to who are male. When minorities got the vote, there were ideas of needing diverse voices or whatever in a democracy or not, at least not being able to leave them out. When women got the vote, the idea eventually developed that they should be individual adults who get the vote no matter who they are, no matter their circumstances, because they're competent to vote. So the result is that we even though of course, nothing against women having the right to vote, but we now tend to think of democracy as an adult proceeding, we tend to think, okay, so it's ruled by the people who are each individually competent to vote, and so the primary objection to children voting is, well, they're not adults, they're not competent to vote, and so this brings me to my second point, which is my argument against this competence argument. I think it's the wrong measure for who should get to vote. If you want to have a democracy, at least, if you want to have a healthy, functioning, good democracy, because if you think about it, a lot of adults are not actually very competent to vote. It's not a very good description of an adult. If you have severe dementia, you can vote. Someone can fill in your ballot for you, and if you say Abraham Lincoln, they have to write down Abraham Lincoln and send it in, and there are adults with severe mental illnesses, there are adults who are just don't understand anything about politics, and there are adults who buy conspiracy theories and watch the media that's crazy. It is not a requirement for adults to be competent to vote, so adultness and competency are not the same things. And then, of course, as we've been discussing, there are lots of children who are very competent. Greta Thunberg can't vote, I give the example of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who is a US Aztec child who since the age of six, has been writing protest songs and protesting on climate change. He hasn't had the right to vote at all, and yet he understands much more about the environmental issues than I do, and has a much more interesting perspective than I. So this age of 18 is both over and under determinative, and so I tried to explore what the competence to vote should be then. What is the real competence to vote? And if you work backwards from what is democracy meant to accomplish, which is to hold the representatives accountable to all the people, you know, we the people, then the real competence to vote comes down to, you know, do you understand what it means to vote? Do you understand your own political ideas? And do you understand what the choices that you're voting for? You know, Donald Trump versus Joe Biden. Do you understand the difference between those two things? That should be it. You shouldn't add any more criteria to that. Just as we learned with the Jim Crow South voting, you can't add competence requirements above what's minimally necessary, otherwise, you start imposing bias on the system, and all of those can be basically encapsulated by the desire to vote. If you want to vote, you already think of yourself as someone with a political life and a different set of ideas and other people, and you want to make a choice, democratically speaking, that would make for a much healthier democracy, so anyone who wants to vote, in my opinion, should have the right to vote, and that should be the competence bar, but the other argument I made in the process of writing this book, I thought that the second argument was the main argument, but I realized that, actually no, that this third argument is the main argument, and the third argument is that it would make societies much better for everybody, not just children, but adults as well. Again, as historically, societies became much better when women got the right to vote and men led much better lives, and the reason for this is that the genius of democracy, if you will, I mean, I'm not saying not that it always worked, but compared to the other alternatives, the genius of democracy is that the more voices you have, the more input you have into political decisions, the better those decisions are going to be. I think it's obvious for children, you know, there's going to be more attention to children's health needs, their funding of education, what education does, whether education is working or not, what its goals are, children's lives and families and the protections they need, and freedoms they need, and families and children's economic well-being. Children in almost every society are the poorest group, and the younger you get, the poorer you are. That would be something that politicians would at least have to give some thought to because they might lose their jobs if they don't. And then, you know, people sometimes object well, children will then have the rights to marry and drive and all that other kind of stuff. So they'll actually be worse off. But there's lots of rights that people have that are independent of their right to vote. People over 65 have the right to vote and rights to Social Security. There’s ages for different things. The difference with voting is that I argue that it's more like freedom of speech than the freedom to marry because the freedom of speech doesn't cause you any immediate harm if you exercise it. It's just a basic human right, but the freedom to marry, you could be harmed significantly by that If you got married at the age of three or driving would cause mayhem, you know, on the roads if a three-year-old could drive, but if a three-year-old can vote, it doesn't hurt anybody. But for adults, you know, imagine being a teacher who lives in a society where your representatives are making policies that respond to children as well as just adults. You would probably find yourself better paid, better funded, better supported, and not forced to produce capitalists that rich adults think you're supposed to be producing. The health system, you know, doctors would be able to treat children on an equal basis to everybody else. Pediatricians, I do a lot of work with pediatricians. I have a pediatrician friend who's written a chapter for a book about voting called Nina Modi. She's the president of the British Medical Association. She argues for children's voting on health grounds that children's health would be much better off, but also adults' health would be healthier as well, you will grow up being healthier, therefore you will be healthier for your life. What does an economist involved in all of this as well, who argues for chosen voting on economic grounds that politicians would start making long-term economic choices instead of just short-term economic choices, just like with climate change, they would start taking that more seriously. So parents too, I argue, if you lived under a regime where politicians were listening to the experiences of children and trying to take them seriously, you'd be much more likely, for example, to have parental leave or supportive, you know, after school programs or things to do with your children and funding for museums and things of that nature and playgrounds. And the reason for this is that we're not just individuals who are isolated from each other, we are, in fact, interdependent on each other as children, teachers, and so children would make democracy an interdependent political system and not the current neoliberal system we have.Jen Lumanlan:
Okay, so you mentioned a couple of really big ideas there. We don't have a lot of time left, but I want to spend a little more time on each of them. I think the first one is the idea that if a child wants to vote, they should have the right to vote, and that was a real pivotal moment for me in reading the book. When I picked up your book, I was sort of like, "I don't think I can imagine a two-year-old voting." And of course, the distinction there is that a two-year-old is going to ask to vote? And so I actually, as I was preparing the notes for this interview, my daughter happened to ask me what I was doing, and it just doesn't happen often, but she happened to ask me, and I said that I was preparing questions for somebody who thinks that children should be allowed to vote and she immediately said, "Oh, I can vote." And I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Well, that's how decisions are made." And she mentioned her not school program is her self-directed education program, and I said, "Yes, that's true. You can vote in that environment. You can't vote for president. You can't vote for people to represent you and state or national governments." She's like, "okay, yeah." And so I thought, okay, let's push this a little bit, and I asked her, "Do you want to be able to vote?" And she said, "Yes." And so I said, "Well, how would you choose who you would vote for?" And she said she would want to judge what the candidates would do and so she would look to see if they had been president before and if so, what things they did last time. So I kind of clarified that she would look at whatever job they had done before and see what they had done as an indicator of what they might do in the future, and she agreed, and she actually picked the environment as the number one issue that she would choose to select candidates and completely unprompted by me, and I just thought, you know, she's right there, right? She has all the capabilities that she needs, she wants to vote, she understands her own position and the position of others and how to judge what a candidate's performance is going to be like, and so at that point, it's like, why shouldn't she be allowed to vote?Dr. Wall:
Exactly. Well, and in a way, the question is, why is she being prevented from voting? Usually, we think of voting as something that is freedom you know, it's not an obligation. There are all kinds of people you have to vote for, but in most countries, you don't. Why are children actively being prevented from voting? They could instead have the choice to vote if they want to, just like everybody else. Interesting.Jen Lumanlan:
And I think that sort of links to your second argument, which is that, well, children don't know enough about how the world works and they would vote against their best interests, and well, why wouldn't we just abolish compulsory schooling? And I was kind of intrigued by your book. You seem to have a very favorable view of schooling and you argued that children wouldn't abolish schooling because they recognize its benefits, and now, the way you're describing schooling, it almost seems as though you're describing what I would envision, which is that children would bring about a complete radical shift in what the word schooling means. Is that what you're seeing would happen?Dr. Wall:
Absolutely. Yes. I think our education systems are failing children in many ways, they're getting worse, you know, they are becoming more test-oriented, more goal-oriented, and they're not developing the skills that people really need, and they're not doing it in a way that is meaningful to children. So I think that children would recognize that they need to learn to write and read and think about all these kinds of things, you know, generally speaking, children seem to be very enthusiastic about all those things until they've been in school for a few years and then they start thinking, "Oh, my God, this is terrible." If I have to sit in a classroom for six hours a day listening to someone drone on about this than the other, I would also be bored to tears. Yes, I think that would be that'd be pretty radical changes in education if children could vote, but hopefully, they would be if politicians actually listened to them. I don't imagine voting will change everything because I know that even for adults, there's a huge difference in power between adults and children are not going to suddenly become extremely powerful, but at least maybe we'd have more democratic schooling in regular schools you wouldn't have to pay lots of money to send your children to special democratic schools or homeschool if you wanted that. I don't know what those changes would be, I just know that at the moment, the system is very adult cystic and goal-oriented, and that's very damaging to children and adults.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, and it seems as though I think one of the powerful arguments is one that you could cite from John Holt that describes how the entirety of our society would need to change and he's specifically talking about manipulating voters and with children being manipulated by people who don't have their best interests at heart, and John Holt said, a society which had changed enough and it's way of looking at young children to be willing to grant them the right to vote would be one in which few people would want to or try to coerce a child's vote in which most people would feel this was a bad and wrong thing to do. So, even if the children's vote doesn't necessarily shift anything by itself, just the fact that we've changed our society enough to recognize that children should be allowed to vote would be a profound shift from where we are today.Dr. Wall:
Exactly. And I think it would go both ways that society would have to stop thinking of children as manipulable beings, at least no more than adults. If children had the right to vote, that would cause us to think less that way. Child studies scholars who work with children a lot know already that children are very powerful, smart, and interesting beings, but the kind of bias that pervades societies in the back of all of our minds is no they're not, and so we would puncture that bias pretty significantly. Another element to this is the fact that we were raised, we spent the first quarter of our lives in northern societies up to the age of 18, being told you have no role in politics or society, you need to just be quiet, and you don't have the competence or the capacity to have any impact on all that. Not only is that damaging to children, but it's damaging to society because when you do become a voter, you've had that ingrained in you, and why are we seeing democracies around the world slide into authoritarianism? The democracy index has traced a rise in the authoritarianism of the past 30 years across democracies. Why would you be susceptible to authoritarian appeals? Well, it makes sense because you've been told for most of your formative years that you should just listen to people who are more authoritative than you. I think it would be a great antidote to authoritarianism if children could vote.Jen Lumanlan:
Okay, so your book doesn't lay out a roadmap. But I wonder, where do we start?Dr. Wall:
With the voting?Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, voting in particular and also in general. Where do you think our society should go to recognize children as truly valuable parts of our culture?Dr. Wall:
Well, I'll just say on the voting that there are many of us. We meet in a monthly meeting called the children's voting colloquium to talk about that very issue to a global group of people, and there's many children and adults around the world working on that very question, but in a broader sense, yeah, I mean, I think we start by understanding that children are just as important members of our society as adults and recognizing that we have adultistic ways of thinking in the same way that we have sexist, racist, and other ways of thinking, and when we recognize that, we can then start to be self-critical and not just assume that because we're adults, we know everything. That's not easy, but it's actually a very fun and creative thing to do. It's a playful thing to do. It is actually very liberating to do that.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, playful. Gosh, we shouldn't do anything that's playful. That sounds terrible. Yeah, and I think what you're describing is opening ourselves up to the possibility that we might not have all the answers and that children might have some answers that we haven't considered that as we put our blinkers on and we get so goal-directed and as we get older, we lose the ability to think broadly and playfully and creatively about topics, and that children still have this, and we can harness that power and that wisdom, which may end up actually helping us, you know.Dr. Wall:
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here. This was an absolutely enlightening thing for me to look at and research, and I have to say I was not expecting to be convinced. I was really happy to be convinced. So thank you very much for writing the book and for being here with us to talk about it today.Dr. Wall:
Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure to chat with you.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, and so Dr. Wall’s book is called give children the vote on democratizing democracy and the link to that, as well as all of the other books and papers that I read in preparation for our episode today, can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/childrenvote.Jenny:
Hi, this is Jenny from Los Angeles. We know that you have a lot of choices about where you get information about parenting, and we're honored that you've chosen us as we move toward a world in which everyone's lives and contributions are valued. If you'd like to help keep the show ad-free, please consider making a donation on the episode page that Jen just mentioned. Thanks again for listening to this episode of The Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Don't forget to head to YourParentingMojo.com/recordtheintro to record your own messages for the show.