Column | Stop making children into moral authorities
On March 14, high school students from Parkland, Florida, led a school walkout in favor of gun control. The media have already appointed student witnesses of the horror at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School untouchable moral authorities; their opinions are not to be questioned.
But now, the left has found even more sympathetic faces for its agenda: kindergarteners. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Schools are grappling with how to address the event with children as young as 5 years old and with finding ways for children who are too little to be told about school shootings to take part.” Children in pre-K at Manhattan Country School will sing, “If I Had a Hammer” and “Paz y Libertad.” Public schools like PS 321 in Brooklyn allowed children to do activities linked with the protests.
There is something deeply perverse about using children to promote a political agenda. Children simply don’t know anything about politics. Sometimes children ask questions that help us rethink the world because they’ve had little experience with it – when my 4-year-old daughter asks questions about the universe, that prompts me to further learning and research. But she doesn’t have answers, because she’s a child.
What makes children particularly valuable is their innocence, not their ignorance. The left seems to like conflating the two characteristics. Innocence, as a quality, isn’t about lack of knowledge or gullibility. The fact that everything in the world is wondrous to children is charming, but it’s not something we can truly protect; as children age, they learn more, and they become more jaded, as we all do. We experience moments of wonder throughout our lives but never as we do when we’re young. That’s natural.
But we can protect innocence.
Innocence is the moral quality of being sinless, and children are inherently innocent specifically because they have not yet developed the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Once they do, the only way to maintain their innocence is for them to do right – the same way we all attempt to maintain our innocence.
But children must first be taught right from wrong. That means that as children develop their capacity to choose, they must develop a moral compass. Children don’t have such a compass – the most selfish, cruel and nasty human beings on Earth are small children. If 2-year-olds had the capacity to carry weapons of war, we’d all be dead already; my son isn’t yet 2 and takes a peculiar pleasure in knocking down his sister’s blocks. That’s why it’s a good thing they’re so damned cute.
But they’re not moral guides. We must protect them from having to act as moral guides until they are prepared to do so. And that means we must stop using their innocence – their lack of capacity for moral decision-making – as a substitute for moral authority. To do anything less isn’t merely foolish; it’s cruel.