The children’s rights movement has not just taken off, it’s flying at full-speed ahead. You can see it in the newspapers, on television, and on social media. It can be found in the streets, in the classrooms, and in our homes. Are you paying attention?
It’s occurring around the world. The movement can be found throughout Europe. It’s observable across the United States, from New York to California. It’s occurring throughout Asia, including India and Hong Kong. Youth activism can be found in Australia, Africa, Mexico, Central America, and South America.
The children’s rights movement is not a fad. It’s not unidimensional. It is a multifaceted movement that has been building for years. Like climate change, which the public and government officials didn’t pay nearly enough attention to until hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, and raging fires made it impossible not to notice its global consequences, the children’s rights movement has been growing since the 1960s. Young people have been leaders in the US Civil Rights Movement movement, anti-war protests, and anti-poverty efforts, radically affecting society for decades. Their efforts to promote social change haven’t been entirely invisible, it’s just that we haven’t paid sufficient attention to their collective message.
Young protestors and social change agents are not a marginal class of uppity troublemakers. They are making articulate, reasoned, scientifically-supported, well-crafted presentations that rival those of any adult. They are well-armed with facts, statistics, and knowledge of law and government. These young people are using the skills that their parents and teachers taught them. They are using logic and education within the political process. They are writing letters to their mayors, governors, and Congressional representatives. They are collecting signatures on petitions. They are taking to the streets in nonviolent protests. They are using formal and informal media to get their messages out. They are proposing new legislation. Young activists are doing exactly what we have taught them to do: they are playing by the rules of civic engagement. They expect adults to do so as well. They are demanding that government officials and businesspeople model appropriate behavior for the benefit of the world and all of its inhabitants.
Young people are bonding together, not just narrowly around nationality but expansively around social issues that transcend geographic and cultural boundaries. This is demonstrated in the coordinated climate change marches that are occurring around the world. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg is credited for inspiring the recent worldwide youth protests on climate change, in which young people demanded that government officials, businesspeople, and adults act now to stop environmental devastation. Youth have also been leaders in the anti-bullying movement and the anti-drug movement. They’ve been fighting against racism and inequality, and for gender equality and sexual orientation rights. While protestors in Hong Kong may be focused on national concerns, their actions resonate with youth movements throughout the world, including consciously global movements. The US gun control movement and the March for Our Lives protests, spearheaded by the student survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, have likewise received international support. While young leaders like Greta Thunberg, Emma González, and Malala Yousafzai have become global celebrities, the broader reality is that most young people are doing what they can to make the world a better place every day.
Often the contributions of young people are discounted merely because they are young, based on a mindset that values children for who they will become in the future, rather than who they are now. It is important, however, to see young people as human “beings,” rather than merely human “becomings.” The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child views their right to civic participation as essential to the cultivation of civil society. Children may be our future, but they are also our present.
The youth rights movement, like climate change, is happening now. It’s not something minor that we should ignore. It’s time to start paying much more attention to what young people have to say. Young activists are millions strong and getting stronger. No country in the world grants people under the age of 16 the right to vote — and most withhold the right until 18 — but in a few years, these young people will also become voters. They will all be in positions to run for office, run businesses, and raise families, empowering a new generation of children. It is incumbent upon us to consider that they are standing up not just for a better life for themselves, but for all of us. And we should remember that while they are presently playing by the rules that we taught them and are honoring the importance of peace, negotiation, and nonviolence, no one should take this for granted. If we have learned anything about social movements in the past, it is that when political leaders don’t listen to disenfranchised groups, things can get ugly.
Allegra Harpootlian of ReThink Media recently asked, “What if there’s an antiwar movement growing right under our noses and we just haven’t noticed? What if we don’t see it, in part, because it doesn’t look like any antiwar movement we’ve even imagined?” The movement she describes is real, and increasingly visible — one of many globally-networked youth movements growing up right under our noses — and we need to pay attention. We would be wise to heed the truth of Bob Dylan’s words in “The Times They Are a-Changin'” : “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin.’” As Harpootlian suggests, echoing Dylan, the time has come for us to “get on board or get out of the way,” because the times they are a-changin’.
Yvonne M. Vissing is the Founding Director of the Center of Childhood and Youth Studies and Professor of Health Studies at Salem State University.