And so it begins. Finally. Students in Florida who survived a school shooting are using their voices and demanding that lawmakers listen to them. They’re joined by other young people around the country who also feel they have rights that aren’t being protected. It was only a matter of time before young people realized they have a right to rights and that they have the power to demand them. It’s important that adults pay attention, because their protests have the potential to be about much more than guns.
Despite rhetoric to the contrary, young people are a categorically oppressed group. Sociologist Louis Wirth defined oppressed people as those who, because of a particular physical characteristic (like youth), are involuntarily put into a category that’s singled out in society for different and unequal treatment. And young people, they can’t vote. They aren’t entitled to equal pay. They have no formal political representation and are excluded from decision-making processes. What we think youth feel, need, and want usually comes from adultified points of view. Young people are forced to accept the rules imposed upon them by a dominant group.
But now our youngest citizens, this categorically oppressed group, are demanding their right to be safe. They’re stating that their right to go to school outweighs individuals’ rights to own guns. While we know about the rallies in Florida, and while Emma Gonzales has over a million twitter followers, young people are raising up other issues as well. Nor is gun control the only issue they are bringing to light. They have already broadened their claims from gun control to the right to mental healthcare . This is especially impactful given that U.S. Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 5 people (including young ones) suffer from mental health issues yearly, and that 1 in 2 will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Depression, anxiety and PTSD are experienced by millions of children, and youth suicide and self-hurting behaviors are at epidemic rates. Youth are seeing this and already asking for the help they deserve.
What they haven’t yet realized is that they have power to demand that other rights be addressed as well. As a group, young people collectively experience a variety of preventable problems that could be overcome if their rights were deemed as important as the rights of other groups. Where can they turn to ground their claim for other such rights? To the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for one. This treaty is a legally-binding international agreement setting out the civil political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child, regardless of their race, religion or abilities. It consists of 54 articles that set out children’s rights and how governments should work together to make them available to all children. Young people could use this treaty to advocate for much more than gun safety.
Building on such solid ground they could protest being born into poverty, or being kept in lives that deprive them of an opportunity to succeed. According to the nonpartisan Children’s Defense Fund’s State of America’s Children 2017 report, 1 in 5 children are poor; of those, 70% are children of color, and 2 in 3 have a working family member. Three million American children try to survive on $2 a day – a rate which rivals child poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries. One in five children (a total of over 14.8 million) live in food-insecure households and lack access to adequate food and at risk of obesity and malnutrition. Hunger is now commonplace, and non-white children are twice as likely as white families to be food-insecure. And while the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, feeds 20 million children, Congress is now thinking of cutting not only this program but the Children’s Health Insurance Program as well.
Or young people could begin calling for an end to homelessness and housing distress, problems that aren’t uncommon experiences of the young. While reported numbers under-estimate the state of housing distress, over 1.2 million school aged children are reported homeless — a figure that has risen 87% since the economic recovery of the Great Recession. Or they could take on child abuse in America – since our child abuse rates are some of the highest in the developed world and many children suffer terrible trauma from witnessing adult-on-adult violence, including domestic violence. Or police brutality, since alleged police brutality against youth has caught the public’s attention. This list could go on and on. But perhaps an increasingly politically active group of the young will force lawmakers to explain ageism, why the elderly are given rights but energetic, smart, young people aren’t.
History teaches us valuable lessons. Oppressed people will accept discrimination only for so long before they decide to do something about it. It took 70 years for women to finally get the right to vote, after women like Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton decided they’d had enough. The 1963 Birmingham’s Children’s March helped break our nation’s 250-year law of segregation. It took years of violent struggle for LGBTQ+ individuals to be afforded rights. The USA is the only United Nations member country to not join the rest of the world in the ratification of its child rights treaty. The student protests that have already begun indicate that it’s now time for our nation to address youth rights.
The young are making a legitimate request. And we have a choice about how we’re going to respond to our young citizens’ demand for rights. Our children aren’t our enemies — they’re our beloved, cherished future. They’re following the rules we taught them and contacting their representatives for help. These children and youth have joined together and are demanding that lawmakers implement democracy — not just talk about it.
As a nation, we have two options in front of us regarding how we will respond to the incredible opportunity this awaking of the young provides. Either we can work with them as partners, teaching them how democracy works and training them to become good and wise caretakers of our society – or we can alienate, criticize, and ostracize them, refusing to consider their demands as legitimate requests.
The child and youth rights movement was inevitable. They aren’t going to go back “in their place.” As a nation, we have a choice about what lessons we’re going to teach young people about democracy. Choose well.
Yvonne Vissing is Professor of Healthcare Studies and Founding Director of the Center for Childhood & Youth Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She is also U.S. Child Rights Policy Chair for the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child from the international Hope for Children Child Rights Policy Center. She is a National Institute of Mental Health Post-doctoral Research Fellow and Whiting Foundation Fellow. The author of 7 books, her new book on the Sociology of Children and Youth will be coming out soon from the University of California Press.