Why I take my child to protests

ANU students protest over the federal budget proposed deregulation of university fees.
ANU students protest over the federal budget proposed deregulation of university fees. Photo: Stefan Postles

“Where’s the angry mob?”

That was my daughter’s reaction to her first protest march when she was younger. Based on how TV news covers protests, she thought they were all about screaming and spittle. 

But the reality is much different.

She knows them better now and takes her pick of which ones she will attend based on her interest. If they don’t, I receive a very polite refusal. The taboo of the mild mob has been well and truly busted for her.

Still, we’ve marched together so she can support asylum seekers. I’ve watched her silently raise her fist in solidarity with speeches at the Reclaim the Night after the tragic murder of Jill Meagher. As someone who lives in the city and notes its movements and marches, she’s filed away data on how things work.

So the other day as we crossed through the students marching against cuts to higher education, she noted there were more police at this protest than any of the “adult” protests she has seen – and she’s seen a lot. Watching the police “kettle” and drag protesters away made her feel wary of the police.

There are people who don’t want children at marches. Believing it displays anti-social behaviour from the child or political indoctrination by the parent. Yesterday, the Herald Sun’s front page of the newspaper showed a high school student carried off by police at Melbourne’s student protest with the caption: “Hey mum, look at me”.

The girl’s name is Tallulah. She had a gloriously petulant face that puffed into a magnificent pout while being carried off. Every photo showed her resolute and indignant, the indisputable hallmarks of adolescence holding firm.

Though conservative media has tried to shame this teen, I have no doubt Tallulah still remains resolute and indignant – and she should be congratulated for her conviction. Wherever her parents are, they also need to be congratulated on raising a child who knows her mind and is strong enough to take a stand for what she believes in, fearless enough to step into the rank cesspit of current political debate. 

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Far from ferals revolting, it is vital we include our children in protests. As a human right, the right to assembly is central to democracy. Any attempt to paint protests as violent chaos is a deceit because they are generally well-organised and peaceful no matter what is shown in a highly edited 10 second newsclip.

Despite what some politicians and QandA will tell you, protests are a chance for kids to learn about their community  - how it is organised, what it feels and how they have opportunities to help. Democracy isn’t about being silent and unseen until election day – it is a breathing soul that requires daily maintenance, from observing, planning to participation.

These are concepts that, far from destructive, allow our kids to learn they can have an impact on the world around them for the good of others now and in the future.

Much like democracy, parenting is an ongoing conversation and adjustment of rules. When things work, we keep them going. When they don’t, we negotiate and try new approaches until we find something that works for everyone.

One of my favourite parenting activities is watching the news with my daughter. She gives her views and asks questions, picking up the shorthand of media tricks along the way. She knows a news clip doesn’t always show the full story and fumes at ‘weasel words’ slurred by slippery politicians.

It’s during these discussions I’m reminded of Jello Biafra’s quote “don’t hate the media, become the media”. I don’t want a child that yells at the TV knowing it will never listen or answer her response - I want a child that knows she can get involved in the media and make it better. Media isn’t a passive activity, it requires active participation by the public and professionals.

Jello Biafra’s challenge translates to politics as well – democracy requires the will and participation of the public, people like her – and there are many ways to become part of politics, from chatting with elected representative to participating in community groups or even standing for election herself. The greatest trick politicians have pulled is the myth it is removed from people – but the truth is that politics is dependent upon us.

Likewise, protesters don’t hate politics, they want to become part of the political process. Engaging in democracy at home and at school is a powerful lesson for kids to learn how they can take part in understanding and shaping the world around them.

We underestimate our children’s ability to observe everyday life and draw conclusions. Tony Abbott learnt this when questioned by students from Newtown. Their focused, unrelenting attention captivated Australia because it showed how perceptive and engaged teens can be about politics.

As parents we teach our children, guide them towards becoming adults. We help them with the basics of walking and talking, we nudge them towards the independence of cooking and saving – everything they need to look after themselves as they leave the home. So why is it we don’t teach them that democracy means more than a sausage sizzle and vote every four years?

The people protesting and questioning power today will end up being the community and political leaders of tomorrow. When it comes to political discussion, kids need a space and voice at the table to share their views so they can develop and mature within the community – not in isolation. 

They will fall, they will stumble. But they are still safe and it is our duty to give them the space to learn how to engage with society and its rules and movements. We can’t squash their interest in politics and democracy and then bemoan an apathetic generation: hold them back and you hold our community back. Teach them only self-interest and that is all they will ever learn. Do we really want that?

Should my daughter ever get the front page treatment on a newspaper showing her carried off by policemen as she huffs with the ridiculousness of it all, I’d be the proudest parent imaginable.

Give me a child that will stand for something.