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What If Your Kids Want to Get Political?

Using young children as political props is problematic, to say the least. But when they do form their own opinion, it’s important to let them express it.

Children participate in a Wisconsin union event

Children participate in a march for the rights of Wisconsin union workers in March, 2011. Photo by Rochelle Hartman.

Saoirse was no more than a few weeks old when one of our farm customers approached me about attending a protest in Albany to call legislators’ attention to the problems with genetically modified foods. The organizers were specifically recruiting mothers to attend with children. They wanted moms to put kids and babies in shopping carts and wheel them from office to office to make their point. I wholeheartedly agreed with my customer about the importance of the issue. But I immediately refused.

Saoirse and Ula needed to do this for themselves. They needed to know that they took a stand on something that was important to them.

“I’m not using my child as a decoration for a cause she hasn’t chosen,” was the only thing I could think to say.

Later on, upon recounting the experience with Bob, he agreed. Our refusal to use our children for our causes became a household rule for many reasons. But Saoirse and Ula recently informed us that they’ve outgrown that rule.

First, to explain Bob’s and my thinking: We believe that to raise a child who will be a good steward of the earth, she must be allowed to fall in love with it. We felt it was problematic to bombard our kids with information about our causes—how the earth is being poisoned and abused—before they are empowered to take action to protect it. If the natural world were forever depicted to them as fragile, in danger, and in need of protection, they might simply detach from it, since they were powerless to do anything about it.

We wanted our children to grow to trust the earth, to feel nurtured by her, before they were asked to defend her. Rather than barraging them with stories about what others are doing wrong to this planet, we tried to make them aware of the things that must be done to treat her right, whether it is picking up trash on the side of the road, being careful with our water and streams on the farm, choosing local foods in season, assiduously composting and recycling, or minimizing our use of our car. Furthermore, there was the simple matter of our daughters being too young to have opinions on issues. How does an infant or young child have an opinion about GMOs? Organic food policy? The 99 percent? New York State environmental law? Over the course of our family life, Bob and/or I would leave home to speak out for our causes, and the kids would stay home. They never challenged that rule, until last week.

Fracking comes up at our local parties and potlucks. My kids hear about it at the firehouse, when we go to the post office, when we go to vote

As the threat of hydraulic fracturing circles about New York State, an unprecedented number of the residents of our town from all backgrounds and across the political spectrum have decided to organize to get a law in place to protect our land. And while it would appear that no one on our town board is truly “pro-fracking,” the speed with which the citizens want to enact the law is deeply troubling for the board members, who are accustomed to taking 6 to 12 months to discuss something as minor as a single dog control incident.

A new law on the books would preferably be a multi-year process in their view. This is one of those towns where nothing is supposed to happen, where the greatest controversy is over tax assessments. But the citizens feel it is imperative to have something in place before the state makes its determination on whether to allow fracking in the coming weeks or months, as home rule is our best chance for protecting ourselves in the future. Thus, while it would seem most folks are in agreement on the issues, there is still controversy.

And Saoirse and Ula hear it. It comes up at our local parties and potlucks. They hear about it at the firehouse, when we go to the post office, when we go to vote, when neighbors drop their kids off for play dates, or when folks come by to purchase meat.

On the day of our public hearing for the new law last week, Saoirse and Ula sat down at lunch while Bob and I were reviewing our talking points. They waited for a lapse in our conversation, then Saoirse spoke up.

“I’d like to talk tonight.”

“Me, too,” chimed in Ula.

I stammered. Saoirse? Speak? This is a kid who can go weeks without seeing any of her buddies and be perfectly happy in her seclusion. She is friendly to everyone she meets, but she’s an introvert to the core. And Ula? She’s usually playing in her fantasy world. What does she know about the issues?

“This isn’t your problem,” I assured them. “Mommy and Daddy will deal with it.”

Saoirse emitted a perfectly excuted pre-adolecent gasp of exasperation (she’s been practicing them a lot lately).

“It is so our problem! We want to be able to live here! We want to be able to drink the water!”

Bob and I stared at each other. What to do?

“I don’t think it’s allowed,” I muttered.

“You’re not of voting age,” he added, then quickly changed the subject. “Ula, make sure you eat your vegetables.”

“Saoirse, can you pass me the butter?” I aided the change of direction.

The afternoon passed with nothing more said on the subject. The girls went about finishing their lessons and playing, and we assumed it was forgotten…until just before supper, when they marched in to where we were having tea.

“You need to help us prepare what we’re going to say,” Saoirse informed us.

Bob and I studdered and stammered some more.

“You’re serious?” I finally asked. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I have to say something,” Saoirse informed me. “I just have to.”

So we booted up the computer, and Saoirse drafted a simple statement in her own words. Ula dictated what she wanted to say. We encouraged her to keep it short, since she wouldn’t be able to read any notes.

When we arrived at the town meeting, their names were added to the list of speakers. They shared slot number 17.

I was sitting behind them when their names were called in that packed room. They stood up. Saoirse held her paper in front of her. Her hands didn’t even shake. Ula stood beside her, staring over her spectacles at each board member at the head of the room, daring them to avert her gaze.

“My name is Saoirse Hayes Hooper,” Saoirse began, “and this is my sister, Ula. We live on Rossman Valley Road, and we work on Sap Bush Hollow Farm with our grandparents. The reason we don’t want fracking is because we have a very happy and healthy family, and we want it to stay that way. We want for our family to be able to drink a glass of water without having to worry about getting sick. So my sister and I are asking you to please ban tracking.”

And then, Ula added her one line “We don’t want Mother Earth to be in pain all the time.”

“Thank you,” they managed to say in unison.

They both collapsed into my lap afterward.

I don’t know what the board members thought. Did they believe that I’d brought my children out as decorations for the cause? Did they feel I had manipulated them to say something to bring more drama to the scene? Just then, Saoirse leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I’m so happy to finally get that off my chest.”

And I realized that my concerns were pointless. It didn’t matter what the board, or any of my neighbors thought about a nine-year-old and a six-year-old standing up and speaking at a public hearing. Or whether or not anyone suspected that I was some kind of manipulative over-bearing mother pushing these girls to do my bidding. Saoirse and Ula needed to do this for themselves. They needed to know that they took a stand on something that was important to them.

I realize now how Bob’s and my job as parents is shifting. It is not necessarily our task any longer to shield our daughters from our grown-up causes and concerns. We still don’t feel it is appropriate to ask them to stand up for issues that don’t resonate with them, nor should they have their joy in this earth stripped away by incessant harping about all the problems we must battle.

But at the same time, we can’t silence them, either. They have grown to love their world, and even at their young age, they have every right to defend it. Our job now is to help them make their voices heard.


Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmetand The Farmer and the Grill. Her newest book is Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover's Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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