As the thermometer hit 95 degrees, we loaded up our kids and headed out to the July 4th #TakeItDown anti-Confederate flag protest. From the twenty month old on up, we wore matching Captain America shirts, because there’s no Captain Confederacy. Like so many other families, we were headed out to show our patriotism that holiday. Our patriotism was just a little more hands-on.
Many people questioned our choice to take our three boys, ages five, three, and one, to a political protest. The last flag protest had turned into a brawl, and a friend’s child, hanging in his bjorn, was threatened with bodily harm. People think kids have no place at protests, that we’re using them as propaganda when we hand them a sign. The right place for the kiddies is safe at home, they believe, while mommy and daddy wave signs and chant.
Before we went, my husband explained the situation to our five-year-old: “Remember how people used to think it was okay to own black people and how horrible that was? Well, those people fought a war so they could keep owning people. The Confederate flag was the flag they carried. Some people’s ancestors fought in that war, so they’re very attached to the Confederate flag. But we know the flag will always stand for owning black people.”
“That’s stupid,” my son said.
“Pretty much,” I agreed.
People on my Facebook feed have argued that’s rank indoctrination. A five-year-old can’t possibly grasp the ramifications of the flag, especially since we left out the Charleston massacre. But no one grasps every side of an issue. If we based our protest-worthiness on that, there’d be empty demonstrations. As for the indoctrination – we indoctrinate our children each day. No one complains when we teach our children our religion. My sons say the Our Father before they go to sleep. So do millions of other kids. Teaching our son about the flag is the same. He has every right to engage with the issue, despite his imperfect understanding.
Citizenship isn’t something magically conferred at age 18. We fret about civics classes and kids’ lack of knowledge about the government. My sons are American citizens. They are citizens of the state of South Carolina. They have every right to engage in civic discourse. To say otherwise is to limit the First Amendment by age. Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they lose the right to speak. We often see children as less than adults. We deny, for example, that they feel pain. This is one more example of minimizing or discounting children simply because of their age.
The First Amendment applies to everyone, and that’s what my sons were exercising: their right to free speech, and their right to free assembly. These rights apply to every citizen, regardless of age. And what better way to celebrate the 4th of July than to exercise those rights the founding fathers thought most precious?
There’s historical precedent for children at protests. During the Civil Rights Movement, kids were often on the forefront of demonstrations. Those kids are an example to us all. I’m not saying that my sons were the same as the brave children who marched at Selma. But those children are their foremothers and forefathers in American children protesting. They show that children have a stake in the way things ought to be, and specifically, in race relations.
There’s a sheerly practical reason we took my kids, too: we didn’t have a babysitter. It’s ridiculous to expect that everyone get a babysitter or stay home. That limits the number of parents who can show up to exercise their right to free speech. It’s discriminatory. We couldn’t have attended if we hadn’t taken the kids along.
That’s partially because every babysitter we had was, you guessed it, at the protest. Their godparents were there; our best couple friends showed up. We ran into my former dissertation director, people from grad school, professors and friends. The community turned out – the community my children are a part of. Community is like citizenship; you don’t get your rights suddenly at the age of 18. My kids had the right to participate in their community, and in a cause their community believed in.
In the end, there were no brawls. MoveOn.org supplied signs; people sang. My five-year-old read his “Take Down the Flag” sign, and, when asked correctly said that it was talking about the Confederate flag right over there. The little ones ran around and generally were small children at an outdoor event they’re too small to understand. That’s okay. They’ll understand it one day, with our help. And we’ll help them exercise their rights as citizens and community members. Because it’s an important part of being a parent. Protests included.