The XX Factor

Should Kids Be “Used” as Political Spokespeople?

In case you missed it: Earlier this week, an 8-year-old boy, Elijah, approached Michele Bachmann at a book signing in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to speak his mind. His mother, a lesbian, accompanied him to the table, where he whispered in Bachmann’s ear that his mother is gay and “doesn’t need any fixing.”

Bachmann was visibly stunned, and conservative pundits like Glenn Beck basically exploded once the video hit YouTube. Then, last night, Bill O’Reilly (in conversation with activist Sally Kohn) argued that kids should never be “used” for political causes like LGBT rights, trotting out the old “let them be kids” song and dance.

I don’t think that people like children being injected into controversies that are far beyond their understanding … An eight-year-old doesn’t know what homosexuality is, nor should he or she.

As evidence of his deep understanding of the pre-teen psyche, O’Reilly pointed out that his own son is 8 years old and doesn’t yet know about the gay (or perhaps just doesn’t talk about it with his super open-minded dad), leading the host to conclude that Elijah must have been coached. Perhaps he was, but I’m more interested in the other question that O’Reilly raises: Should kids be included—willingly or even with a little prodding—in these kinds of political acts?

In this specific case, I’m ambivalent. Unlike O’Reilly, I have no doubt that Elijah is aware of the discrimination his mom faces in a largely homophobic society, even if on kid-delimited level. Given the right amount of precocity, he may well have spoken this way without much prompting. Still, he’s obviously shy, and the moment is clearly designed as a stunt destined for the Internet. While I want to allow that kids are capable of this kind of activism, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the logistics on display here.

But the larger issue remains. Should kids even be in these situations in the first place? I can’t help but think of the parallel with Occupy Wall Street, where kids and their families have been actively encouraged to participate in the protests. Here, their involvement seems like a great idea in a teachable moment/experiential education sort of way. And perhaps that’s the difference: A stunt is not the same thing as a real-life classroom.

But what do you think? Is it educational (and savvy) to use kids as mini political operatives, or did Elijah’s well-meaning mother make a mistake?