In era of Trump, Brexit and social media, it is harder than ever for children to avoid politics. Is that a good thing?
My nine-year-old daughter’s birthday… We’ve had the cake, the surfeit of presents and the questionable snacks, and now it’s time for big brother’s puppet show. I pop out of the room, expecting to hear some sort of pastiche on Despicable Me or Star Wars.
Then comes the cry: ‘Do you want to build a wa-aall?’ ‘Yes’ shriek the 9-year-old girls. By the time I rejoin them, they’re in full flow – the girls have their hands in the air and they’re chanting, to a tune from Disney’s Frozen: ‘Do you want to build a wa-aall? On the side of Mexico?…Don’t worry it won’t cost a thing, the Mexicans will paaay!’
Then follows a cabaret-style show by my 12-year-old son and his friend, taking in David Cameron making a mess and running away, Theresa May being boring and Nigel Farage popping up blaring oafish remarks. Let’s say this is not what we had expected.
Over the past year I have come across many examples of children entering the political discourse. A teenage boy introducing a school music competition in the guise and voice of Donald Trump brought the house down (‘Hey losers….’ ‘There are a lot of nasty people in Paterson House’ etc….). At a recent cricket match an 8-year-old I know asked an older boy to explain political parties. After the Brexit vote, my son, then in Year 6, said he and his friends discussed how this meant that the world as we know it was going to end.
It’s even more pronounced among children of EU nationals. An Italian friend married to a Briton said her children – 11 and 14 – kept asking for reassurance. ‘They came up to me after the Leave vote, almost crying, and said ‘Mummy are you going to have to leave the country?”. Her teenage daughter can barely bring herself to speak to her grandmother, a convinced Leaver, whom she accuses of ruining her future.
It’s common knowledge that the Brexit vote and Trump have galvanized the youth vote, getting students to the polls during the general election, but the effect is also being felt lower down the scale. After years of politics being a side-show for the young, current events have become wacky, interesting, and not a little scary. Adults are talking about politics more, and children are listening.
‘The whole clamour around those votes was very interesting. I wanted to see what made people so passionate. Many conversations at school now eventually flow into Brexit or Trump,’ says Huw, a sixth-former at a local grammar school – and, it turns out, a New European reader – who wants to study politics at university. ‘People can see how these things might affect their lives.’
Children in schools today are learning about issues such as bullying and racism, as well as the environment, so when someone like Donald Trump, and to a certain extent some pro-Brexit figures, gets reaction for preaching the opposite of what they have learned, they sit up. The surprising general election result has also caused puzzlement.
‘I had to try and explain a hung parliament to my daughter,’ said Caroline, mother of a 12-year-old. ‘We are not political at all, but she has been talking about it at school. She has been asking all kinds of questions recently.’
Some schools held mock elections recently, while our local junior school (ages 7-11) held an assembly about politics on election day. Rachel, the teacher in charge, said she was surprised at how knowledgeable they were: ‘They not only knew what a manifesto was, but what was in the party manifestos. Some were very opinionated. I was really surprised.’
One explanation, certainly for the younger crowd, is that politics has been caricaturised, with larger-than-life figures constantly hogging the airwaves. Trump, of course, is a case in point. His name helps too – I have heard it included by groups of eight-year-olds in their inevitable potty-mouthed conversations alongside ‘fart’ and ‘bottom burp’.
For the older ones, getting mobile telephones has meant they have access to news feeds, even, as I have witnessed, the Dead Ringers podcast. The camp portrayal of Michael Gove as a gossip who constantly stirs up trouble is a particular favourite.
This interest in politics is also fed by an increase in newsy outlets targeted at a younger audience. During my childhood, there was really only Newsround. Now I’m pleased to see it’s still around, gaining praise for sometimes difficult reporting – including finding a sensitive way to explain the Manchester attack to children.
It’s now been joined by print publications. With social media carrying an increasingly frenetic news agenda – from terror to election shocks – to an ever younger audience, a new lucrative market has opened up. Two years ago the The Week launched a junior edition, but the pioneer here was First News, a tabloid-format newspaper for eight to 12-year-olds. It’s following has grown and it is now read by nearly two-and-a-half million children a week, according to its editor, Nicky Cox.
First News readers have voted in a general election poll (hung parliament), an EU referendum poll (more than 70% Remain) and are currently filling in an online poll for a Children’s Charter for Brexit, ranking their priorities.
There’s the impetus for direct political involvement too. There’s probably no waiting list for young conservative groups, but what about Momentum Kids? Billed as childcare to allow their parents to engage in politics, the grouping has enraged much of the commentariat for offering activities such as imagining what party your favourite toy might lead – the Teddy Manifesto – and banner making. It’s been irresistibly dubbed ‘Corbyn’s Tiny Trots’.
Momentum Kids takes children from three years old. Eleanor Levenson’s 2015 book, Election, about two children who support rival parties (the Stripy Party and the Spotty Party) and go campaigning, aims at a similar age group.
‘It’s a complete myth that kids aren’t interested in politics and how things work. When my first child was very young he was asking things like why does one child have more toys – they notice opportunities. We need to find an age-appropriate way to answer these questions,’ said Levenson.
Children have been taking centre stage in protest marches too. At pro-European demonstrations and anti-Trump alike, angry children seem to be a growing presence.
But how much engagement is a good thing? Politicising children has always had uncomfortable totalitarian undertones. The child-made hammer and sickle posters at a Stoke Newington primary school used as a polling station in the general election – pictures of which circulated on social media – conjured up the Iron Curtain era. When they launched, Momentum Kids founders were hit with inevitable jibes evoking Hitler Youth.
As a young child in between-coups Turkey, I didn’t appreciate the pro-Ataturk, nationalistic chants we had to learn at school, nor the nationalistic history taught in classrooms. I can see the results now both in the Ataturkist fundamentalist secularism that ran Turkey for decades as well as the rebellion against it in the vengeful devout activism of the Islamist-inclined politicians currently running the show. Children of political activists can become traumatised by the intensity of it all.
YouGov research found last year that most people in the UK thought that it wasn’t appropriate to engage children in politics until the age of 15. It divided slightly across political lines – the Liberal Democrats thought 13, Labour 14, Conservatives 15 and UKIP 16.
Cox says politics shouldn’t be forced on children, but shielding them is a losing battle. ‘It’s impossible. Even if you turn off the TV and don’t buy newspapers and – good luck with that – remove their mobile phones, something happens and they hear about it at school or from their friends.’
This could mean there’s no danger of a repeat of something like the Brexit vote, where apathy among youthful voters resulted in a historic national decision that they overwhelmingly opposed.
The referendum has also increased political discussion among adult Britons, if my own experience is anything to go by. But while this makes dinner parties more interesting, it has a dubious resonance for the state of the country.
I’ve always been struck that Turkish social gatherings – and those involving anyone from the Middle East – are dominated by heated, angsty political conversation. The opposite happens – or used to happen – in most British settings, where there was a feeling that discussing politics was rude or boring. Yet this also illustrated how political disengagement is a luxury of a stable, advanced democracy. So what does that say about Britain now?