Public protests can suddenly turn out to be highly charged demonstrations against real or perceived threats to fundamental human rights, and there could never be any guarantee that planned peaceful protests wouldn’t turn into a risk to life and limb. History is replete with well-intended public gatherings that had become tragic episodes of hate and even death. No one can predict when the flowing tide of a march would morph into clashes between competing interest groups or angry protesters and law enforcers, but it is reasonable to anticipate that tensions could flare on any side, or all sides, during protests on extremely contentious issues. Exposing small children to that kind of environment wouldn't be wise.
It is a matter of parental judgement whether to introduce children to events with the potential for conflict as they may unwittingly set them up for physical harm and trauma. Very young children are not emotionally ready to process the shocks if things suddenly get out of control. Notably, over the past two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and other regulations, violent clashes have occurred in several countries between citizens protesting not only their governments’ measures but also against police methods to enforce laws and disperse crowds. When unfortunate situations happen, as invariably is the case, children are not likely to ever forget the experience, perhaps resulting in lifelong negative perceptions and fear of public gatherings and the police service. Parents may claim they thought they were taking their children to a peaceful event, but it is their responsibility to get and evaluate information on public protests and to find out whether the organisers had obtained police permission.
Children are already exposed to terrible situations, including violence in their homes and the wider community, where there’s a high incidence of crime. Parents should consider whether they are unnecessarily increasing threats to their welfare and emotional development by taking them into primarily adult arenas of dissent. Indeed, children have rights too, and putting them in such situations or even near where protests are underway may raise ethical questions of unfairness and possible endangerment. As implied earlier, trouble can happen suddenly, triggered by any one person, group of people or police actions or by a combination of events. Very young children are innocent of the contexts of activism. Many would not understand the nuances and motives of such events.
Citizens have every right to protest within the law, and safely. Some people may not be conscious of a potentially risky and unlawful environment they are about to introduce their children and one shouldn’t underestimate the implications of that unawareness. Society is highly polarised politically, and there are many contentious social, economic and political issues. People are depressed, frustrated, frightened, untrusting of the police service, politicians, and the Government, and as emotions erupt like volcanoes for and against the COVID vaccines and other grievances, protests could become even more risky events.
What is the appropriate age for children to be at or to participate in such events, and which events? That is up to their parents. One may well say that since national policies affect children, they—teenagers/youths—should voice their concerns against policies and situations they believe inimical to their welfare. It is a complex issue and the boundary lines may be debatable. The international environment activist Greta Thunberg was only 15 years old when she led international protests, calling out world leaders for their inaction and hypocrisy on critical environmental matters. She has probably done more than any other individual in recent times to heighten awareness of the issues.
Parents should take due care to avoid putting children in harm’s way. Passing on to them values of responsible activism may augur well for the democratic way of life and their future. Still, in their best interest, it is wise to be especially discriminatory on public protests and the organisers, and keep them safe from potentially harmful environments. As the saying goes, better to be safe than sorry. Be cautious.