Last week it was time again for my favorite political event of the year: the children’s question time. I like the children’s question time because the children know how to set priorities and the adult politicians show that they can do politics in a different way.
The questions were touching again this year. It started with a proposal to give children a structural say in Dutch politics. Prime Minister Rutte pointed out that there are already options for children to talk to, such as children’s councils and children’s mayors. But he was going to discuss it. A class from Urk also asked what measures were being taken against sea level rise, another class wanted to know how Minister Staghouwer envisioned the future of agriculture, and there was a question about poverty and education.
The animal ambulance was also discussed. Iwan Krans from Wagenborg said that pets are very important to the children in his class. They also called the animal ambulance once for an injured bird. He wanted to know why the animal ambulance is not a priority vehicle and is not allowed to drive with flashing lights. State Secretary Van der Burg replied that you need trained drivers for this, and that is too demanding for volunteers. The children did not find this convincing and asked why they are not being paid.
This question indicated a worldview in which other animals are fellow creatures. In the Wagenborg class there are pictures of pets on the wall so that they are also a bit involved. It is no exception that children see animals in this way. Recent research from the United Kingdom shows that the hierarchy experienced by adults between humans and other animals is learned. This hierarchy leads to a contradictory moral attitude: we see some animals as food and others as friends, while those animals may have the same interests. Younger children see this differently and think, for example, that farm animals should be treated just as well as people. They unlearn this during adolescence and learn to discriminate on the basis of species. Lead researcher Luke McGuire says this isn’t just scientifically interesting: adults can learn from the child’s attitude to better interact with animals and the planet.
Which brings us back to the question of child participation. A recurring theme, at the first children’s question time the children already wanted to know whether the voting age could not be lowered. Adults think that child participation is not necessary or possible, or that the children do not care. But children have their own perspective on life and, moreover, the interests of adults and children do not always coincide. During the corona crisis, for example, children had to give up relatively much in the field of school, sports and social contact in order to protect the elderly. The consequences of this have yet to become clear.
The interests of children and adults will only diverge further in the coming period. Statistics Netherlands wrote that ‘the sustainability of our prosperity’ is under pressure because nature is disappearing. The UN wrote in a report that ocean water temperatures, greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise and ocean acidification all reached new all-time highs last year. The consequences of this will affect children differently than adults.
Ignoring children’s ideas is a form of discrimination, argue philosophers such as John Wall. They should be able to have real political say. This requires creativity: ‘children’ are a diverse group in terms of age, background and interests. Sometimes their position is clear, such as when children make themselves heard in climate protests, sometimes not. Taking their perspective seriously starts with listening anyway. That’s not a bad idea in adult politics either.
Eva Meijer is a writer and philosopher. She writes a column every other week.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 24, 2022