Over the last little while, I have seen several media posts criticising students (and their parents) for taking a day off school to attend climate change protests. The arguments include that the children are being “used and abused” by adults and parents to push an agenda, the students themselves are lacking an in-depth education (or intelligence) or that skipping school is breaking the law.

Similar demeaning posts have been directed towards 16-year-old Swedish school student and climate change advocate Greta Thunberg. (Critics have in part taken aim at her appearance and the fact she’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s.)

In 2018, Greta led the youthful charge by calculatedly taking several days off school to protest. She then put out the call for kids around the world to do likewise with the School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) campaign.

After making waves with her speech at the UN by holding world leaders to accountability and leaving them nowhere to hide in their responsibility, Greta is choosing to take a year away from school to continue her push for faster, more effective change on climate issues. Greta has also been nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I guess one could conclude Greta is being rewarded for truancy for the betterment of our planet and future inhabitants. Do her means justify the end goal?

The backlash, anger, belittling and controversy surrounding Greta and other students illegally taking a day off school to protest has shocked me. I have to confess my naivety; I didn’t see it coming. Our current climate change challenges are what the World Economic Forum has, for three years in a row now, referred to as the “gravest threat for global business and industry”. When our environment is threatened, so is our livelihood. Am I foolish in thinking desperate times call for desperate measures?

But is how we get to the end—the goal—equally important as getting there? In most countries, truancy is being challenged.

We are living in opinion-heavy times, thanks to social media which connects us all faster than ever before. In hearing the comments for and against primary and secondary students taking time off school to fight for their future on this planet, I feel incredibly torn. I agree with both sides as much as I disagree with them. But this is how I feel we can navigate the negativity surrounding this debate:

Greta Thunberg at the front of the FridaysForFuture demonstration 2019 in Berlin.

Objection 1: Protests can be unsafe and it’s irresponsible to include kids

Protests come about when a situation and group become desperate to be heard and don’t feel represented. Social justice is a big driver. But if anything goes wrong, the blame will rest with the parents, so it’s best to check out where the location is and have a plan if things start to head south. Find out the program ahead of time and what kids will be involved in and subject to. Primary and secondary students can be taught to have a voice peacefully.

Objection 2: Kids’ education will suffer

Greta finished her schooling year with 14 As and three Bs, despite being away from class for several weeks. Did I mention that she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? Not a bad resume to be building. And of course, learning can happen outside the classroom—I know, pick your jaw from off the floor, people! At this point in time we are talking about one or two days, so hardly enough to ruin one’s education. Greta has mentioned she will head back to studies after her year in the USA, showing there is more than one way to complete an education.

Objection 3: Instead of skipping school and having the issue of truancy, hold the protest on a weekend

The quality of education in Australia has been under the spotlight over the past decade, so protecting kids’ learning is important. But if one or two days off school is going to cause students to fail a year of school, there are possibly bigger issues at play that need addressing. There is absolutely no proof that taking a day off here and there causes school-life failure. In the words of Greta as quoted in The Guardian, “Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

Holding the protest on a weekend is a great idea that would suit the law and possibly more people could attend. But what may happen is that voices and messages could go unheard and the seriousness of the cause lost. 

Objection 4: Kids are idealistic, don’t understand the complexities of the scientific circumstances and a protest would be irrelevant for them

Whether we have faith in the future generations or not, they will have their own thoughts and ways. To exclude them from the conversation because of their age is irresponsible, disrespectful and arrogant.

But this argument raises the very valid question: Is the protest age-appropriate for your child?

As the parent, that responsibility rests on you. Climate change, like many other issues (think divorce, sex or drugs), has complexities that kids will struggle with. Plenty of adults do too. So we simplify the messages. Students can comprehend actions and consequences so they can certainly grasp the concept of mistreating the Earth, warming oceans that melt ice and changing landscapes for animals such as the polar bear.

Aren’t we always saying kids understand more than we think they do? There are plenty of kids who have been idealistic and “won”, even if they had the luxury of not having to protest to make a positive difference:

  • At age 12, Alex Deans created the iAid, a navigation device to help the blind.
  • Sixteen-year-old Ann Makosinski created the Hollow Flashlight, a torch that converts body heat into light without batteries or kinetic energy.

If today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders, we need to responsibly brief them to ensure we are giving the next generation the best start we can offer them.

Objection 5: We are teaching kids that if they don’t like something, they can just protest to get what they want

Students may not be able to vote, but they do have a voice. Taking a day off school to protest has definitely raised the attention of decision makers on how important climate change is to our next generation and what they are willing to miss out on, to their own detriment, to get action happening.

What kids learn with regards to getting what they want is up to how parents discipline. Let’s not forget that teaching apathy can also be dangerous.

Protests often involve big social justice issues. And workplace strikes are adults protesting to get something they want too. Australia has definitely set the tone for our kids when it comes to that.

Peaceful protests are not the only strategy for creating change so I don’t think it’s as simple as teaching kids to protest to get what they want. A peaceful protest can let the community and decision makers know how important an issue is to them. They have led to great social changes in the world. It can be a celebration of how powerful a group working together can be.

“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,” said Cesar Chavez, a Latino American civil rights activist, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association.

We need to ask ourselves what we want for our children and their children, and how we can help them get there.

For some, that might look like a peaceful protest on a school day. For others, that may be staying in school, getting a great education and working towards a future role that can change the world for the better.

Problems as big as climate change often need to be approached from many different angles. It’s not just an issue for adults, it’s one for our kids too.

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