The kids will be alright!

By Dan Delmar on December 3, 2009

There seems to be only one issue that unites politicians of all colours and creeds. It became painfully obvious how omnipresent this theme was as I had the painstaking task of interviewing dozens of candidates – some competent, some not – vying for city council seats leading up to last month’s election. In order to be considered as a credible politician, it appears as though one has to make the supposed plight of children a focal point in a campaign. More specifically, how to protect our little tykes from speeders, drug dealers, pedophiles and a myriad of dangers that lurk around every corner.

But what appears at face value to be genuine concern, is often just a thinly-veiled attempt to tap into your worst fears and exploit paranoia. Hack politicians at every level engage in this type of fear mongering. One city council candidate had nothing more to recommend him than the boast that he had more speed bumps and crosswalks in his ward than any other. The delivery is different, certainly with varying levels of sophistication, but the message is the same: “Vote for me, only I can keep you and your loved ones safe.”

Negative politics has unfortunately become the standard. Most politicians don’t offer a vision of any substance; it’s not about what we can make happen, but what we can prevent from happening. And nothing strikes a chord with voters more than protecting their vulnerable offspring. 

Of course, children are no more vulnerable than they were ten or twenty years ago. There’s no evidence to suggest a significant increase in the number of child abductions, hit-and-runs or molestations in recent years, save perhaps for revelations of incidents involving the Catholic Church. But in a post-9/11 world, where terrorist pedophiles could be enrolled in a flight school near you, politicians will stop at nothing to convince voters that they, and not their opponents, are the ultimate protectors of the most vulnerable members of our society. 

While interviewing a candidate who would, to my relief, go on to lose her bid for a city council seat last month, I was struck by how far said candidate would go to protect children in her district: Speed bumps and bollards on every street, across the board speed limit reductions, an end to child hunger, etc. I asked this candidate how she plans to feed all the borough’s kids, she replied, “sadly, we cannot make sure that children have three meals a day.” 

Then why invoke children in the first place? It’s not in this woman’s power as a municipal politician to end hunger just as much as it’s not in any politician’s power to prevent the occasional, tragic car accident or kidnapping. This non-too-subtle, callous exploitation of parental paranoia needs to end.

It’s not clear if these policy decisions are even thought out in most cases. It could be an involuntary Tourrettes-like tic. Kids! Protect kids! Or it could just be one of many empty thoughts or catch-phrases that float around in political discourse. It’s one sign among many of the degeneration of political discourse. If we don’t demand substance, we will continue to be manipulated by those who engage in crass fear-mongering to get elected.

To be fair, not all those who use children as a focal point of their campaigns are being manipulative.  I’m sure there is some genuine concern in the push for a national Children’s Commissioner. This office would listen to those who, as MP Marc Garneau has put it, “have no voice, no voting rights and no formal way of expressing how they are affected by government policy.”

The goal of the Commissioner in Garneau’s proposed bill would be to “advance the principle that children are entitled to special safeguards, care and assistance, including appropriate legal protections.”  Garneau is one of the most serious and sincere MPs there is. But we still need to realize some fundamental societal realities.

Children are vulnerable and can easily be taken advantage of by perverts or others who mean them harm. But there is an important barrier between kids and dangerous sociopaths that we sometimes leave out of the equation when discussing new legislation: Parents. When that fails, there is the social safety net and, as a last resort, protection of the most basic of rights under the Criminal Code. 

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was intended as a message to less compassionate – and less legally mature - societies like Thailand, for example, where child prostitution is rampant. Does that kind of nasty business happen in Canada? It does, but rarely. If Canadian law or culture encouraged, or even passively tolerated the abuse of children, perhaps this commissioner would be necessary. But we don’t and we should consider how much more bureaucracy we can stand. 

The cause of the child is also used to bolster arguments for a plethora of issues. Climate change for example isn’t perceived as serious as climate change extinguishing our children’s future. Poverty is a forgotten issue, but child poverty is horribly worrisome (there is no child poverty, as there is no child wealth, only poverty – period).

Instead of incessantly focusing on the plight of children, why not focus on the plight of people. The scene that keeps replaying in my mind is that of a hysterical Helen Lovejoy, the pastor’s wife on The Simpson’s, bursting into a Springfield city council meeting, shrieking, “won’t somebody please think of the children!” It is a brilliant social comment that illustrates how an increasingly paternalistic society sometimes clouds the good judgement of otherwise reasonable decision-makers. Throwing children into the political mix, kissing babies and the like, is cheap, tacky and a clever way to completely bypass larger issues.

It will be an interesting day indeed when a brave politician responds to a Helen Lovejoy by saying, “I don’t care about the children!” That is to say, kids should not drive public policy decisions more than any other group of people. Coddling children and speaking of them in terms of being victims-in-waiting will not serve the kids themselves well either. Parental paranoia has given rise to an antisocial generation who hide behind computer screens, cell phones and iPods. Let’s not continue depriving children of an essential part of growing up: Uncertainty. You won’t always know what is around the corner (or in the nondescript van with tinted windows), but good parenting can prevent a million tragedies. 

Don’t count on politicians to protect your precious little ones. Be wary of those who claim they can. And, please, don’t rob your children of all life has to offer because of your own irrational fears. The kids will be alright!


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