Dr Joshua Forstenzer, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education, University of Sheffield.

“The planet is going to be wrecked. People are just being rude to it… They throw trash on the ground, they cut down trees… They make forests into places… into roads. They need to think about what they are doing and what they are doing to the planet and what they are doing to animals. They are being so bad. […] I am gonna try to fight them off when I am a grown up […] I am gonna yell at them. No actually, I am not gonna yell at them. I have a better idea, yell in their ear […] I wish I was an adult right now […]  I just want to do my job right now.”

These are the words spoken by six-year-old, Henry Marr, from Mount Vernon (Washington, USA) in an online video that, as of writing, has received over 8 million views. Henry’s words are powerful and, broadly speaking, true. But, they are not new. Various international organisations have been pointing out for several decades that we cannot hope to sustain our environment without radical change to the way we treat the planet.

So, why would some 8 million grown-ups (at least, I am assuming most of them are grown-ups) have taken two minutes out of their days to listen to what Henry had to say, sobs and all? It cannot be because the information itself is new to them (at least not for all 8 million of them). Moreover, it is doubtful that people are listening because of Henry’s eloquence however impressive and precocious, since other better versed speakers have said similar things probably more beautifully. So what made over 8 million people pay attention to Henry’s words?

The answer, I think, resides at least partially in a widely shared but often poorly articulated belief that children are capable of speaking to the ethical core of many issues. We find in various texts (most notably in the New Testament and Plato’s Symposium) the rather simplistic notion that out of the mouths of children, cherubs, or babes, springs truth and/or wisdom. When watching Henry, one is certainly struck by the resonance of his words: in some fundamental way, they feel true, truer perhaps than those of better informed more cognitively developed adults.

But why then does impressive young Henry say that he wishes to be an adult? To be heard, to be taken seriously by adults. Although Henry’s mother is encouraging and creative, it is hard not to empathise with Henry. Children are often given short shrift in civic discussions.  

Indeed, while a few adults may be like Henry’s mother, that is to say, enthusiastic about the capacity of young people to meaningfully voice socially important concerns and ideas, most adults focus on children’s lack of necessary cognitive abilities and life experiences to silence or sideline the voices of children in civic and political debate. Indeed, it is on these very grounds that, for most of the history of western thought, children have been explicitly excluded from taking part in the act which most epitomizes political citizenship – voting.

Citizenship involves not only belonging to a specific community, but also having certain rights, privileges and obligations in relation to that community. In the history of western political thought, children are typically understood to be immature and in need of preparation for a life of adult citizenship.

Clearly, children need to develop the capacity for communication (through nurturing relationships of play and learning) if they are to be heard by the rest of us. However, the assumption that adult cognitive abilities are a precondition for meaningful engagement in discussions about how we ought to live together fails to recognize the fact that emotions and imagination have just as important a role to play in civic life as careful causal thinking. Without space for feelings and imagined improvements to the way things are, there would be little space for compassion, insight, and creative visions for a better world.

Although it would be an unfair burden to ask of children that they measure the full weight of considerations and exercise careful judgment to determine what policies entire human societies ought to follow, we owe it to our children and to the very process of civic reasoning to recognise the fact that children also possess morally relevant feelings and ideas to which serious consideration is due. Not only that, children learn best when they are taken seriously, so how better to learn how to deliberate about civic life than by actually doing it at the level of the family, of the school, or of the playground, one step at a time, within the limits of their abilities. In this way, the Henrys of this world might learn that their voices can make a real difference, now and in the future.