Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, has captivated the world. The Swedish teenager, who just a little over one year ago conducted a lonely, solo school strike in front of her country’s Parliament, is now inspiring a global movement of millions. Scientists at London’s Natural History Museum have even named a tiny beetle after Thunberg—proof, they said, that “you are never too small to make a difference.” If she’s controversial, it’s mostly because solving climate change will require radical economic change. But it’s also because Thunberg’s symbolic power is rooted in her status as a child, and Western society is acutely conflicted about kids.
Thunberg is small and dresses austerely. To her adult admirers, the fact that she is—and presents as—a child gives her moral authority. We assume kids are purer of heart than adults, perhaps better able to see—and tell—the truth.
In 2012, Malala Yousafzai captured the world’s heart—and drew attention to her cause—at the age of 15, when a Taliban gunman shot and wounded her in retaliation for her outspoken advocacy of girls’ education in Pakistan. And in 2018, after 17 people were murdered (also by a gunman) at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, several students there became prominent national advocates for gun control. A world out to lunch on climate and jaded by violence wakes up when vulnerable kids are at risk.
But Thunberg, in particular, has made conservatives (and a few critics on the left) explode with rage. Many have dismissed her for the same reason others revere her: She’s only a child! What does she know about anything? In an essay titled “Don’t Listen to Greta Thunberg,” the National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote, “There’s a reason that we don’t look to teenagers for guidance on fraught issues of public policy. With very rare exceptions—think … John Stuart Mill, who was a child prodigy—kids ... just repeat back what they’ve been told by adults, with less nuance and maturity.” Thunberg’s critics have argued that she is controlled by the Ford Foundation, “elites,” green capitalists—or her mom. The Daily Mail has portrayed Thunberg’s “glam mummy,” a former opera singer, as a sinister stage mom “exploiting” her child to promote her own book.
Liberals, of course, have responded with horror: When Michael Knowles called her “mentally ill” on Fox News and said she was “being exploited by her parents and by the international left,” Democratic commentator Chris Hahn shot back, “You’re a grown man and you’re attacking a child. Shame on you.”
Even when people disagree about Thunberg in this way, however, they tend to agree on one thing: Politics is a depraved, gross adult realm, and if grown-ups were doing a better job, kids like Thunberg wouldn’t have to wade into it.
Adults with wildly varying agendas have long used kids to serve their own political interests. “Think of the children!” has been a rallying cry for everyone from anti-nuclear activists to crusaders against gay marriage or abortion. As a political strategy, this makes some sense; whatever their politics, most adults are distressed when “children,” as an amorphous group, appear to be in trouble. Hillary Clinton famously used children as her signature cause when she was first lady, publishing It Takes a Village in 1996, when her public image was mired in scandal. This abstract fetishization of children can feel like a dishonest, manipulative trick, premised on the ethically wrongheaded assumption that kids are deserving of care and protection, while adults, as part of the evil (political) adult world, are not.
Of course, children have a rich tradition of taking political action on their own behalf. Just as kids have sexuality (whether adults like it or not), they also have politics (whether adults like it or not). During the early twentieth century, American children organized against their own labor exploitation. During the civil rights movement, black kids brave enough to integrate white schools drew admiration and sympathy, often far more than the adults putting their bodies on the line to integrate lunch counters and public transit. On television, the sight of these children, facing extreme racism, dressed in their Sunday best, with such serious faces, explaining to reporters, in a matter-of-fact way, their intention to attend school, had a profound effect on white American consciousness.
We admire such children, at least when we support their cause. Yet we greet their political involvement with a sense of unease. The more we sympathize, the more we see their activism as a sign of how bad things are. It makes us feel, as adults, that we’ve failed. Kids shouldn’t have to take political action to stop mass human extinction or keep armed madmen out of their schools. Those who do are like the children of alcoholics who have to care for the parents, get dinner on the stove, and put the little brother to bed.
Western societies—though it is not only the West that clings to this construct—believe that childhood is supposed to be a separate, playful, safe realm, protected from sordid grown-up business. Kids are supposed to be kids, doing kid things. Even the political theorist John Stuart Mill, Rich Lowry’s favorite precocious child, fell into an intense depression as a young man, realizing he had missed out on his childhood. Thunberg acknowledges as much herself, and she wants us to know it. She told world leaders at the United Nations in September, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. You have … stolen my childhood with your empty words.”
One reason to fight for a better world is to allow all kids a real childhood, free not only from climate change and gun violence, but also from poverty and war—so that they can do profoundly inconsequential stuff. Today, it’s hard to imagine a society in which kids feel that adults are managing things sensibly. We can’t tell them: No worries, we’ve got this, just go to the park and play stickball. That’s because it’s all too plain with each passing day that we haven’t got this.
But we can try to do better, not by marveling at the precocity of Thunberg and her fellow climate strikers—or Yousafzai and the Parkland kids—but by joining their movements and building power alongside them. If we do that now, perhaps the kids of the future won’t have quite so much adult work to do.