I've noticed that there's a marked similarity between the tactics employed by toddlers and preschoolers and those used by union activists and protesters. Little children may be small and powerless, but they're masters of the hunger strike, the sit-in, work-to-rule, slow-downs and all manner of ingenious civil disobedience, although some of it's not so civil. There are many lessons progressives can learn from children.
The correlation may not be obvious. ("Hey, man, don't trust anyone over 3," they lisp to each other.) I don't hear protest chants coming from the sandbox. ("What don't we want?" "Peas!" "When will we eat them?" "Never!") But that's because kids haven't quite mastered collective bargaining. Woe unto us when they do!
With me in the role of "Big Boss Mom," it goes something like this at our house:
"Benny, it's time to pick up the toys in the living room."
"I'll pick them up if you'll let me have three pieces of candy."
"No. It's too close to dinner."
"No. I don't think we even have any candy."
"One piece? I have some in my sock drawer."
"No candy! Pick up the toys!"
At this point, he initiates a walk-out or a sit-in, depending on his mood. I try to enlist his sister as a scab, but, in a rare show of solidarity, she joins the strike. Being younger and less verbal, Cassie often opts for more theatrical techniques. Her favorite is to strip and run screaming through the house. Has ACT UP tried that yet?
Kids begin their acts of civil disobedience early. The classic tantrum is a good example. It gets immediate attention from the authorities (Mom and Dad). It can be conducted by the youngest of children. One of the most common occasions for a tantrum is when a tired, hungry or overstimulated child is subjected to a public place. Grocery stores are good because they're full of tasty bribe material; libraries are a favorite because screams can really echo in all that quiet. Parents are mortified by the attention from other adults. And the best response is to remove the child from the scene of protest, which is often exactly what he or she wants.
Slightly older children may employ that fabulous labor technique known as "working to rule." As I understand it, on a production line this is a slow-down orchestrated by following safety and other rules that would normally be ignored to increase production. When you're already late for the dentist because your son wouldn't put on his shoes, he insists on brushing every tooth in his head five times over. How can you rationally say, "Stop brushing your teeth so we can go to the dentist."
Or if your 2-year-old doesn't want to leave the restaurant, she may opt for finishing her rice one grain at a time--with chopsticks. "Not go yet. Me eating." So what if it's 10 p.m. and the waiters are putting chairs up on all the other tables.
They seem to have a handle on some of the grosser points of electoral politics, as well, although they pretend that they are only interested in the little stickers that say "I voted." Several years ago, I took Benny to a rally for Harvey Gantt. The minute I put him down, Benny made a beeline for the center of the circle, the center of attention, which was where Harvey Gantt was, of course. Gantt scooped Benny up, creating an irresistible photo-op. (You'd better believe I have a copy of that picture.)
And if you ask a child whose lips are glistening with chocolate what he has been eating so close to dinner time, he will reply, "Nothing," with a sincerity reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "I cannot recall." What with denial, vague promises and an uncontrollable urge to spin the most grievous behavior to their own advantage, the developmentally appropriate egotism of preschoolers makes them perfect politicians.
It's unlikely that children glean these skills from reading The Nation or attending secret training sessions conducted by 7-year-olds, the seasoned veterans of many children's rights campaigns. So their talents must be inborn. Because they haven't been socialized, they feel free to be disruptive, loud, creative and, above all, tenacious. They're not the sort to pass out leaflets or hold vigils. They're going to stand up and be counted, even if they don't know how to count.
I'm not saying that this behavior works for them. Let's face it: Grown-ups are much bigger. While we may not go in busting heads like Pinkerton Guards, most parents have forcefully removed a shrieking child from a mall. Their small acts of rebellion and our own tyrannical responses may occasion flashbacks. I know I wasn't the only 8-year-old to vow I'd practice more democratic parenting than I received. We are the parents our people warned us about.
So how is this analogy between children and radicals useful? We already know kids master new technology much more quickly than adults. They're zipping around on the Internet while we're in the other room still trying to program the VCR. And since the workplace and the world are changing rapidly due to technology, children may provide the best model for new protest techniques. A savvy 3-year-old with access to the Net could shut down a multinational corporation faster than you can say "Nanny-nanny-boo-boo." I can't begin to guess how they'll do it; my dinosaur brain is still busy reading from left to right across the page. (If you can believe it, I'm actually composing this essay with a pen.)
The best we parents can do is to recall the sting of parental oppression from our own youth and exchange our riot gear for a pair of earplugs and a sense of humor. Maybe we'll learn something.