Agony Uncle: Will I traumatize my child by taking them to a migrant detention protest?

A reader asks New Internationalist's very own Agony Uncle about whether or not to take their young son to a protest outside an immigration detention centre.

Q:Should I take my eight-year-old son to a demonstration outside an immigration detention centre? Detention is something I am passionately opposed to but, so far, I have bottled it because I baulk at the explanation that I would have to give him. ‘Why are people locked up in there – are they dangerous?’ ‘No, they haven’t committed any crime or hurt anyone.’ ‘Why are they in there?’ ‘They are there because our society doesn’t want them to be here.’ ‘How can they get out?’ ‘I don’t know, some do and others are there for years.’

I think it could be a frightening experience. At the same time, I hope that as an adult he’ll be a defender of principles of equality and inclusion, tolerance and diversity, and open borders. To what extent should we protect our children from the dark realities of the world we live in and for how long?

A:Your question reminded me of a screening I went to of Buster Keaton’s The General at the British Film Institute. Sat in front of me was a young boy, probably around eight years old, who’d been taken to the (Saturday afternoon!) screening by his clearly very cultured and serious parents. He fidgeted and complained throughout; they told him to ‘sssh’ and appreciate the sublime comedy on-screen. Poor boy! He would have had much more fun watching a terrible Netflix cartoon on an iPad or running outside on the Southbank rather than watching a black-and-white silent film made 100 years before he was born. His parents will probably find that their attempts to ‘civilize’ him will backfire and I predict he’ll be a Philistine as an adult.

For all the nurturing ideologies of freedom and spontaneity, all parents, whether they admit it or not, want their kids to turn out a certain way: with the right attitudes, convictions and approach to the world. There is nothing wrong with that. But the terrifying truth is that, for all the influences and teaching you can instil from an early age, there is always the great, radical unknowability of life itself: his most formative experiences will happen without you present. Many a child who has grown up in a right-on, campaigning household has gone on to become a Blairite hack; and a few who grew up in reactionary, aristocratic circumstances (think Tony Benn or George Orwell) have gone on to become champions of liberation.

On balance, I’d say taking your eight-year-old to a few demonstrations outside immigration detention centres can only be a good thing. Kids are sophisticated thinkers; they’re adept at dealing with the contradictory nature of life. Much more so than us. Immigrant children in Britain grow up with double-cultures, removed from some ‘authentic’ home, but also completely at ease with where they are. It doesn’t diminish them; if anything, it makes them more sensitive to the nuances of society. Likewise, I don’t think it’ll be a leap for your son to realize that he lives in a racist society and that many anti-racists want to change it. And the way history has always moved along is by all the good people telling all the bad people where to shove it.

Perhaps you could explain to him that what would really be ‘frightening’ would be for these Immigration Removal Detention Centres to exist without any attendant campaigns to abolish them. Inside there may be some dark things happening; but, hopefully, at the demonstration outside, he might experience the collectivity, joy and determination of the protesters who’ve given up their weekends and evenings out of solidarity with those who need it. Remember, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’ – that famous catchphrase of professionally concerned parent Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons – is really a call for suffocating the young with manufactured ignorance. In fact, children never respond better and more creatively than when you treat them as adults and tell them the truth.