Mixed Messages — we tell our young people to stand up for themselves, then criticise them when they do.

As a child of the 60's I grew up in an environment of children should be seen and not heard. As a student I was asked to accept what I was told, not question what was presented and not have independent thoughts and opinions, and if I did, to keep them to myself and not challenge the status quo.

These were not the good old days these were the days that children were seen as adults in the making. They were seen as not important or valuable in themselves, powerless and voiceless.

Since my childhood we have had numerous social movements that have changed the way we live. We have changed our expectations of how we should be treated and we have enshrined the rights for many groups of excluded and marginalised people into international conventions and domestic anti-discrimination laws.

Many of these social movements have been driven by young activists from the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests to the ‘March for Our Lives’ in the USA, and more recently, marriage equality.

Social change is fuelled by collaboration, harnessing diversity, optimism and a desire to challenge hypocrisy and pursue change. Whist these characteristics are not exclusively the domain of the young, they can be frequently found to describe this cohort.

With respect to the rights of the child it has also meant that since the 90s, children and young people have a right to have a say on issues that affect them, to have rights as citizens now, and to participate in the civil and political life of society. In our recent history young people and social activists have a hand in the foundation of an inclusive community and we should keep building on it.

These rights are a good thing not only for children and young people but for all of us who see the value in enabling and encouraging the participation of children and young people in civil society.

Much of my work is focussed on creating opportunities for children and young people to be listened to and supported to take action on things that matter to them, and to share with adults what children and young people tell me about being young and what they want me to share. A key focus of what children and young people want me to share relates to mixed messages about to their participation.

These messages are loud and clear for our young people and range from an annoyance through to a serious concern for our young people. These mixed messages include:

· complaints that children and young people are individualistic, apathetic and selfish displayed as the enormously negative backlash when young people engage in public debate

· telling them to think for themselves and then criticising when they do

· telling them to respect and value adults and institutions and then via twitter call them ‘selfish virtue signalling little turds’

· telling them to value democracy and then denying them rights to be involved

· telling them to not be selfish and care for others and when they do show empathy and concern for the environment and their future, tell them their thoughts are not their own or rational.

Last week thousands of Australian students exercised their democratic rights to participate and highlight their concerns with inaction on climate change. They were criticised by many from far and wide, high and low, including the Prime Minister who said they shouldn’t have done it on a school day.

His now famous quote ‘what we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools’ is something I have concerns about. There is something unique about the power and passion that young people have when they come together like this. And who better than our young people to point out to us adults that we aren’t doing a good job and to tell us we need to do something. They have a right to tell us this because it’s their future they are concerned with. We will all be fertilising the earth by the time any real ‘climate change’ affects our lives drastically enough for us to feel as strongly as these young people do about it.

Children have a right to take part in decision making. Just because they can’t yet vote, doesn’t mean their voices shouldn’t be heard. In fact it’s the opposite. We need to seek their opinions and insights into how we should run every part of the society and community that that we live in. Young people don’t have access to the same level of resources or money that adults do, so it’s important that they can come out en masse and have their voices heard.

By encouraging activism and teaching young people about democracy, we are teaching them to be responsible citizens now and in the future. Our children and young people can force us to look at things differently, through their eyes, and there’s power in that.

I’m the first person to say that a good education is one of the most important things our young people can have, but the young people who attended rallies last Friday learnt a big lesson in democracy and citizenship. They know how frustrating it is to get their message across, but they have a right to have a say.

We know the environment matters to young people, they have told me they care deeply about it. Recently, while on my Hopes and Dreams Regional Tour in Whyalla a young person said to me:

…the government needs to address things such as climate change and realise this isn’t science fiction, it’s real life and if we don’t do anything about it soon, it will be too late.”

On my Listening Tour last year, one young person said:

“We need to learn to care for the earth. At the moment, WE are the cause of all the problems. We must look at how what we do at an individual level and how this impacts globally. I know that not many young people passionately think about this……”

Another said:

“SA looks very nice now, I would like it to stay like that for future. This is very important because when I was little I used to always go to the hills with my family on walks and bike rides. I want others to have the same opportunities as me.”

Let’s celebrate that we live in a country where we have children and young people willing and able to influence social, cultural and political change. Young people are showing us that they are not the stereotype perpetuated by many, they are not individualistic, uncaring, selfish and apathetic or the ‘I’ generation. They embrace equality, reward sharing, promote causes and often integrate doing well into their lifestyle. They are self-organised, value transparency and are open to solutions from wherever they come, family, business or government. The source is less important than the quality of the action.

With such a strong desire to improve the future I have been left wondering how we can embrace this movement for change.


Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Thursday 6th December 2018