by Martin C. Evans (cc)
My first vision of solidarity with my daughter came when she was a few centimeters tall, a four-month fetus, a radicle. My partner was carrying her as we backpacked across miles of clearcuts and ancient forests, wading through marshes and scrambling down talus. We were there to find out the truth about a proposed pipeline, and to bring back stories and pictures to aid the resistance. When we joined, the main group had already endured 25 miles of very difficult terrain in bad weather. Morale was fragile, but the knowledge of our tiny, invisible companion was a tonic. She was a spark of purpose that no organizing skills, no charismatic leadership could ever match. She stayed by our side for the next two years as the campaign looked hopeless and then, finally, we won. I held her while talking to television cameras, sent her picture to elected officials, and dispatched her to hug people when they lost hope. She was our talisman, our mascot, or reason to endure. We returned with her, now a small but robust trailblazer, to visit those firs and cedars, her image becoming our emblem that victory is possible.
Later, when Occupy broke out like a probiotic pandemic, I had little energy to contribute, so I did the one thing I could: I took her to the encampment in the cargo bike and let her dance, play with kittens, hand out clean socks, and wait in line to break bread with people worn down from living outdoors in winter. She possessed the power to radically alter collective emotions, instantly and without words.
These experiences have convinced me that “parenting” is a patriarchal way to approach children. I prefer the concept of “ally.” An ally recognizes that they occupy the privileged side of a hierarchy while collaborating with the other to undermine what divides us, to strive toward an ideal of solidarity and mutual aid together. An an ally is motivated by self-interest, not charity or paternalism, operating from an awareness that whenever hierarchy erodes, we all benefit.
Children need us, but thinking of them as helpless can obscure what we need from them. Children provide us with a vision of wildness, uncorrupted by ideologies or institutional mental formations. They give us glimpse of what it would be like to be completely ourselves. They are undistracted by what they lack and become acutely sensitive and skillful in another way. Children generally have a less developed cognitive/logical mind that adults, but a much more instinctive emotional awareness. Children are empathic, and know how you are feeling even when you don’t. If we let them, they will masterfully manage the ebb and flow of feelings in any group. With her herd of fairy companions, my daughter reminds me that just because I cannot see something doesn’t mean it’s not there, and that each person contributes a distinct form of awareness.
But children’s gifts are unavailable to us if we do not create space for them. Children live in a world built and managed by a cartel of self-serving elites: adults. In wealthy countries, they are marginalized by their status as a numerical minority. In countries with high birthrates, they are often strongly identified with women, and marginalized by patriarchal institutions and norms. Either way, their capacity for self-advocacy is limited. They need allies.
Do children really have such different needs from us? Being with my daughter heightens my awareness of how some spaces are hostile, threatening, and unwelcoming to children. This caused me a renewed realization of how these space do not meet my own needs. One example is car culture. Any space built for cars is a space hostile to children. I felt this acutely as a teen, then I developed adaptations that dulled my awareness of the perpetual violation that car culture inflicts on us all. I learned to drive, became strong and fearless on my bike, and adopted a macho attitude of indifference to pain. None of it worked. I was just avoiding the truth that my safety and dignity is constantly threatened by machines. My awareness of this violence is reignited as I walk with somebody small and slow, as I reflect on the fact that she cannot visit her best friend—100 meters away—without an escort. The vulnerability of children reminds us of our own vulnerability, of the importance of confronting violence instead of accommodating and tolerating it.
Because of their empathic abilities and vulnerability, children are extraordinary instruments for creating safe(r) space. When children are present, at rest or at play, everyone feels safer. Encountering children even creates hormonal changes in adults, releasing oxytocin, reducing aggression and increasing cooperative and caring behaviors. Accommodating children and their caregivers in our movements is not a concession or a diversion of energy. It is a critical component of potent and effective collective action of any kind.
Including children—and benefitting from their contributions—requires sensitivity to their needs, and most of their needs are exactly the same as ours: safe space; healthy food and water; time to rest; attention and affection; freedom to define their own style and tastes, form relationships, and chose their gender expression; and opportunity to discharge physical and creative energy, struggle toward new competencies, and engage with the non-human world. Solidarity with children demands the same code of conduct as any other relationship: show up, pay attention, communicate respectfully, practice consent and healthy boundaries, give extra attention to people who are suffering, help the less skillful build their own capacities, remember to play and laugh together, be assertive and hold high standards.
Access to children is a basic human need, but post-industrial forms of social organization segregate children and their caregivers from childless adults. This segregation erodes solidarity and alienates everyone. In many less industrialized countries, children are considered members of the community, not property of their caregivers. This usually correlates with higher happiness and lower rates of addiction and mental illness. I invite you to dismantle this segregation and practice solidarity with my daughter and with radical families of all kinds. Smile and give thanks when you witness a breastfeeding woman, a man carrying a baby, or a queer or poly family in any form. Children are the terrain upon which we either rebuild patriarchy once again, or interrupt it at the source. The simple act of paying attention to a child not your own may be your most radical act of resistance.