Darlena Cunha is a contributor to TIME
Thursday night, my two 7-year-old daughters stayed up to watch some of the Republican debate. Needless to say, I had a lot of questions to answer. In my house, they went like this:
“Mom, why do all these men hate Hillary Clinton so much? Is she going to be our next president?”
“Mommy, is that Donald Trump? I don’t like him. Why does anyone like him? Yuck.”
Kids have agency. They have opinions. They say the darndest things, and they mean them. At the time. But their framework for those thoughts come from their parents. Their life experience and ability to parse complex governmental, political and legal issues are limited. I am a firm believer in encouraging youngsters to learn about our political process and partake in the discourse surrounding our cultural standing. To awaken a thirst within them for knowledge about our country and their role in our democracy is one of the key roles of parenting.
That said, they are going to pick up what we, the parents, are putting down. And we cannot be objective all the time. We are laying down the foundation upon which we believe our kids will grow best. For my family, that’s a world that doesn’t include Donald Trump as president.
So when I saw three little girls, barely older than my daughters, proudly belting out pro-Trump lyrics in front of a 10,000-strong crowd, I honored their right to their opinions. But there is a huge difference between politics talk in the home and the politics-for-pomp that one of the girls’ fathers, Jeff Popick of Pop Media Network LLC, is peddling.
The three are part of a five-girl group called “The USA. Freedom Kids,” and Popick said the girls “are so dedicated, so intensely patriotic.” The girls are between the ages of 8 and 12. Do they know what “patriotic” means to them, yet? Do they have firm opinions on which candidate they should stump for based on their own life experiences? Do they understand what they are saying? Do they understand the implications of what they are getting into? They aren’t, after all, old enough to vote, some by a decade.
Popick has said he “enjoyed providing them an opportunity” and was happy to “watch them seize it.” He gave them an opportunity to sing political jingles, and, sure, there will be fans of the group and positive feedback. But he also opened them up to ridicule, mean comments and public flaming. Are they old enough to consent to that?
You cannot use children as public figureheads in political movements or protests. They are too young to give consent, and you may be putting them in danger. Who knows if these kids will be followed by stalkers or become the victims of bullying or harassment because of an extreme stance they haven’t actually taken.
While the girls are clearly talented, exposing them to the type of inflammatory reactions Trump elicits from both sides isn’t fair to them. The lyrics are accusations. “Cowardice, Are you serious? Apologies for freedom—I can’t handle this!” It is wrong to burden young children with such a message, to face the public, when they don’t really know what they are signing up for.
This goes even when you might agree with the message. I very much loved President Barack Obama when he was elected into office in 2008. But my kids will never sing about him in a public way that puts money in my pocket. That is ethically wrong. The school children in this pro-Obama video were almost as exploited as the U.S.A. Freedom Kids are—a large difference being that the educators and producers involved didn’t pocket profits. Still, they instructed a group of children who couldn’t properly decide for themselves on political rhetoric that they then released to the country at large.
And it was wrong.