The day after 20 young children were killed in Newtown, Conn., shooting, David Bennahum, the CEO of a software company and father of two, logged onto Facebook. If we really want to tighten gun laws, he wrote on his wall, we would have 1 million children march on Washington.
"Friends were like, 'That's a great idea!'" Bennahum, whose children are ages 3 and 5, told HuffPost. "Ten minutes later, I went and created a Facebook page. Within two hours, it had 600 likes and only 30 or 40 were my friends." The idea has since crystallized as the Million Kids March. A website, launched Thursday, describes its mission: "A million kids on the Mall. A million kids advocating for safe schools across America. Coming together in one great day. Who could say no to that?"
Since the Newtown shooting, communities and advocacy groups across the country have mobilized in favor of stricter gun control. Prescheduled gun buyback programs have surpassed previous efforts, while Demand A Plan, an online campaign to reform gun laws, has grown by 100,000 people.
But the Million Kids March -- with no minimum age for participation -- has its focus on children. The website calls it an "extraordinary teaching moment" for kids to learn about the power of peaceful assembly and collective action for a cause.
"It is poignant that [these will be] people who have no standing in terms of voting marching on the Mall," Bennahum said. "It's the first time you'll see a march of that type in 50 years."
"They might feel as though they're actually doing something," said Dr. George Drinka, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of “When Media Is The Parent.” Drinka is not involved with the march. "When kids are with their parents and other protective figures who are explaining what is happening and why they're there," it can be "very healing," Drinka said.
Other mental health experts questioned involving children in political activism, particularly after a traumatic event like the Newtown shooting.
"I think parents should understand, firstly, what their motive is," said Richard Shadick, an associate professor of psychology at Pace University and director of the Pace counseling center. "Is this an opportunity to educate their child on a very important issue, or is this more along the lines of parents interested in pushing forward their own agenda?"
"It could cut both ways," Shadick said. "It could be very educational and moving experience, or it could be threatening and confusing for children."
Rose Alvarez-Salvat, a pediatric psychologist at Miami Children's Hospital, said it is essential for parents to consider their children’s developmental level when deciding if it is appropriate for them to participate in the march and, if so, how to approach it.
"I would say if a kid is younger than 7, you probably just want to explain, 'This is something that's very important to us as a family, and we want to make sure the schools are well protected,'" Alvarez-Salvat said. With older children, parents can be more specific about the issues at hand.
Shidick cautioned that some kids, regardless of age, should likely not participate in the march. That includes kids or teens with anxiety problems or pre-existing mental health issues that impact their daily functioning.
Planning for the march is just beginning. Bennahum and his co-organizers -- among them employees of Emily's List -- are looking for a financial sponsor and are forming an advisory council. (Other individuals have proposed similar efforts on Facebook and Twitter; Bennahum said his group has no immediate plans to join others.)
"This has all happened very organically, based on our own personal feelings. It's literally moving at warp speed," explained Patricia Evert, a nonprofit consultant and one of the founding volunteers. "Behind the scenes, we're trying to get the infrastructure set up.”
The goal, Bennahum said, is to hold the march on Feb. 17, the Sunday of President’s Day weekend. That date, however, is tentative. The organizers have not yet obtained a permit.
March organizers said Thursday they were considering creating materials to help parents and educators discuss the march with kids. (For his part, Bennahum said he has not discussed the shooting with his two children, who are too young.) The organizers said they also are considering the creation of a legislative checklist that kids can use to contact their local representatives about gun control.
"We're going to help affect more policy changes, that's our job," Bennahum said. "We're going to change the climate."
Source: Project Vote Smart, Graphic by: Chris Spurlock