It's almost impossible to teach a young child to think for him or herself. No matter how bright or advanced most children are, they're still not at the point where they've had enough life experience to be able to form their own strong opinions on complex subjects. With very few exceptions, their parents views are their own at least into their early teens, particularly if those views are tightly held and ferociously espoused within the household. This is one of the reasons that religious and political beliefs are often the equivalent of bad hand-me-downs: because kids simply mimic the beliefs of their parents early on and sometimes never think to break away from those core values as they emerge into adulthood. Sure, there can be rebellion, but if that does occur it's not usually until a person is developed enough to have gathered the mental tools and formed the two-dimensional thought processes necessary to truly begin to question what they've been taught by their parents.
It's one thing for a child to be able to perform incredible computational tasks or learn skills well beyond his or her years, but having the emotional and psychological maturity necessary for an informed opinion is something else entirely.
I think this is why it really bothers me when I see parents enlist their children in their own personal political crusades. When they draft them into activism. I don't care which side of the aisle or for what noble cause the kid may be speaking out in favor of -- or pushing against -- there's something discomforting about watching a child take on the obviously learned and practiced mannerisms of a culture warrior. What's worse is when a kid is allowed to use his or her own inherent virtue, usually combined with no small measure of charming precociousness, as a weapon in the service of social or political protest, because then what you get is a form of exploitation. To say nothing of an unfair fight.
That's exactly what we saw on May 23rd, when nine-year-old Hannah Robertson confronted the CEO of McDonald's, publicly scolding him at a company shareholders' meeting for supposedly selling "junk food" to kids just like her. Reading from a prewritten statement, Robertson stood before Don Thompson and gave him a piece of her mind. "It would be nice if you stopped trying to trick kids into wanting to eat your food all the time," she said, parroting charges made against McDonald's in a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That suit claimed that the restaurant chain engages in predatory practices aimed at hooking children on Happy Meals and other high-fat-content foods through targeted advertising; it was eventually dismissed, but no one with a brain would argue with the idea that McDonald's wants children to eat what it's selling.
Thompson was, needless to say, flummoxed by the situation he'd suddenly found himself in, namely having to defend McDonald's to a nine-year-old girl. And make no mistake: that was precisely the point.
Hannah Robertson's mother is a health-food blogger and activist with Corporate Accountability International, which, as you can tell by the name, is a group that considers McDonald's its sworn enemy. She's behind a series of internet videos -- starring, of course, her cheeky, bespectacled and generally cute-as-a-button daughter -- aimed at getting all of us to put down the cheeseburgers and pick up a carrot. Kia Robertson admits to coaching Hannah through her march to McMordor and ultimate confrontation with McSauron, who's been poisoning the innocent children of Middle-Earth -- and certainly Middle-America -- with toxic crap. Right or wrong, she has a political agenda and she's conscripted her kid not only to fight with her and for her but to be on the front lines, because she knows full well that Hannah is her secret weapon. She's bulletproof because she'll never actually take any fire.
I have no doubt that Hannah Robertson is a smart little girl, and while I certainly don't mean to sound condescending in saying that, I think it's important to acknowledge that, yes, she is a little girl. Any research she's done into the effects of McDonald's, its food or its advertising practices, was no doubt provided by her mother and Hannah's overall desire is unquestionably to make her mom happy. That's natural, and there's not a thing wrong with it. I also want to make it clear that whether I personally think a Big Mac is ambrosia from heaven, rat-droppings on a bun or something in between -- or whether or not I fret over my own four-year-old daughter's occasional enjoyment of a Happy Meal -- is absolutely irrelevant. Again, the worthiness of the cause isn't the subject at hand -- it's the use of a child to launch into a polemic the child's parent happens to agree with fully. It's questionable when you see a little kid holding a sign at a Tea Party rally; it's questionable when you see a child on a picket line; it's questionable when a nine-year-old girl stands up and begins railing against the adult CEO of a company she supposedly doesn't like. It's all questionable for the same reason: because the only agenda the child has is the one that was put there by its parents.
And if Kia Robertson would dare to suggest that Hannah wanted to take on McDonald's -- bullshit. I was pretty smart when I was Hannah Robertson's age, but if you'd let me do what I truly wanted all the time I probably would've set half the neighborhood on fire. If I had strong opinions on anything beyond how late I could stay up, they very likely came from my mother and father and my desire to both please them and emulate them, because I loved them. There's a reason we don't ask children to solve complex problems -- social, political or otherwise -- and anyone who would is a fool.
Hannah Robertson was doing shtick when she confronted Don Thompson. It's shtick she learned, not something that came naturally, because almost nothing a nine-year-old does that involves crusading against a multinational corporation comes naturally. And what's worse, she was put in that position because the person who truly holds the beliefs, and therefore the reins, knew she would get media attention for the cause and because she would be unassailable in any confrontation. There was no way Don Thompson could win in a fight against a child. He'd have to just stand there and take it or risk being called a bully and immediately proving the accusations of Kia Robertson and her group 100% correct.
The good news for Hannah Robertson is that in the same way it's not her authentic belief system that led her to be a social activist, it's not her fault that it's wrong she's been put in that position.