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Kids are people, too.

This was the premise of an American television program of the same name broadcast in the late 1970s and early 1980s, targeted to children and youth.

 

That phrase  – Kids are people, too – has particular poignancy now, amid the debates, ranging from thoughtful to inane to vitriolic, sparked by the students who survived last month’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They have harnessed their social media savvy to render commentary and make public their outrage at the ready availability of assault weapons in the United States.

One wonders why these students are capturing the broader public imagination now when, for years, young people have been voicing similar concerns and demanding an audience. The difference isn’t that the survivors of the Parkland school shooting are speaking; the difference is that they are getting the attention of multiple audiences, including the National Rifle Association and the White House.

These audiences were built under fire – literally – as the Parkland students documented their horror in real time on social media platforms (ironically provoking accusations of being planted professional actors even as they shocked and evoked compassion in others).

These young survivors in Parkland, who have exhibited grace and stamina in withstanding hateful criticism while expressing their grief, are to be applauded. But the same deeply affecting, articulate and passionate voices, full of conviction, are plentiful among youth in communities – both real and virtual – far beyond Parkland. Kids are often dismissed as lacking the attention span and maturity to talk about serious issues, but they are showing us now that they have been engaged citizens since long before the Parkland shooting. Kids have been actively noticing, assessing, and voicing their thoughts about facing daily situations, both good and bad.

A meeting of the Parkland shooting survivors with gun violence victims, gun reform advocates, and teens from Chicago (who have been waging this battle for much longer), is one of many such bridges being built. But bridges between youth alone, while significant, aren’t enough. Kids need adults to join with them as allies. Instead of punishing, containing and controlling them, adults should try listening and collaborating with them. Instead of patronizing them, adults should treat their stories with the dignity and respect they deserve.

This is particularly true of the news media, where even well-meaning stories about youth often perpetuate and extend tropes and misperceptions about them that threaten adult-run institutions. Thus, unsurprisingly, reports ensued of youth being disciplined for participating in National Walkout Day. Some were not let back into their classrooms or incurred other disciplinary actions; some were threatened verbally and physically by teachers. At a school in rural Arkansas, school officials reportedly paddled three students to punish them for walking out.

Young people are responding, and they will not be silent. They are sharing information and documenting their own lives and those of others on a variety of media platforms and other media forms. They are crafting artful, incisive commentary through words, images and sounds. They are providing much needed leadership where adults have left a void. The Parkland students have spearheaded March for Our Lives demonstrations this Saturday in multiple cities across the country which are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of marchers.

The nation is learning the names of these young survivors, these activists, these change makers: Emma and David and Cameron and Sarah. Through social media, we are learning about many others who are surviving and thriving, inquiring and making change, acting on stages both large and small:  Justin and Michael and Morgan and Hannah and Trinity and Rosa and millions more. If adults learn a lasting lesson from them, let it be that youth are already civically engaged, they will not be silent, and they can be powerful allies in effecting change.

Kids, everywhere, are people. They are not people in training. They make observations, they have critiques rooted in experience, they hurt, they laugh, they wonder, they innovate, they create and destroy, and yes, they have – and do not need to be given – voices. Listen to kids, and you’ll hear eloquence, clarity, passion, and purpose, much like we’re hearing now, which existed long before this moment of national attention and will continue long after the cameras are gone.

It’s time to drop the “too.”

Kids are people.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Lalitha Vasudevan is professor of technology and education and director of the media and social change lab at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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