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Thought crimes. Why didn't we believe Charlie?

Charlie Fine

Yesterday about lunchtime, the twittersphere went slightly crazy over an opinion column written by an articulate 11-year-old named Charlie Fine. In his column, Charlie calls for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to stand up to “religious conservative” Fred Nile over his attempts to abolish ethics classes in NSW schools.

He wrote in part:

The facts show that only 33 per cent of the world is Christian, and in NSW a quarter of children choose not to attend lessons on theological scripture. I think it is possible to be non-religious and a good person.

By all means, Mr Nile, you go out and be as Christian as you want; I respect that entirely. But that does not give you and your supporters the right to attempt to shape a future generation of adults in your mould – that is a religious conservative.

Before long, Charlie’s piece was the top article on The Sydney Morning Herald website. By this morning it had been tweeted more than 600 times, making it one of the most heavily tweeted National Times articles ever.

I confess that when I first read the piece, I did so with one eyebrow raised. Do 11-year-olds really write like this? Had some parent played a hand in this? Others on Twitter were similarly suspicious.

But once I looked more closely at the byline I immediately realised my mistake. I know Charlie through his parents who are friends of mine. He is the type of kid who asks lots of questions about social issues, reads newspaper articles on politicians that interest him — Silvio Berlusconi being one of his favourites. He also takes an active interest in learning to express himself articulately and enjoys debating and public speaking.

Of course, part of the reason why some adults find it hard to imagine children as capable of crafting articulate, rational arguments is because we so rarely hear their voices in the public sphere. When it comes to media representation, children are invariably constructed as vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as troublesome deviants in need of discipline. Both constructions serve to legitimise adult intervention and policing of children and young people. Both constructions also infantilise young people and render them as apolitical, voiceless subjects devoid of any agency.

The flow on effect of this is that children are usually the last to be heard — if at all — in public debates, including those which directly affect them. As adults we are constantly guilty of talking about children, and talking at children, but we so rarely speak with children. If we did, we might gain some important insights.

Similarly, in academic spaces it is almost impossible to be granted university permission to speak with children about sensitive issues, due to concerns over harming children through the interview process. But this only disempowers children as it denies them a voice in important public matters. They are seen but not heard.

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On Monday night — along with a host of other media — I called Charlie’s mother to ask whether she would be comfortable in me writing a column that mentioned her son. She told me to ask Charlie myself. I did and also asked him whether he thought it was important for young people to have a voice in public debates including the ethics class debate.

“Considering young people are actually participating in ethics classes it would be very good for them to be heard,” he said. “So yes. You have my consent to write this,” he added.

Charlie has grown up in a household of writers. At the weekend Charlie had been on his mother’s case to write an opinion column about Fred Nile. Overloaded with her own work, she half seriously told him he should write his own piece. And so he did. Two hours later he presented her with a short article. She suggested that he should remove the provocative final line about Fred Nile on his knees. “But that’s my opinion!” he protested. And so it stayed in.

She helped him paragraph it and add a byline. Then, she agreed to send the piece in not expecting much. To her surprise, the editor responded and after a quick nip and tuck by a subeditor it appeared online. All Charlie’s ideas. All Charlie’s own work. Champion effort!

It’s a reminder that adults shouldn’t be so incredulous every time a child has a success or comes up with an original idea. Nor should we persist in the view that children are not capable of critical reasoning, incisive argument and articulate speech.

While the current media debate over ethics classes is playing out as a debate over the shifting role of religious instruction within schools, what we are forgetting is that the whole point of ethics classes is to acknowledge that children are capable of logical reasoning and ethical decision making and this is something to be developed and strengthened within them. We can start this by affording young people a little more respect and a little more room in the public sphere.

Do we listen to kids enough? Yours or other people’s? What about the ethics classes themselves, did Charlie have a point?

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