Jayne Dowle: Our children should be able to participate and protest

I CAME downstairs on Sunday morning to find my eight-year-old son on his dad’s laptop. He wanted to find out more about the “riots” in London. I was impressed that he had already got as far as BBC iPlayer.

And I was impressed that at eight, he was interested enough to want to know more about the protests which took place when splinter groups broke off from the crowd marching against Government cuts and trashed Oxford Street and The Ritz hotel.

But what am I going to say to him if he asks whether he can join the protesters? It’s going to happen, I just know it.

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There is no point pretending that it isn’t a possibility. Like many children and young people today, Jack is already extremely principled, and I am proud of him for it. If he decides that something is wrong, he will tell you so in no uncertain terms, and stand up and defend his position without fear. He is on the school council, for heaven’s sake, so there will be no stopping him soon.

My first instinct then would be to say “yes”, if only because I never demonstrated against anything when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until my 20s that I was proud to walk around Hyde Park to support the miners.

I’d been away from Barnsley for more than five years, but I wanted to show solidarity against the pit closures blighting my home town. And I will never forget the sight of lads I went to school with marching so proudly under the banner in front of me.

I also wanted to be there simply to witness the event. That’s my journalistic instincts, I guess.

For that reason, I still regret not taking Jack to join the huge London march against the Iraq war in 2003. I wanted to be able to tell him that he was there, but he was only a baby, and my ever-sensible husband, fearing a riot, talked me out of it.

So, my instinct would be in the affirmative. But as his mother, would I really feel comfortable waving him off on the coach with a banner under his arm?

I suppose that most of us want to encourage our children to be independent, but with the arrests and the wanton violence which escalates out of peaceful protest, is it morally right to allow them to go?

Well, in an ideal world, I guess you have to develop a relationship with your children which allows you to discuss the issue of protest sensibly and without prejudice. And hope that they listen when you tell them to walk away as soon as they find themselves in the midst of a situation which is rapidly getting out of control.

But given that this approach didn’t work when Jack and two of his mates ended up the ringleaders in a massive food fight at a recent party, I’m not sure that even the best intentions always work.

Much is made of the young “celebrity” protesters who end up in trouble, such as Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist, David, arrested for swinging from the Cenotaph at a rally against tuition fees in December. But spare a thought for their parents. Before you judge, that could be your normally well-behaved son or daughter up there, caught up in the madness, fired by bravado.

And don’t forget, rolling news thrives on exciting images. For every silly Charlie Gilmour, there are hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens, of all ages and backgrounds, who just want to demonstrate in peace. And when we think about our own children taking part, we shouldn’t forget this. When we consider how they must feel, let down by politician after politician, made promises which were promptly broken, who can blame them for wanting to express their opposition?

And consider also the significance of simply participating, of being part of something which is bigger than themselves. We complain that young people are so wrapped up in their own world, their parameters often stretching no further than their Facebook accounts.

Why should we deny them the right to feel that collective power, and to believe, if only fleetingly, that they might actually make a difference by coming together? Let’s be realistic.

As a formative political experience, taking part in a march or a demonstration has to be more exciting than casting your vote in the AV referendum.

So, in answer to the question, I do think it is morally right to allow our children to go. But it is our moral responsibility as parents to prepare them properly for what they might encounter when they get there.