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It’s time children were seen – and heard

Zuva Goverwa /
01 September 2021

6 min read

In an award-winning speech, Haileybury student Zuva Goverwa says young people can’t be silenced.

Children should be seen and not heard. The origins of this English proverb are contested, with some suggesting it emerged as early as the 15th Century. When my 12-year-old brother wakes me up at 6am on a Saturday, yelling to everyone on his Minecraft server right outside my door, I tend to agree. But the scope of this phrase and how it manifests is a lot more sinister than Saturday morning sleep-ins.

Wisdom is widely considered a product of experience. You live and you learn, so to speak. And so, it’s natural that the older you get, the more you know and the more your perspective is valued. But we, the youth of today, are incredibly intelligent. In fact, we’re on the trajectory to be the most educated generation yet. We’ve learnt to adapt in a rapidly evolving world, in ways and at rates that have never been seen before.

We are socially aware and tech savvy, with the 97 per cent of us who are on at least one social media platform often using it to advocate for change. Three days after the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd in American police custody last year, 8.8 million Tweets were made with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

On Instagram there are currently over 940,000 posts under the hashtag #climateaction. As a generation that hasn’t really known a world without social media, much to the dismay of a few of our parents, we’ve been made to engage with all kinds of content like this, to actively invest in the progression of society and our place in it.

So why are we constantly being belittled by those in positions of power? Why does society mentally equate youth with naivety and even recklessness? Images of crazy house parties and petty high school dramas are conjured up at the mention of the word ‘teen’.

We’re told to that we’ll ‘understand when we’re older’, that ‘we don’t know what we’re talking about’, that we need to ‘work on our anger management’ and ‘go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend’.

“So why are we constantly being belittled by those in positions of power? Why does society mentally equate youth with naivety and even recklessness?”

Taking a stand on contemporary issues

As some of you might have recognised, that last line was a quote taken from former US President Donald Trump, directed towards a then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg. The patronising remark was in response to Time magazine’s decision to name the young climate activist Person of the Year. Despite all the criticisms made against her, Thunberg has played a crucial role in bringing discussions about climate action to the forefront.

She sparked the Fridays for Future movement at only 15 years of age, resulting in global protests against the lack of action by institutions in combatting climate change. The ripple effects of large scale, public youth activism like Thunberg’s goes beyond the tangible. A 2020 study found that 87 per cent of young people are inspired by seeing our peers taking a stand against contemporary issues.

X Gonzalez is another example of a prominent young activist who has inspired countless people across the world through their activism. A survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, Gonzalez has been an avid spokesperson for gun control in America, organising the #MarchForOurLives alongside fellow survivors, which resulted in over 880 similar events across the globe. And yet, despite astonishing bravery and courage, Gonzalez, too, has been met with contempt and condescension.

It’s infuriating. Because here are these beacons of hope for us and our peers. Living proof that we can be empowered to make a better future for ourselves. A symbolic invitation to all of us for a seat at the table. These are the people who speak to us and for us, not the 50, 60, 70-something-year-old men who make up the majority of governments in most of the world. But their voices, our voices, are being silenced. Ridiculed. Mocked. We’re not being heard and, really, we’re being denied our chances to even be seen.

“The willingness of society to tune out the calls of its young people is dangerous. Because it breeds apathy.”

We can't expect silence from the leaders of tomorrow

It’s not an excuse to say we just don’t have enough experience, because I can tell you that the opinions of someone who had to watch their friends get shot at school and wonder if they were next are just as, if not more, valid in a conversation about gun control than a rich and privileged 74-year-old man who’s been cashed up by the NRA, even if they’re 18 and he’s the US President.

We deserve to claim our stake in the issue of climate change and ask the generations above us ‘how dare you’, without being told to ‘chill’. After all, 71 per cent of them sleep comfortably believing they won’t be affected by it in their lifetime, according to Gallup incorporated, while a majority of us lie awake.

But beyond unfair, this is dangerous. The willingness of society to tune out the calls of its young people is dangerous. Because it breeds apathy.

Here in Australia, it emboldened our Prime Minister to denounce young climate strikers in 2018, telling them to go back to school. Of course, education is extremely important. But why? So that we can do something with it. This instinct to tell kids what they should and shouldn’t do, say, or even think, allows people to forget that. To expect complacency over critical thinking. To believe knowledge is only seen in the image of a full classroom, when it’s more clearly heard in the roaring cries of a rally.

When 300 million people’s homes will be threatened by rising sea levels by 2050, according to Climate Central, or when 500 people die each day by gun violence in the US, as noted by Amnesty, we cannot expect silence from the leaders of tomorrow. The world needs to hear us and world needs to be moved by us. Because, not to be incredibly cliché, we are the future. And we’re not just the face of it, we sing its song. We echo its promises for better, so no one can forget. But, with all due respect for my elders, you need to listen.

Student-lead petitions for greater consent education, social media campaigns calling for an end to human rights abuses, school communities coming together to call for better treatment of refugees – these are the voices of young people and they deserve to be listened to. We deserve to be listened to.

So, while I still firmly maintain that Saturday mornings would be a lot better without the uproar of a gaming pre-teen outside my door before sunrise, I do believe that society needs to stop stifling the voices of its young people.

Children should be seen and heard.

Zuva Goverwa is a student at Haileybury College.

This is an edited version of the speech she gave when she won the Victorian title in the VCAA Plain English Speaking Awards. She will represent the state in the national finals in September 2021.

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