A child’s voice, when heard clearly, can put an adult to shame. So should we be surprised when adults use children to further their campaigns? We don’t want children to be used in factories, battlefields or scientific testing, but what about in front of cameras and in political debates?

Last week, Malala Yousafzai, became the most recent child to be used by the UN in a campaign. Her story is compelling, the cause noble (many would argue, Nobel) and I could not imagine any reasonable person arguing against the campaign for the right for young women to have an education. But when Malala gave a prepared speech in front of the UN on 12 July 2013 (see speech), wasn’t she also a child being used? She was singled out by the Taliban because of a political documentary her father, a Pakistani activist, did with the New York Times. In this 2009 documentary, he presented the challenges of educating a girl in Swat through the articulate and emotional remarks of her then 11-year-old daughter.

Many would argue that the issue of the right of young women to have an education is so important, and as the symbol of Malala has become an effective rallying cry across the world on this subject, her story and person should be told directly. That is, no doubt, very true (although it resembles a form of brand management). We need to be aware then that, in the case of Malala, the ends justify the means (and the means is that we are using children to make our point). In doing so, are we that much better than those who force children to work or take up arms?

As a father of three very articulate children, I would never dream of using them to advance my views or positions in debates I am involved in here in Brussels. In the same vein, I would not force them to work as child models, actors or beauty contestants, no matter how beautiful people tell me they are. I feel I have a duty to create an environment where my children can develop normally and not as a tool in a world they are not mature enough to understand. I would never dare to use them, expose them or place them in danger just for me to make a point.

This does not seem to be the case for the Canadian environmentalist and media activist, David Suzuki, who, during the 1992 UN Earth Summit, got a place on the podium at the plenary for his 12-year-old daughter, Severn, to shame the world (see her prepared speech). She was clearly not “only a child” with a simple, single goal – she was a tool in a complex debate that no 12-year-old could understand (regardless of how she was coached by her father).

Environmental activists seem to have no hesitation in using children to emotivise their issues – sustainability is about their future. So getting children to stand up and simplify a complex problem and shame adults who dare seek a rational discussion is very attractive. If the end (“saving the planet”) is so great, then are the means (using children) justifiable?

Rent a child-lobbyist: The worst case of such abuse by environmental activists is one I had witnessed firsthand. When I was working on REACH at Cefic in 2005, many disturbed MEPs contacted us, sharing letters they had received from ten-year-olds in the UK demanding that they vote for a stronger REACH because chemicals will do bad things to them and their future. It seems that WWF had been visiting primary schools to “educate” children on the dangers of chemicals, giving them stuffed panda bears, the name of their constituent MEPs and stamped envelopes. You can tell ten-year-olds to write a letter to Santa Claus, and they will. But when you tell a child to write to a politician on your behalf, you are using them as lobbyists.

I still have copies of those letters done in UK “arts and crafts classes” with the pedagogical support of WWF. The chemical industry did not play that game nor did we do anything against WWF’s tactics here – we felt that the identities of the children needed to be protected. But I still use non-identifiable parts of those letters today in my lectures on lobbying (for the Ethics in Lobbying class). It always makes me wonder how environmental activists have no hesitation or guilt when they continually paste industry as being immoral and disrespectful to others while they themselves have no problem using children. The ends justify the means, I suppose (and they view their ends as noble).

Not all child manipulation works: But then there is Cordelia, the four-year-old daughter of the then British Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, who, during the height of the BSE (mad-cow) crisis in the UK in 1990, decided to force-feed this angelic young girl a hamburger in front of the gathered media. He wanted to give the British public a reassuring message that British beef was safe (so safe that he would still feed it to his own child). There was, quite rightly, outrage that he would use his child in such a way.  Although badly managed by his PR handlers, Gummer was merely doing what Malala’s or Severn’s parents were doing – using his child to make his political point. We did not trust him and were not prepared to share his point, thus making his use of this child, his daughter, offensive and distasteful.

The hypocrisy of commonality: So it is OK to use children if we all agree that the ends are justifiable (what I call “commonality” – the manufactured perception of consensus through communications techniques), but absolutely abhorrent if they are used to further an issue that “we all disagree with”. We all agree that young women have a right to an education. We all agree that we must do what we can to save the planet from climate change or restore lost biodiversity. Children could be used in furthering these goals without hesitation. What would happen if Monsanto were to show films of children in the Amazon or India with them stating how well they are because of the biotech company’s innovations and contributions? That challenges our commonality and we find that unacceptable.

If we selectively accept using children in some cases, but not others, are we not hypocrites?

So there is no doubt that a child’s voice, heard clearly, can put an adult to shame. But a parent or activist who uses children for political gain is shameful.

David Zaruk writes from Belgium. He is an EU risk and science communications specialist. 

David Zaruk writes from Belgium. He has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2001, active in EU policy events from REACH and SCALE to the Pesticides Directive, from Science in Society...