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#MomLife: Our kids are smarter than you think

Recently, a group of children and youth from across Canada filed a court challenge arguing that the minimal voting age should be abolished.
AMCullen-YouthVote
A.M. Cullen: "Perhaps in a hundred years, this court case will spark a similar shocked reaction: Why would we even question our children's ability to be thoughtful and informed persons?" (Illustration by A.M. Cullen)

Recently, a group of children and youth from across Canada filed a court challenge arguing that the minimal voting age should be abolished.

When the Alaska Highway News covered the story this week and I was shocked to see such a negative and vocal response to the article. Many felt entitled to describe in detail as to why our children are apparently too stupid and uninformed to be trusted with the privilege of the vote.

A Brief History of Voting in Canada

For those who haven't been in a Social Studies classroom in a while, let's brush up on our history. Initially after confederation, only white men 21 years and older who own property were allowed to vote. The implementation of the Indian Act in 1876 allowed First Nations men to vote, but only if they gave up their Indian status. The suffrage movement was brewing worldwide even when Canada as a country was forming.

New Zealand trailblazed women's rights by granting women (both European settler decent and Māori indigenous women) the right to vote in 1893. It took Canada another 25 years and a rather amusing mock parliament hosted in Winnipeg by Nellie McClung to grant women to vote in Canada in 1918 – that is, as long as they met the same eligibility as men and owned their own property.

In 1934, we passed legislation that specifically excluded Inuit from voting, and this wasn't changed until 1950. In 1948, Asian Canadians were granted the vote. And then finally (and pathetically late), in 1960 First Nations men and women were allowed to vote no matter where they lived and without sacrificing their status.

The Changing Definition of 'Who is Smart Enough'

So why didn’t everyone have the right to vote from the get-go? Persisting arguments from the anti-suffrage movement argued that women (and other marginalized minorities) didn't want the vote, we're too busy to keep up with politics, or simply didn't have the mental capacity to offer a useful opinion. Sound familiar?

We may not have political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, but feminists have made some progress in the last 103 years. At the very least we've convinced lawmakers that we possess the same ability as our counterparts to make an informed decision. Don't be so quick to dismiss a underappreciated population like our Canadian youth.

Can Children Make an Informed Decision?

There are various arguments for why lowering the voting age is a bad idea, but I find that they all tend to root in the question of whether youth can make a thoughtful informed decision. A study by Weithorn & Campbell dating way back to 1982 found that children as young as 9 have the capacity to make informed choices. In addition, other studies (Mann, Harmoni, & Power (1989) and Steinberg (2013)) conclude that "children at age 14 or 15 are as competent as adults."

Some argue that the teenage brain is still developing and therefore don't have the cognitive ability to vote. Though cognitive scientists have found certain brain functions 'peak' around age 25, coincidentally it also signals the beginning of the brain's slow and steady decline. While it's true that our white matter is still developing in adolescence, it doesn't necessarily equate an inability to make an informed and thoughtful decision. In fact, the plasticity of the brain in this stage could be an asset when considering the complexity of Canadian politics. A 2006 study found that our openness to other people and ideas tends to narrow as we get older. Living in a rapidly changing and uncertain era of our history, I think the ability to reflectively and openly consider new ideas and perspectives is essential for our country's future.

Under this logic, perhaps we instead need to revoke the vote of Canada's seniors? But jokes aside...

Do Kids Know Enough About Politics?

I'm not sure the last time you were able to rattle off the specifics of our democratic system in Canada, but you know who can? Our kids. Who else regularly thinks about current social issues and Canadian history, and is given time and space to reflect on it daily? I can't attest to other provinces, but the newly revised BC curriculum offers a plethora of guiding principles that leave students with an arsenal of information and a practiced skillset of communication, social responsibility, and critical and creative thinking. Every year, I'm always pleasantly surprised on how incredibly thoughtful and brilliant my secondary students are.

The anti-suffrage movement argued that because women were at home, they didn’t interact with the political issues enough to be properly informed. As more women took on men's roles during the First World War, that changed. Years ago, we could have said the same about teens, but now with a mini computer in their pocket and a 24/7 connection to world's wealth of information, they know more about issues than ever before.

Of course, there will always be a few whose knowledge and maturity are questionable, but if that's the threshold for the right to a federal vote, then maybe we need to re-evaluate our system anyways. If social media has proved anything, several adults have a questionable level of maturity too.

Don't Be Quick to Judge

I'm not suggesting that we change legislation and welcome kids into the poll stations tomorrow, but I would be wary in making quick judgments against them. Our youth are a powerful and passionate force and are a lot smarter than you think.

Thinking now about the Persons' Case of 1929, which legally declared Canadian women as "persons" under the law, it seems ridiculous that we needed a court case to determine this. Perhaps in a hundred years, this court case will spark a similar shocked reaction: Why would we even question our children's ability to be thoughtful and informed persons?


A.M. Cullen lives and writes in Fort St. John. Are you parenting in the Peace? Send in your questions, topics, or suggestions for #MomLife to cover at momlife.ahnfsj@gmail.com.