November 19, 2018
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Just thinking of kids isn’t enough

Cory Morse | The Grand Rapids Press via AP
Cory Morse | The Grand Rapids Press via AP
Ever Reyes Mejia is reunited Tuesday with his 3-year-old son at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office building in Grand Rapids, Michigan. More than 2,000 children were reportedly separated from their parents after crossing the Southern U.S. border as part of an immigration strategy by the Trump administration.

On Tuesday morning, the final four members of the Wild Boars youth soccer team were rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand, along with the team’s coach. The triumphant conclusion to this tale was transmitted to the world in a rush of news alerts, the same kind that breathlessly updated us on the rescue’s progress ever since the 12 boys and their coach were found trapped in the flooded labyrinth more than a week ago. The world, it seems, breathed a sigh of relief.

For the past few weeks, we Americans have been fascinated by the plight of children. There are the children who have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and the children caught up in our country’s anti-breast-feeding machinations at the World Health Assembly. There are the children who may no longer come into existence because millennials are increasingly delaying parenthood, and the ones who probably will, if Roe v. Wade is hollowed out by a new conservative majority created by President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

It’s a rather unusual thread, when you think about it. What does it mean that children are suddenly so much at the heart of the news?

There are surface explanations for this recent flurry in kid coverage, of course. When it comes to the soccer team trapped in the Thai cave, well — we’ve always loved a good rescue story. Tales of survival in adverse circumstances highlight human resilience, the selflessness of rescuers, the marvels of technical ingenuity. (Just ask Elon Musk about his social-media-famous rescue sub! Or don’t!)

They offer a possibility of hope and redemption that exists independently of whatever else might be going on in the world. And how much more compelling is that feeling when the face of the rescued is a blameless youth?

There’s no doubt that blamelessness attracts us, in this most venal of times. Perhaps we would rather focus on actual babies because they are more compelling than the man-babies occupying the White House. It’s so much more meaningful to advocate on behalf of real infants sleeping on the floor in child-detention centers than to contemplate the used mattress Scott Pruitt tried to get his hands on before losing his job at the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump rudely throwing Starbursts at our European allies is embarrassingly childish behavior. So much more rewarding to think about actual children, instead.

Could all of these adults be a bit less awful? Please. Think of the children!

I suspect the feelings bound up in that phrase are the deepest explanation for our current fascination with kids’ issues. Children need our help. We should protect them.

We know, deep down, that the way we treat the youngest and most vulnerable among us is the truest reflection of who we are as a society and the most obvious signal of where we are headed. Alas, despite the celebration over Thailand, there’s little good news to be had.

Our continuing drama at the border — babies only months old separated from their parents, 1-year-olds asked to appear before a judge in immigration court, some of the lucky few to be reunited with their parents returned covered in dirt and lice — suggests an alarming callousness on the part of immigration enforcement agencies and the right-wingers who gleefully cheer them on. The outrage at these policies proves that such coldbloodedness is not universal. But how did we get here in the first place?

The Trump delegation’s befuddling attack on breast-feeding at the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly — reportedly at the behest of infant formula manufacturers — was as obvious an example as is imaginable of whose well-being our government values. For the Trump administration, that’s corporations, not children, and it’s willing to bully and threaten to get the point across.

Things are not well at home, either. For many, childbirth and parenthood are simply unaffordable. The fact that a potential erosion of abortion rights is seen as calamitous may say as much about our country’s failure to provide universal health care, parental leave and family-friendly policies as it does about individual choice and moral values. For all our talk of “family values,” actually having a family seems harder here than it does anywhere else in the developed world.

But it’s good that kids are top of mind at least for a few news cycles, opening our eyes to the deeper problems we face. Clearly, we need to think of the children even more.

Christina Emba is a Washington Post opinions writer and editor.

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