To hear our politicians these days, it's all about the kids. If we continue with current policies we are sentencing them to drown, either in debt or the melted polar ice caps. But of course this is only a rhetorical device. If it really were all about the kids we wouldn't be approving severe cuts to education and recreation programs.
No, the reference to the next generation isn't shaped by concern about their welfare as much as it is about shaming the opposition. By framing issues in this way, the speaker casts his or her opponents as people so reckless and selfish that they would harm innocent children.
In some instances a politician will embellish this argument by stating that we would be the first generation of Americans to bequeath our children a damaged or weakened country. But this conceit is simply historically inaccurate. The generations that came of age during the Civil War or the Depression certainly had cause to question what they had inherited. As a nation we haven't always been as nice to our children as we'd like to think.
But lurking beneath the surface of this rhetoric is a subliminal suggestion that actually undermines the argument. These are serious issues, but the calamity lies somewhere out in the future. Right now life is tough. Even before the recession a lot of families were at their limit, emotionally as well as financially, in their efforts to take care of each other. A big problem like climate change gets filed under Important But Not Urgent, the quadrant on all our to-do lists, whether collective or individual, where good intentions go to die.
But the ultimate irony is that for all the reference to their future welfare nobody ever asks the children what they would want us to do. Obviously nobody expects them to have fully informed opinions on these matters. But I suspect that if asked, they would expect from us no less than what their teachers expect from them: that everybody does their fair share, follows the rules and cleans up after themselves. Which makes one think, maybe it should be all about the kids after all.