Gidon Goodman has been in and out of hospital all his life, now he’s fighting for the equality of his fellow patients. Remember the name.
Last month, Gidon Goodman celebrated the first win of his political life. The case he had been fighting in Federal and State Parliaments got the support of both the people and the establishment, and in front of television cameras the Premier shook his hand and spoke words of gratitude and encouragement. Goodman then smiled and said he was very proud to have witnessed “democracy in action”.
That night he was interviewed on The Project by Waleed Ali, where he said that he was happy that “a national conversation” had started. Although Goodman is obviously a successful politician, there is a good chance you have never heard of him. That is because of his age. Gidon Goodman is 14 years old, and in this world, that means we hardly listen to him, let alone take him seriously.
Gidon Goodman was three years old when he was diagnosed with a rare genetic blood disorder. For more than ten years, he and his parents had to make the trip to Sydney’s Children’s Hospital every two weeks. Not only was that a strain on family happiness, high parking fees also meant that the Goodmans had to fork out an estimated $10,000 over that period. Using public transport from Dover Heights, with a sick child, was not really an alternative. On his hospital bed, Gidon started hearing stories. About a man who couldn’t visit his dying baby because he could not afford the fees. About an old lady who had to walk a long way to visit her husband in hospital because her pension did not allow her to pay. Gidon decided to do something about it, and after an 8-month campaign and 70,000 signatures through Change.org, he won. Parking fees in hospitals will be reduced and concessions will be available statewide. Not a bad day at the office.
Children and teenagers have a strange position in society. On the one hand, we molly-coddle them. We decide for them, don’t leave them alone, give them money, do their homework, take them in business-class to the other side of the world, hover over them and helicopter them within an inch of their lives. We turn them into little gods and goddesses, who think they are entitled to happiness and material goods, right here, right now. At the same time, we don’t listen to what they’ve got to say. We treat them like babies, even if they’ve got valid points to make. “Enjoy your childhood”, we implore, forgetting that childhood is not all cute lambs and roses.
Unicef said the world was ready for “considerable and profound change in cultural attitudes towards children”, that participation in the world around them would “strengthen their commitment to and understanding of democracy”.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I was often worried about all manner of stuff. My parents fighting, lack of money, sick friends, a cat with a limp, things I saw on television. I also felt responsible and tried to fix stuff where I could. When I was about 10 years old and in primary school, I was part of a tight-knit group of friends. One of them was Sebastiaan, a very smart boy whom I had a secret crush on. It was almost the end of the year when we heard that Sebastiaan was not coming back to school next semester. His parents and the teachers had decided that he was clever enough to skip a class, so he would go straight to high school. Nobody had bothered to ask Sebastiaan and he was inconsolable. So were we. We didn’t want to be separated but didn’t know what to do to stop it. Until I remembered being in a Vietnam demonstration with my parents. That seemed the solution. The next day we came together to make some protest signs and when we came back to school we went on strike and started demonstrating instead. Not knowing what to do, our teacher called Sebastiaan’s parents, who came and listened to their son for the first time. They had no idea he was so adamant to stay, and because they realised that meant he was happy where he was, they reversed their decision. We had won.
I remember what that felt like even now. It was, to use that horrible word, empowering. I think a lot of children spend a lot of time wanting to grow up, so they can be in charge of their own lives. That day in primary school gave me an insight into what that would look like. Different people with different voices had been involved and I had heard everybody’s perspective. Parents, teachers, Sebastiaan himself, his friends. The discussion had been about whether joy now was as important as career prospects in the future. I had seen how relationships between parents and children work, between children and children, between children and authority. It was not that we had gotten our way, but that we had been heard. And that this time our arguments, and the passion with which we had presented them, had prevailed. It was direct democracy. Instead of accepting that we were subjects, we had become active participants. And that had worked.
The internet, of course, has made this kind of activism much easier for children. Instead of making protest signs and walking up and down the schoolyard, you can go online and start a petition. That is what Flynn Bushell and Ethan Laval did last year. They were 12 and thought a skate park in Mackay, Queensland, would be just the ticket for their neighbourhood. Like seasoned politicians, they found the right, emotive language, suggesting that exercise would prevent obesity, which “often turns into depression and suicide”. The park would, therefore “save lives”, they said, and managed to get the local police sergeant on board, who even declared it “could help tackle crime and drug addiction”. Unfortunately, the boys lost their argument. Sort-of. They got a new skate park, but not in their neighbourhood. Again, like experienced public servants they turned a negative into a positive and spoke of a win within a loss. And in the picture for the local paper, they were grinning. Rightfully so. Adults had listened to them, and their council will be spending half a million dollars next year to build a skate park across town. Good work, guys!
Encouraged to reach large groups of people, children all over the world have made their voices heard. France has had hundreds of youth councils. Even Slovenia has had a Children’s Parliament since the start of the country’s parliamentary democracy in 1990.
In 1990, the United Nations accepted the Convention on the Right of the Child. Apart from all the self-evident things that were discussed (ways in which adults mess with children and should do better), there were also a number of Articles that caused some consternation. Article 12, for instance, that said that children have the right to be listened to and taken seriously. Article 13, that protects their freedom of expression. Article 14, that gives them freedom of conscience, thought and religion. And the most outrageous one: Article 16, that talks about their right to privacy. Push-back was widespread and immediate. People said that children lack the knowledge and experience to do any of those things. That they have to learn to take responsibility before they can have rights. That being active decision-makers in their own lives would take away their childhood. That giving them a voice would lead to them disrespecting their parents and other forms of authority. And that all this talk about rights would leave the door wide open to children being manipulated by adults. Unicef, the UN’s children’s organisation, disagreed. It said that the world was ready for a “considerable and profound change in cultural attitudes towards children”, and that participation of children in the world around them would “strengthen their commitment to and understanding of democracy”. As part of growing up, Unicef stated, “children need opportunities to learn what their rights and duties are, how their freedom is limited by the rights and freedoms of others and how their actions can affect the rights of others”. Not “I want what I want and I want it now”, therefore, but a two-way street of rights and responsibilities, teaching them that democracy is broader than voting alone and sometimes needs the courage of your convictions.
Since then, and encouraged by the power of the Internet to reach large groups of people quickly, children from all over the world have made their voices heard. There was 12-year-old Connor McLeod from Sydney, who is blind and made a case for braille markings on the new Australian bank notes. After an Internet campaign and petitions to Joe Hockey and the RBA, he got his way. There was Chloe Scott, the 16-year old daughter of a dairy farmer, who saw the effects of the cuts in the price of milk and contacted Barnaby Joyce. After 162,000 signatures, the Minister for Agriculture promised a substantial assistance package and a national review of the pricing system. Angelina Popovski (14) and her 100,000 followers managed to force Aldi to pull cage eggs from the shelves across Australia in 2025. 10-year-old Christen Sakales from Florida is trying to convince toy company American Girl to think about manufacturing a doll with scars, to help open heart surgery patients like herself explain their lives to their peers. And Cash Cayen, a 9-year-old girl from Canada, got 27,000 signatures when she campaigned to be allowed into a “boys only” robotics building program in her local public library. After a media storm, her mayor intervened and now Cash is not only learning code, she has also made her first professional contact in the shape of a female robotics engineer.
So, things are slowly changing. Last year, the first teenager requested and was allowed euthanasia in Belgium, after the law there had been changed in 2014 to also include terminally ill children. We can learn from France, that has had hundreds of youth councils since the 1970s, actively participating in their local community. Even Slovenia has had a Children’s Parliament since the start of the country’s parliamentary democracy in 1990. They come together regularly and are not only heard, but listened to and their proposals acted upon. If we are worried about the state of our democracy, where better to start than with children? Speaking truth to power, learning what active citizenship really means. Once they know, maybe they can teach us. We certainly need it.