The streets of Washington, D.C. will be filled today with tens of thousands of men, women and children, Catholics, Evangelicals, Atheists and Secular Humanists united under a single principle: that the smallest among us deserve our protection in the law.
If you have children who are at or below the age of reason, how do you explain what we’re doing today?
I remember, to this day, the awkward telephone call from my then-first grader’s teacher to inform me that my daughter had — during a civics lesson in the middle of a particularly contentious election cycle — turned to one of her classmates and tersely informed him that if he supported the candidate in question, “babies are going to die!”
The incident led to a number of follow up conversations, but ended with a good question: How do you explain the pro-life cause to young children in a way that doesn’t cause the child trauma – or you embarrassment?
After some thought and prayer, I turned to Dr. Seuss.
One of my favorite books when I was a little girl was Horton Hears a Who. When I became mom, one of the first things I did was to buy the entire collection of Dr. Suess’ books, including Horton Hears a Who.
Dr. Seuss introduces us to the elephant Horton on an average day in the jungle, where: “in the heat of the day, in the cool of pool,” the gentle creature hears a small noise.
“’That’s funny,’ thought Horton. ‘There’s no one around.’” Then he heard a very faint yell, as if some tiny person were call for help. Horton guesses that on the tiny speck of dust is a “creature of very small size too small to be seen by an elephant’s eye….”
Horton is deeply worried that the speck of dust will blow in the pool and decides to save it because “after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” But not everyone was happy that Horton was helping. The cranky “sour kangaroo” and her joey mocked Horton.
But Horton persists, telling them that he is absolutely sure that someone is there, maybe even a whole family! He tells the kangaroo to “just please – let them be!”
Horton was very protective of the dust speck because it was too small to protect itself. He was belittled for his convictions. Even though Horton was the only one who could hear the small voices at first, he knew they were there and he knew that the right thing to do was to protect those who had no one else to speak for them and who couldn’t defend themselves!
The mayor of the town on the dust speck starts to speak to Horton, telling him that he is the Mayor of Whoville and that while he is “too small to be seen” he is definitely there.
“Please don’t harm my little folks – they have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!” Horton pleads, over the attempts of other animals in the jungle to harm the dust speck.
While not a direct analogy, a Christian parent can help children understand further by comparing the Horton story to the story of the Visitation in Luke’s gospel. There are two very small people, whom no one else can see, and probably most of the people around them other than their mothers and fathers don’t even know that they are there.
It’s helpful to remind children that the Gospels tell us the kinds of things that are important to God, usually through stories and the example of others. When Mary learns from an angel that her cousin Elizabeth is going to have a baby she goes right away to help her. Mary didn’t have to go, just like Horton didn’t have to help all the people of Whoville, but she knew that it would make Elizabeth’s last few months before her baby was born so much easier, so even though she was expecting a baby herself, and travel in those days was very difficult and very dangerous, she went anyway.
Sometimes having a baby isn’t easy, and Mary knew that and she didn’t want Elizabeth to be without an extra person around to help her out if she needed it.
And when Mary arrived at her cousin Elizabeth’s house, Jesus was just a tiny baby inside her – only a few weeks old. Just like no one could see the Whos down in Whoville, no one could see baby Jesus, but he was certainly there.
The most important message of this story is how Elizabeth figured out Jesus was present. Who told her? It was Elizabeth’s unborn baby, who would become St. John the Baptist after he was born, who recognized Jesus first. The very first person in the Gospel who knew that Jesus was there (not counting Mary and St. Joseph) was another unborn baby inside his mother.
Children are quick to grasp the comparison: we know from this story that God thinks unborn babies are special. So special, in fact, that we have to not let anything bad happen to them, just like Horton didn’t let anything bad happen to his dusk speck.
Our understanding of the value of another leads us to action – whether that action is volunteering at a maternity home (as that once outspoken first grader, now a teenager, does) or, yes, marching peacefully with colorful signs and cheerful dispositions.
When speaking to children now about abortion and the March and pro-life activism, I remind us that, like the Big Kangaroo at the end of the Horton story, anyone can change their minds about unborn babies, so we must always try to persuade those who disagree with us. That’s one of the reasons we march, too – to help others to see what we see, to know what we know.
When she realizes that even people who can’t be seen have to be protected, and she was wrong about the dusk speck, mother Kangaroo declares: “From the sun in the summer, from the rain when it’s fallish, I’m going to protect them no matter how smallish!”
So don’t hesitate to speak to your children about protecting life, to bring them to the March in Washington or to other pro-life events.
As the ongoing popularity of Horton Hears A Who – sixty years after its publication – proves, children’s hearts naturally desire to defend and protect the weakest among us.
Let’s not miss the opportunity to help them understand.
Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.. She is a long-time pro-life speaker, debater and activist.