Is "Think of the children!" a red herring?

Or is it a legitimate argument when discussing social issues like welfare?

I read an article today about that elementary school that threw away some children’s lunches because their parents had past due lunch bills. A quote from the article said:

I hear this argument often. Another case is when discussing drug testing for welfare recipients. If the person fails a drug test, they don’t get welfare, and people will often say, “It’s not the children’s fault that their parents used drugs!”

To be clear, I don’t oppose welfare or support taking food away from children (and I do think what the school did was humiliating for the children), but it also feels dishonest in a way to use your children as an excuse for being irresponsible.

Yes, it’s usually an appeal to emotion. That doesn’t mean that throwing the kids’ lunches away wasn’t unnecessarily humiliating.

I think it’s usually used as a joke. At leas around here.

But in the examples you gave, I think there is some merit to it. We, as a society, should not punish children for mistakes their parents make. The policy question is: how do you best do that. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to remove the children from the parental environment (assuming we have a better environment in which to put them).

It’s a legitimate argument, the impact of public policy on any group of citizens, children included, is a legitimate point of contention. It can be used as an appeal to emotion, a suggestion that children are all that matter, so whichever policy seems to benefit children the most should be blindly supported, but neither of the examples in the OP seem to be of that stripe.

The local strip club has banned indoor smoking? THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!

“Think of the children” is a red herring when it is used to justify or oppose an issue that has little demonstrable impact on children (such as the strip club banning smoking example above). It’s not a red herring if the issue specifically involves children (such as school lunch policy).

It’s similar to invoking Godwin’s law. If you call the strip club owners Nazis for banning smoking, that’s ridiculous. If you reference Nazis when referring to policies of WWII Germany, that’s reasonable.

I was just about to post exactly this. The arguments where “think of the children” are dismissed are those where children weren’t actually part of the original argument but were dragged in for emotional impact, usually with the implication that any harm to children is orders of magnitude greater than harm to anyone else.

For example pointing to the fact that a child might see a bare breast in an art exhibit, as a sufficiently dire that the exhibit must be censored.

I end up in “think of the children” arguments pretty often, because I work with children. In the following areas, absolutely you need to be thinking of the children:
-Discussion of public education
-Discussion of provision of health care to families
-Discussion of provision of food to families
-Discussion of provision of housing to families
-Discussion of the juvenile justice system
-Discussion of custody policy

In the following areas, it may be appropriate to think of the children:
-Discussion of guns in the home
-Discussion of food safety
-Discussion of iPad factories

In the following areas, probably thinking of the children is gonna be a non sequitur:
-Discussion of violence in games (as long as we’re not talking about the specific issue of whether a particular child is allowed to play a particular game)
-Discussion of defense policy (as long as we’re not talking about something like the effect of length of tours on families or something)
-Discussion of smoking policies in strip clubs.

Strippers are somebody’s children.

It is an appeal to sympathy and also a request for a special pleading. It would be nice if when adults had discussion that are akin to formal arguments that they would not make fallacies all over the place because children might be listening and think it is acceptable technique.

However, even in those debates, there are dozens of aspects to consider aside from how “the children” are affected. Yet the meme gets invoked as a method of saying that’s the ONLY aspect to consider, never mind other issues which may be more important (i.e. costs/benefits, environmental concerns, how good it looks on a t-shirt, etc.) What really makes me sick is that the people who scream “Think of the children!” don’t even give a shit about children, they’re manipulating other people’s emotions to benefit themselves and only themselves.

After all, who would ever want to think about children? They’re smelly and annoying.

A red herring is a distraction from the topic. If the topic is kid’ lunches, then no it’s not a red herring.

The problem is that “Think of the Children!” is often used not in the sense of “Please consider the welfare of the children as one factor in the debate on a policy decision” so much as it is “The welfare of the children should be the sole factor considered.”

So if there’s some proposal for a new safety item that would cost $5 billion per year, and the analysis was that it would save the lives of 5 kids per year, there would still probably be people pushing for it with “think of the children” arguments, even though people arguing against it probably are thinking of the children, and just don’t think it’s a proper cost/benefit ratio.

I can see that. Let’s think of an obvious topic that doesn’t have much to do with children. Can you think of some such conversations?


That depends on the method.

I want to take this post home and marry it. :smiley:

“Think of the children,” also and too often means, “Think of me and how uncomfortable I will be explaining reality to my children!” See: gay marriage, exposed breasts, how babby is formed, etc. When used in that manner, I think it’s absolutely irrelevant and dishonest as a debate tactic.

You think that now, but I can’t get away from the sarcastic horse’s ass who is constantly making comments like that. It gets tiresome after a half-century.:o

And now they’ll have to explain how people can marry message board posts…

(Maude Flanders) Won’t somebody please think of the children! (Maude Flanders)

“Think of the children” has been used to defend both mixed-race and same-sex marriage. I actually had a protestor tell me “gay parenting is child abuse.”

It’s also used in the anti-abortion crusade. “The child doesn’t get a choice.” A choice to what? Use a woman’s body without her permission?