Over the past few years, I admit to having moments in which I’ve thrown my hands up and said, “It’s going to be up to our kids to fix the mess we’ve made for them. They already seem more capable than we’ve ever been.”
Of course, I’d much prefer that we get a better handle on things such as climate change and human rights violations before we hand the world over to them. But realistically speaking, they’re likely to have several major environmental and political mountains to scale in their lifetime.
It isn’t enough anymore to just take them with us to vote and deem that the extent of their civic duty (although, yes, we need to keep doing that, too). We have to raise them not just to care but to put that caring into action.
My son asked me last night what I was going to be writing about today. I’d just been reading this piece in the New York Times about how parents can raise empathetic children, and it had struck a chord with me. As a parent, I desperately want to raise my son to be the sort of person who steps up when others are in need, but is that something I can truly influence?
“I think tweens today are braver and less self conscious than I was as a kid, and I think they have a greater sense of their own power in the world, their ability to effect change,” Susanna Daniel says in a Q&A about her new book, Girl Activist, which she co-authored with Louisa Kamps and Michelle Wildgen.
“I think they care less what other people think and care more about the issues of race, hunger, human rights and environmentalism than we did.”
Books such as Girl Activist are a good start; it’s written for ages nine and up and profiles a diverse group of female advocates, from Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks to newcomers such as Madison Stewart and Yara Shahidi. It’s obviously geared toward girls, but the lessons in it can — and should — inspire boys, too.
Think about what issues give you goose bumps or make you feel like crying or touch your soul in some way. Then do some research. How is the problem being addressed? How can you help? Can you join existing groups already working on the issue, or do you need to create your own? What skills do you have that will help solve the problem? (By the way, if you can make a call or send an email, you have skills!)
Shannon Watts is the founder of Mums Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement working to reduce gun violence. Made of teams of everyday Americans in all 50 states, the organisation has been called "the NRA's worst nightmare."
Help them choose an issue
Activism isn’t attending one protest or volunteering at one garbage pick-up event at the local park. Activism is the long game; it’s often more about improvement and progress toward a goal (baby steps), rather than a quick fix. That’s why it’s good to encourage your kid to pick one issue they feel strongly about or in some way connected to.
This doesn’t mean they have to choose their life’s passion at age 12. But narrowing down their interests to focus on one issue can keep it from becoming too overwhelming and them from burning out. And the skills they develop through their activism as a child will serve them as professionals and activists later on, whether or not they continue to advocate for that specific cause.
Show them examples
Kids don’t just want to see what adults can do and have done. They want to see how other children like them have made a difference. Seek out stories of child activists and share them with your kids for inspiration.
Meghan Markle might be a duchess now, but she was also once an 11-year-old feminist fighting for gender equality, an issue she has continued to champion well into adulthood:
Complex has a great list of child activists as young as six years old tackling all sorts of issues, from education to climate change to children’s rights.
Encourage direct involvement
Activism is about baby steps, but it’s also about physically showing up. Donating toys for the local foster care agency’s holiday party is great. Actually going to shop for the toys with the social workers and then passing out the gifts to the kids at the party is even better.
Kids — and adults, for that matter — feel more connected to an issue when they interact with those who are impacted. It’s the fuel for the fight. It’s also helpful to find other like-minded activists their age, through community, school or online groups, who can help them feel as though they have allies in the cause.
Get involved with them
Show them that what is important to them is also important to you. Get the clipboards they need to canvass the neighbourhood, help decorate the signs for the protest, open up your living room (and supply the snacks) for the planning meeting they’re organising with their fellow activists.
If you take them seriously, they’ll take themselves seriously. And then maybe they really will be able to fix some of the mess we’ve left for them.