“Mommy is going to let the people in charge know that we need to respect all people,” I told my son on the morning of the Women’s March. While I’ve been politically active for a long time, he never really knew about it. Because I so rarely miss weekend time with the kids, I wanted to let him know what I was doing and why it was important. As I and two of friends gathered snacks and pinned posters on our jackets, seeing my kids reminded me why we were doing this in the first place.
Explaining what’s going on is even more important if you’re bringing your kids along to a political event. In the case of the People’s Climate March, I knew that I had a responsibility to explain to Sprout why he was there.
From explaining why I’ve missed dinner to testify to our City Council to marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, here’s what I’ve learned about introducing kids to activism:
Explain at their age level
My three-year-old is unfamiliar with the federal government or how laws are made. But he does know what rules are. So to explain who we were trying to get our message across to, I explained that Congress makes the rules for the country and President carries them out. Then I transitioned into the fact that I disagree with the current rules and would like new ones. For older kids, you could go into what the federal budget is or how bills are passed.
Talk about how it connects to your own values
My kids know – or at I hope they know – that I value kindness, diversity, fairness and sustainability. We talk a lot about the “why” behind our rules. So it’s not a big leap to connect my personal values with my stances on policy. When I went to a town meeting to support a “sanctuary city” proposal, I told my son that I wanted our city to help people from other countries feel welcome. I also referenced the stories I’ve told him about how our relatives were immigrants.
Draw parallels to familiar stories
Children’s literature is full of characters standing up for what they believe in! In the classic Dr. Seuss story Yertle the Turtle, a “little turtle just named Mack” gets sick of being literally stepped on because of the wannabe tyrant Yertle. With just one tiny action, he collapses Yertle’s reign. On a more historical note, there are a lot of kids’ books about social justice movements. We particularly like Sit-In, about the soda counter sit-ins in the 1960s. Its vibrant illustrations accompany rhythmic poetry. The Washington Post also has what looks like a great book list. Personally, I find turning to the stories of people in past difficult times fights off despair.
Focus on a vision of what you want rather than on what you don’t
It’s better to communicate your end goal than only identifying what you’re against. Rather than reacting to the latest outrage, it makes a cause more compelling and the vision more concrete. It also avoids getting into policy details that are typically over kids’ heads. For example, I talk to my son about how I want to help keep the air and water clean so everyone can be healthy.
Get them involved in the fun parts
Making signs is one of the best parts of rallies and it’s awesome to get kids involved. Even if they can’t write, they can still draw or color. (For inspiration, check out these hilarious kids’ signs from the Women’s March.) You can also consider costumes, singing, or playing small instruments if appropriate.
Embrace the tools of participatory democracy into your home life
If you’re against authoritarianism in politics, you need to be against it at home too. While the consequences of encouraging my preschooler to debate may make me grind my teeth, I don’t regret it. Our household isn’t a full democracy, but Sprout knows that his opinion is valued. The best activist groups work by concensus decision-making and the best way to learn it is at home.
Respect their limits and perspectives
As my kids are still little, my biggest concerns are fairly concrete – how far they can walk, how many people will be too overwhelming, etc. When it was clear it was too hot to walk much further at the Climate March, we left. I also don’t want him to hear messages that are too mature for him. While Sprout is good in large crowds, rallies can be bad for children with a tendency to sprint off. Along the lines of logistics, an Activist Mama’s Guide to Taking Kids to a March is excellent, with different considerations for different age groups. As the kids get older, my considerations will change. Sprout will develop his own political viewpoints that (shockingly) may not always agree with my own. I’ll never drag him along to an event that he disagrees with or doesn’t want to go to.
Activism comes in all shapes, sizes and even ages. Even if your kids don’t stick with it, having them see your activism is one of the best ways you can show them how you live out your own values every day.