Are your kids interested in world events and want to know more about political activism? Or are you getting more involved and want to explain why to your kids? Here’s how to introduce kids to political activism in an age-appropriate way.
As I pinned a poster to the back of my friend’s jacket, I wondered how I was going to explain to my three-year-old where I was going that Saturday morning. From the couch, he was watching me and my two friends pile on every piece of warm clothing we could find.
“Mommy is going to let the people in charge know that we need to respect all people,” I told my son (nicknamed Sprout) that morning, the day of Women’s March. While I had been to my fair share of marches, it was the first I had gone to since he was born. As he was part of my reason for going, I thought he should know why.
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 we were bringing him and his younger brother along.
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 to whom we were trying to get our message across, 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
We talk a lot in our family about how we value kindness, diversity, fairness, and environmental sustainability. In addition, we talk a lot about the “why” behind our rules.
So it’s not a big leap to connect my personal values with my policy stances. 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 more welcome. In particular, I referenced the stories I’ve told him about how our own 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 for raising activist kids. Personally, I find turning to the stories of how people in past times dealt with difficult situations gives me hope.
Focus on a vision of what you want rather than on what you don’t
It’s much better to communicate your end goal than focusing on what you’re against. Rather than having everything just be a reaction to the latest outrage (which gets very tiring for you too), it makes a cause much more compelling. Perhaps not surprisingly, talking about solutions and what sustainability looks like in real life is much more motivating for adults too.
Providing a concrete description of the future avoids getting into policy details that are 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 a rally and it’s a great way 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.) My son loved coloring his sign for the People’s Climate March that read “I Love Trains.”
You can also consider costumes, singing, or playing small instruments if appropriate.
Embrace the tools of participatory democracy into your home life
If you want to raise kids who are willing to speak up for their rights and the rights of others, they’ve got to feel like they can at home too. While the consequences of encouraging my preschooler to debate make me grind my teeth some days, I don’t regret it. Our household isn’t a full democracy – something I’ve informed my son of when he complains that not everything is going his way. At the same time, we always try to value his opinion and take it into consideration.
The best activist groups work by consensus decision-making; the best way to learn it is at home.
Respect their limits and perspectives
As my kids are still little, my biggest concerns about protests are fairly concrete – how far my kids can walk, how many people will be overwhelming, where to go potty, etc. For example, when it was clear we couldn’t walk much further at the Climate March, we left. 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.