Kids and Social Activism

Social activism has been an important part of my life over the past few years. Gun safety, public health, human rights, and racial justice have been the topics of conversation around here. My children know I am involved in this work, but we are mindful of the information we share with them.

The question of how much of reality to share with young children recently came up at one of my activist meetings. It is a tricky subject to write about; I hope to place the conversation in context and share my views without coming across as either judgmental or defensive.

In working with other parents on various causes, I’ve come across a range of opinions regarding what to share with young children. Some parents engage their children in social activism from a young age and opt to share all the details of a particular situation; other parents protect their children from these injustices.

To provide some specific examples, here are a few statements that demonstrate the range of both the type and amount of information that parents may choose to share with their children.

  • Some people are treated unfairly based on the way they look.
  • Many people are working to make the world a safer and fairer place for everyone.
  • Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were strong and brave advocates for civil rights.
  • Martin Luther King was assassinated because of the work he was doing.
  • Police have murdered several innocent black men in recent months.
  • There are people who live in a country where the government doesn’t work properly. These people are trying to leave in order to find a better, safer place to live.
  • Millions of Syrians are no longer safe in their home country. They need a new place to live. Unfortunately, other countries are not always welcoming, and it is hard to find homes and food for so many people so quickly.
  • Thousands of Syrians are risking their lives to escape the civil war in their country. Many sneak out in the night and travel in boats across the sea. Many lose loved ones or die trying to escape.
  • Many Americans own guns, but they are not always used safely.
  • Anyone in the United States can buy a gun, even people who want to hurt others.
  • Thousands of people are injured or killed by guns every year; it’s a very real and scary problem.
  • Three years ago, a gunman killed 20 children in their classroom at school. There have been roughly 100,000 gun deaths and nearly a hundred school shootings since.

In our family, we tend not to share the harsh, and in many cases, violent realities of society with our children. For example, we tell our children that sometimes people are not treated fairly because of their skin color and that many people are working hard for civil rights. They know the story of Rosa Parks and they know Martin Luther King was a great leader. But we do not tell them that innocent black men are unfairly arrested, and sometimes murdered, by police officers.

My children know that I work on gun safety legislation to help keep guns safe, and they know that this work can be challenging, but we did not tell them that a gunman murdered twenty children in their classroom, nor have I told them that a gunwoman shot six children in my town’s elementary school when I was a kid.

They know there are people who need food and clothes, and they set aside one third of their savings to share with people who don’t have as much as we have. But they do not know that families who have lost everything are risking their lives in order to escape on rickety boats.

Our reasons for “protecting” our children are not centered on keeping them blissfully ignorant so as to spare them the harsh reality of life. Rather, our goal is to give them a childhood in which they can develop the compassion, skills, and hope they will need to make the world a better place.

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about why we take this approach, as opposed to engaging them more fully in our social activism. It has been difficult to try to articulate, but with my husband’s help, I’ve come up with these four reasons:

1. I want my children to grow up believing the world is a good place. I personally don’t hold this belief. As an adult, I tend to see the world in equal parts of good and evil, and I struggle to reconcile the atrocities so many people experience with the comfortable, safe, and blissful life of others. But if each new generation of children can carry a vision of a better world into adulthood, perhaps we will succeed in actually bettering the world. 

2. Childhood is so short and our children will have their whole lives to live in reality. What's the rush in pulling them into it at a young age? I often think of an excerpt from Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting about a little boy who was struggling with anxiety, had difficulty sleeping, and chronic stomach aches. Payne describes his observations of the child’s day-to-day life:

“Their daily lives were colored by world issues. Both parents were avid news followers…Politically and intellectually oriented, they would discuss issues at great length, particularly environmental concerns. From an early age, James had been listening to these conversations. His parents were proud of his knowledge. They felt that they were raising a little activist, a ‘citizen of the world,’ who would grow up informed and concerned…” (pp. 3-4)

When the parents made an effort to hold back on engaging their son in world issues, his stress symptoms disappeared. Payne went on to emphasize the importance of protecting childhood in order to give children the “freedom to be more deeply and happily [their] own age” (p. 5). This story spoke to me: I want to give my children a childhood.

3.     Children can learn the skills they need to deal with reality without being faced with the specific horrors that exist in society. We can teach the importance of protecting communities, helping those in need, and standing up to evil forces through fairy tales and stories. I find that in our family we find ample opportunity to explore and apply the themes of compassion and generosity through sibling rivalry and natural classroom dynamics! Intuitively, this feels more age appropriate than discussing civil wars and gun violence.

4.     We already influence our children so much. Exposing them to the realities of the world at a young age will also result in transferring our own views onto them before they are cognitively capable of questioning and critically evaluating the different points of view. I would rather present them with stories (fairytales, mythology, fables) that embody the forces of good and evil that I am not emotionally invested in. That way they will learn about the world and develop the understanding and skills they need to address real world problems on their own when they are older.

Social activism is an important part of our family life and we want our children to understand the responsibility of participating in society in a way that supports social justice for all. We try to model social activism and humanitarianism, but we carefully consider how to protect their childhood so that they can grow up to be informed and skillful activists as adults.