The news is full of stories about kids leading the way on some of the biggest issues of the day: a Michigan teen who helped bring attention to the Flint water crisis; kids organizing an anti-gun rally in Washington, D.C., after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting; a global walkout by children of all ages for climate change.
“Kids pay attention to these things,” says Jessica Taft, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz, who writes about youth activism. “If we look at research over time, kids have been pretty consistently attentive to what's happening around them in the world, because it matters to them.”
Children might not be able to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, but they have issues they care deeply about—and parents who empower their kids to express their voices are helping them gain crucial life skills.
“When kids feel empowered to speak up on an issue, they gain the ability to find their voice as they develop their social-emotional skills,” psychotherapist Rwenshaun Miller says. “These skills can help them resolve conflicts, manage stress, resist negative social pressures, and improve their decision making.”
And taking action on issues that matter to them—whether they’re convincing their parents or championing their peers—can also make kids less depressed and anxious because they feel like they’re making a positive difference in the world.
“There's so much kids learn from that process,” says Caroline Paul, author of You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World. “They’re enlisting people into their cause. They’re reaching out to people who are very different from them. And they’re also getting educated on what often turns out to be a history, sociology, or philosophy lesson. When kids decide they want to take action on a cause that they believe in, parents should be happy.”
Whether your kid wants to simply join a discussion or protest something she feels isn’t right, a parent’s support is critical to empowering a child’s ability to find her voice. Here’s how to get started.
Encourage conversations at home
By the age of three, children already understand the concept of fairness. So it shouldn’t be surprising to parents when a child calls out something they believe isn’t right.
“Kids can be part of political conversations from a young age and start building their critical analysis, their knowledge of how things work, and their skills for democratic debate and dialogue,” Taft says.
Miller suggests first finding out what a child knows about the issue, then use that as a baseline to add to the discussion. Be honest with them about your feelings. “As a parent, you want to make sure that your child feels safe when discussing difficult topics,” he says. “It’s OK to address your feelings and theirs by affirming that it’s OK to feel sad or confused. Often, we fail to let them know that we, as adults, feel the same emotions.”
Paul adds that parents should approach conversations around activism with the same sensitivity they would give to a conversation around sex: Make it age appropriate and directly address the concerns your child raises. Ignoring their questions only pushes them to find answers through uninformed peers or social media.
“We think that we're protecting them,” Paul says. “In fact they’re absorbing parts of what’s happening, but they don't really understand it. This is our chance as adults to really give some meaning to what they're picking up.”
And if your child’s opinion doesn’t mesh with your own? Taft says listening before offering advice and honoring their opinions will keep communication strong between you and your child. Then ask thought-provoking questions that further your understanding of their position, she says, not just questions that you think will trick them into your beliefs.
“Enter the conversation to learn why your child thinks the way that they do,” Taft says. “It should be with a desire to understand what they’re thinking, not necessarily to change what they’re thinking.”
Practice using their voice
Speaking up for what you believe in can be hard—especially around people who might disagree with you. But the more children practice having general conversations in “safe” environments, the easier it’ll be for them to talk about issues they believe in when they’re speaking independently.
For instance, rather than speaking for children in conversations with doctors or grandparents, encourage your child to lead those conversations so they feel like their voices matter.
Then empower them to speak out on more topical issues at home or with friends.
“When they speak, give them your attention and show interest in what they have to say,” Miller says. “Talk ‘with’ them, versus ‘to’ or ‘at’ them.”
Preparing kids for the fact that people may disagree with them is also important, Taft says. Practicing how they can respond before it happens may give them the confidence and information they’ll need in the moment.
“Parents can support kids to better explain their positions,” she says. “They can help them think through why they believe what they do, what evidence supports their position, what values underly it, and then how to explain it well to others,” versus focusing on convincing others that they’re position is right.
Help them safely act out
While the label “activist” can conjure up images of illegal activity or unrest, Paul says parents need to remember that it’s really civic action. “It’s trying to make your community or your world better,” she says.
Not every kid will want to express themselves in the same way, so offer kids options. “We have to teach kids how to respond, with tactics that range from volunteering and raising money to boycotting and marching,” Paul says. These three starting points are pandemic friendly:
Change a personal habit. Not every protest requires picket signs. “You can start with your own life,” Paul says. Kids concerned about climate change might want to start eating less meat. Those upset about racial injustice could read new books by diverse authors. (Here are some ideas for diversifying your child’s library.)
Find inspiration. Many issues that matter to kids have larger movements aligned with them, such as Black Lives Matter and Global Climate Strike. Have children look for organizations like these that have youth offshoots. Even if they don’t join them, researching the groups can provide ideas that kids can do on their own. (Anyone can organize a park cleanup and invite friends to join!)
Raise funds or awareness. Kids can feel helpless when they learn about global issues—especially during a pandemic. But local actions that raise money or awareness can make a difference. A sponsored hike, a neighborhood solo concert, or a well-spaced flash mob can all have an impact and improve mental health. Peer groups—through school, dance class, or sports teams—can also work together on creative initiatives that raise money or awareness.
Don’t be afraid to let your kids protest
Experts say parents shouldn’t rule out allowing children to attend protests if they ask—but you do need to do your research. Miller says parents should make sure children are able to articulate what issue the demonstration is protesting, and why they want to participate. That way you can make sure it’s something they feel passionate about—and not just something all the cool kids are attending.
Of course, safety is paramount. “There’s nothing wrong with inviting your kids to come with you as a part of a family to participate in a social movement activity” that you feel is in a safe space, Taft says.
“Assess the overall tone or mood from protest flyers and social media advertising and then assess again on arrival,” she adds. “Does it seem welcoming? Are there other kids and families? Are police dressed in normal uniforms or in riot gear? Are there counterprotesters?” Riot gear and counterprotesters, Taft says, might be flags that the demonstration could get heated.
For younger kids, parents can look for opportunities that are more family-friendly, like festivals that offer arts and crafts.
Regardless, Paul says parents shouldn’t shy away from getting involved and supporting their children, whether it’s marching alongside them at a rally or just carrying the lemonade stand to the curb.
“No matter what the subject is, your kid wants to take action—and that’s a good thing,” she says. “As parents, we’re helping build some muscles in these kids that they can use in other areas of life. Civic action shows children that they’re not powerless, that their actions have meaning and consequence—even though they’re ‘just kids.’”