Inspiring kids to change the world

Young change-makers share certain traits. Here's how parents can bring those out.

Fourth-grader Sarina Lee likes shopping for cool clothes. What the suburban New Yorker doesn’t like is being told by retailers that some of the styles she craves are “boys’” clothes. For instance, recently she ordered a pair of sneakers. “They came to us way too large because the measurement was for ‘boy sizes,’” says her mom, Glenna. After discovering she had male friends who’d also been put off by gendered items and activities, Sarina decided to set her frustration to work.

“Sarina approached her principals about starting a club at school called ‘The Gender Acceptance Project,’ giving children the space to be who they are and not who they’re expected to be,” Lee says. Next up: Sarina plans to launch a supportive community for students to learn about gender stereotypes as well as start a letter-writing campaign to ask corporations to rethink gendered advertising.

This kind of passion for a cause is a hopeful sign of things to come, especially after a year like 2020 that brought everything from the pandemic to climate change to racial justice into children’s lives.

And it turns out that being a young activist has benefits beyond changing the world. According to a 2018 study published in Child Development, change-makers often make more money later in life and reach higher levels of education than non-activists. And, according to multiple surveys, college student activists tend to be happier and have better social well-being.

Activism brings developmental benefits, too, like learning how to express ideas effectively and engage with others. "You need to be able to communicate your passion, to be somebody who engages others and excites others about an issue,” says Nancy Deutsch, education professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

Change-makers often share certain traits, qualities that experts have found again and again in young activists that make them so successful. Here’s how those qualities look in some famous young change-makers—and how you can bring out those traits in your own little activist.

Change-makers see both sides of the story.

Making a difference “takes a level of empathy and perspective-taking,” Deutsch says. “You need to figure out what the issue is, and how to speak it in a way that brings other people along.” Before Sarina formed her club, she surveyed her community so she could understand other students’, teachers’, and parents’ feelings about her cause. She’ll use the information to create a slideshow she can share at her school.

How you can raise an empathetic change-maker. “Emphasize that all change involves differences, conflict, and compromise,” suggests Gene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. Gently presenting both sides of a story and playing devil’s advocate with your child can help, too—you can foster empathy by showing your kids what each side has to gain and lose. By understanding other people’s points of view, Deutsch says, it’s also easier to argue in a way that can be heard.

Change-makers find their special skills.

“Every social change movement requires people with all different skills and talents,” Deutsch says. “The best thing you can do for a movement is figure out what your skills and strengths are.” For instance, the Standing Rock movement gained much attention after a young photographer named Tina Malia captured an image of U.S. military veterans kneeling in front of Native Americans.

How you can help your child find her special skill. 

“You don’t necessarily have to take to the streets in a rally, or lead an effort to save a river,” says Beresin, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. A kid can also write letters to city officials or school leaders, or participate in civic events. “Understand what their values and missions are,” he says. “Combine that with the knowledge of their kid’s strengths and weaknesses.” Then make suggestions. Can they be a writer? Produce a blog? Take photographs?

Change-makers are passionate.

Greta Thunberg’s firebrand 2019 speech at the United Nations made one thing clear: She has strong feelings about climate change. And while her powerful words polarized some audiences, they received a lot of attention. That passion is key to a successful movement. “The cause doesn’t have to be something that’s Earth-shattering,” says Adam Edwards, co-author of Surmountable: How Citizens From Selma to Seoul Changed the World. “But finding something you’re passionate about is definitely a common thread.”

How you can raise a passionate child. “Have frequent conversations involving your child’s values, ideals, missions, and objectives,” suggests Beresin, who was a youth activist in the 1960s. “Listen to what’s important to them.” To inspire more passion, you can point out loved ones in your child’s life who are affected by the issues they care about—for instance, a friend who was once homeless, or a healthcare worker who needs personal protective equipment.

Change-makers persevere.

Change rarely happens as quickly as kids might expect, and though that can be disappointing at first, it teaches patience and resilience. Malala Yousafzai started writing about educating women in Afghanistan when she was 11; at age 15, she was targeted and shot by the Taliban. But just nine months later, she spoke openly about girls’ education at UN headquarters in New York. Today, the Malala Fund has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to build schools to help girls, but millions are still waiting to be educated. Sticking with a movement even when it gets tough is critical for budding change-makers. “I love the phrase ‘Nevertheless, she persisted,’” Edwards says.

How you can raise a child who perseveres. “Let young people know that even the smallest changes locally are part of the solution,” Beresin says. You can point out how they’re already making a difference bit by bit, whether it’s using less electricity at home or helping a local student learn to read. Talking about great activists can also help when things gets tough. Deutsch points to civil rights activist John Lewis’ lifelong efforts as an example of major changes coming gradually.

Change-makers are strong team players.

“It can be seductive to look at individual leaders,” Deutsch says. “But in reality, move-ments are made and change is made by large groups of people working together.” Martin Luther King, Jr., was a powerful leader and organizer, yet without working with freedom riders to challenge bus segregation, sit-in participants who wouldn’t leave lunch counters, or children who marched so their parents wouldn’t lose their jobs, the civil rights movement would not have succeeded.

How you can raise a team player. Helping your child find a meaningful group to join can offer them the strength and significance of a team. “It’s really a core part of humans that we need to feel that we have a sense of purpose, that we’re here to do something,” Deutsch says. Sports are great, but becoming a team player can also mean joining a school club, participating in choir or band, or attending a house of worship. Says Beresin: “We’re teaching our kids to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

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