How to Raise Your Child to Be an Activist

Sabrina Rojas Weiss

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We’ve talked a lot about teaching our kids to be anti-racist and LGBTQ allies. We’ve discussed what parents need to do to help them face intolerance and scary news. We’ve made signs and sidewalk chalk art. We’ve even gone on marches together. That’s not necessarily enough for many of us parents, particularly when we look at the mess we and previous generations are leaving them. It seems like our kids are growing up in a world that could use the help of strong young activists.

But activists aren’t just born that way. Somewhere along the way, someone (or something) teaches them to find their voice. And that lesson can absolutely come from their parents.

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“You hear a lot of stories of young folks understanding the innate power that they have, being exposed to injustice, and knowing exactly what they could do because they’ve been raised that way,” Anika Manzoor, executive director of the Youth Activism Project, told SheKnows.

After the Parkland massacre in 2018, many NRA supporters accused the March for Our Lives teens of being “puppets” for the left. The same accusations have been lobbed at Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. We absolutely don’t think that’s the case. But those doubters bring up a good point that we want to begin with: When we raise our children to be activists, we’re not just bringing them up to echo our opinions and shout at marches in cuter voices. We want to teach them out to think for themselves and then act on the issues that mean something to them. With that in mind, SheKnows spoke to Manzoor and Nora Kramer, the founder and executive director of Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, both of whom help teach young people how to lead their own movements, be they global or just at their own schools.

If that sounds like what you want for your own children, read on.

Educate yourself, and your kids

Kids are already exposed to some of the troubles of the world, through the media, their peers, and conversations you have with other adults. So, from a very early age you can talk to them directly about these important issues too — in a way they’ll understand, with the context and values you can provide them. This might mean you have to do a little homework on yourself first.

“If you haven’t really wrapped your head around [the issues] and feel like you really understand what’s happening, then you’ll feel less prepared to talk about that with your kids,” Kramer told us. “If you want to help your kids in math and you don’t remember third-grade math, you’ve got to remind yourself a little bit first.”

Fortunately, there are many resources out there to help you talk about difficult issues and current events with children. We’ve offered resources for anti-racist discussions here. Time for Kids and The Week Junior both deliver the news at an elementary-school level, if you’d like to use those as an easier jumping off point than often-scarier cable news.

When your children are old enough to have real conversations with you (that can really be as young as 4 or 5, depending on the child), make this education more of a dialogue than a lecture.

“I think it’s your duty as a parent to teach and to share your values,” Manzoor said, at the same time adding, “I’m a firm believer in not talking down to children and really valuing the autonomy that children have and their intellectual processes.”

Encourage them to question

When your kids ask questions about the way things are in the world, do your best to answer them, even if it makes you uncomfortable, and even if you have to do more of that aforementioned homework.

Kramer also suggested that we raise our kids to expect authority figures — and that means even their parents — to have fair and logical reasons behind their rules. The answer to “why” shouldn’t just be “because I said so.”

“Teaching your kids to question things is a beautiful gift that you can give to them,” she said. Not only does that build trust, but it allows children to think about reasoning at home and beyond.

Discuss how individuals make a difference

After learning about a problem, even one as huge as racism, children might ask what they can do right now to stop it. At the other end of the spectrum adults might feel like these issues are too big for us to tackle and defeat ourselves before we even begin.

“We want to think that we can take these few actions, and then it’s going to solve everything, and the fact that that’s not realistic keeps a lot of people from doing any activism,” Kramer said. “The good news is that all of these actions add up.”

At the start of sessions at YEA Camp, Kramer shows campers a video that summarizes the Civil Rights movement up until Barack Obama’s presidency. It’s a concise way to see how many actions — from abolitionist speeches to sit-ins, boycotts, and marches — it took to get to the point we’re at today. (The point, of course, isn’t that we solved racism, but that it every small action by individuals contributed to greater change.) Knowing this helps motivate kids to realize how much they can do.

Teach them to make friends

According to Manzoor, one of the most important skills parents can teach their aspiring activists is how to build relationships with others, because it helps kids spread awareness about their cause.

“It’s a transferable skill that will help them anywhere,” she said. This is especially good for shy kids who aren’t naturally the type to pick up a bullhorn.

“Have one-on-one conversations with your friends and get them involved,” is her advice to the introverts. “My advice for all kids is to find a buddy to do this with. That way, the pressure is not just on you, and you can share ideas, give each other advice, and do things together. It’s so much easier to do something that’s scary with someone else by your side than to do it alone. … I used to be really shy and timid, and because I was doing this with my friends, I was able to break out of my shell.”

Put the act in activism

When Manzoor was 12 years old, she attended a meeting with Youth Activism Project founder Wendy Lesko that changed her life. It wasn’t just that Lesko told the group of girls about the fact that 100 million girls across the world were denied an education because of their gender.

“If that meeting didn’t end with a call to action, I probably would have gone back to my life of procrastinating on homework and rereading Harry Potter a million times,” Manzoor recalled. “I vividly remember Wendy asking us if we wanted to be ‘architects’ to create something to address this injustice. And I remember thinking, ‘That is such a strange way for adults to talk to young people.’ I really got in that moment Wendy was not downplaying how she speaks, and she wasn’t being condescending. That’s how she speaks to human beings in general.”

That level of empowerment was enough to make Manzoor and her friends start School Girls Unite, which created a scholarship for girls in Mali and successfully lobbied congress to add $200 million for foreign education to the U.S. foreign assistance budget. Talk about positive reinforcement.

The point is, young people can actually do almost everything adults can, short of voting and driving themselves around. But they do probably need an adult’s help to get started.

Once your kid has identified a cause that’s important to them, you can work with them to discuss what their next steps should be. Kramer divides the different types of activism into four categories: awareness raising, advocacy, direct service, and fundraising.

Awareness-raising, as we mentioned, can take the form of talking to friends and even grownups about an issue. Kids can also write for their student papers, or go to bigger platforms like social media or YouTube, to educate others about the issue.

Advocacy is turning awareness-raising into a call to action, specifically from a decision maker,” Kramer explained. This can take the form of marches and protests. Or it can be something quieter, but no less effective. Help your child research whether there is legislation being proposed related to the issue, or if there are officials who have a say in what’s happening. In the case of police brutality, that might mean a district attorney, for example. Then you can begin making phone calls or writing letters or emails together.

“I remember hearing one of my local elected officials say you’d be surprised at what small numbers you need to move legislation — sometimes when they see 10 people send in letters on a given issue, that’s an avalanche of support,” Manzoor said. “So you never know what kind of impact you can be making with these acts of engagement and communication.”

Direct service is the kind of volunteering we grew up being told to do — helping to feed the homeless, or delivering groceries for older people during the pandemic. These are small acts but they make a huge difference to the people receiving them.

Fundraising and donating can take on many forms, and no amount is too small, Kramer said. The old-fashioned lemonade stands and yard sales may be hard to do this year, but kids can still solicit donations from family members or on social media.

“It could be something that you do together as a family,” Kramer suggested. “You decide, ‘This week we’re not going to do this thing because we’re saving money, because we want to donate to this cause together.'”

What of civil disobedience?

Depending on where you get your news, your kids might be wondering why it looks like some protests are a little louder than others, resulting in arrests of participants. In recent years, some kids risked suspensions in order to walk out of school to protest inaction by adults in the face of school gun violence and climate change. As parents, how do we explain the difference between breaking some laws and rules to be heard, and just plain breaking the laws?

Context and privilege are very important here.

First, the context is that when oppressed people try other means to have their voices heard on serious matters such as the murder of Black people, and nothing works, they need to use other measures.

“That’s when you are using other means that disrupt the status quo and saying, ‘This is unacceptable; people are dying, and you’re not doing anything to change it.’ So in those kinds of moments, it is as long as you’re not hurting other people, it is deemed moral,” Manzoor said.

At the same time, kids need to be fully aware of the consequences these acts might have on themselves. Is what they’re fighting for worth the impact on their academic records or even their arrest records? Unfortunately, chances are that white kids will have fewer consequences, and so they may be able to take the risks kids of color shouldn’t.

How do we face defeat?

No, we’re not going to solve racism or climate change with a march and a letter. But it’s on all of us to make sure our children don’t lose hope. To do that, you can look back at history with them, see what has changed thanks to others’ work, and think about what it will look like when people look back at us in the future.

At the same time, it’s also OK to let children feel disappointed and heartbroken when problems remain.

“You can’t really get through life without being willing to have your heart broken, unless you just really numb yourself out and shut down,” Kramer said. “And I don’t recommend that either, because then you see terrible atrocities and you don’t care.”

If you are ready to get started doing this work with your kids, you can check out this free online workbook from the Youth Activism Project. And because real in-person camps are closed, children ages 10-17 can sign up for week-long virtual camps with YEA Camp. You can also follow @yeacamp and @youactproject on Instagram for more information and calls to action.

Take some self-care breaks with your little protesters and read these beautiful children’s books by Black authors.

Launch Gallery: The Best & Most Beautiful Children's Books By Black Authors & Artists

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