Should children be activists?

The children's sections at bookstores tend to be outfitted with the trappings of fantasy. I've seen many dre...

Posted: Oct 18, 2018 11:30 PM
Updated: Oct 18, 2018 11:30 PM

The children's sections at bookstores tend to be outfitted with the trappings of fantasy. I've seen many dressed up like treehouses or castles with cardboard turrets topping bookshelves. No matter the motif, the effect is the same: Books, children are to understand, are a chance to escape reality and its many limitations.

But lately, the books on display have been sending a different message. Children's literature, like everything else, has become increasingly politicized, with a hard-edged focus on the here-and-now. I can buy a board book called "A is for Activist" for my toddler, and for my kindergartner, there are a whole slew of titles to choose from, including the recently published "What Can a Citizen Do?" by Dave Eggers. Gender equality, racism, poverty, immigrants' rights, political engagement, it's all there, vying with those anachronistic castles and whimsical foliage for relevancy.

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We have a couple of these books, and while I appreciate the historical and sociological lessons some of these books contain, I felt torn about their application.

Yes, I want my children to understand injustice and the mechanisms through which it persists. I want them to be able to identify when they or their friends are being treated with small-mindedness and have the tools to reject it. Most of all, I want them to know that we all share the responsibility of fixing what is broken in our world.

Still, despite all this, and the fact that I've spent much of my professional life pushing for change, I'm hesitant about mixing children with activism. My biggest fear? Their certainty. I don't want them to grow up sure of their righteousness and that if they are the good guys, well, the other guys must be bad. I worry about how tribalistic America is becoming, the degradation of our civil discourse and the us vs. them, zero-sum thinking that has found its way into debates, large and small. I hear toddlers refer to President Donald Trump as a "monster," and although I'm not a fan of his policies or demeanor, I cringe. I really don't want to help perpetuate this for another generation.

As I see it, a good activist should be confident but willing to listen, able to actively sort wrong from right while acknowledging subjectivity and nuance. Are children capable of this?

Parents can set the tone

Parents shouldn't avoid political conversations with their children, according to Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, even if their children aren't quite ready for them.

"You want to wait until a child has the developmental capacity to understand nuance and gray zone. The problem is that when the material is so out there, they are hearing about it anyway," Saltz said.

When you cede your child's political education to a schoolmate who calls our president a monster, "you are not getting to be ... the voice that is guiding this aspect of the development of their moral compass and their value system."

Children aren't likely to learn about nuance from their peers or the media, Saltz explained. So parents might be the first and only line of defense when it comes to educating their children on how to approach political fault lines with sensitivity and open-mindedness. This can be conveyed in both how we talk about politics and the kind of activism we encourage in our children. Bringing them to a respectful march can be a meaningful and transformative learning opportunity; an angry march might only make them feel upset and helpless.

"I wish parents were thinking about how to help their children see much more in gray than we are currently doing," Saltz said. Today, Americans are anxious, and "when people become more anxious, the defense is to become more black and white -- it has more certainty in it. This filters down to children. If their parents are [thinking in black and white], it is pretty hard to expect anything different from the child."

Discussing activism can help instill values

One way to teach civic engagement without going neck-deep into the good guys vs. bad guys paradigm is to lead with values rather than issues.

Political education should come from "inside-out," explained Alexandra Styron, author of "Steal This Country," a guide to activism for tweens and teens. "Instead of imposing a sense of anger or activism, let's first talk about what we care about as a family. And now that we have established that, what can we do to make the world a better place for us and the creatures we care about?"

Styron, a mother of two teenagers, ages 13 and 15, said that in her home, the focus was kindness, inclusivity and decency. She and her husband made it clear that not everyone needs to dedicate their lives to advocating for these values in a political setting.

"We gave them the tools and knowledge to make their own choices and hope they will respect the same values," Styron said.

Leading with values also gives parents a chance to help their children understand why people on the other side think and behave like they do. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, our political camps tend to focus on different value systems. Liberals are primarily concerned with fairness, while conservatives are more likely to take loyalty and sanctity into account. A close look at these value systems with our children would help them understand where the other team is coming from, and better prepare them for future debates.

Also, value systems scale better to developmental stages than political issues. My kindergartner has a clear template in his life for fairness, and it's largely separate from virtue. Sometimes, his best friend is unfair. Sometimes, his teacher is unfair. Sometimes, his parents are unfair. No good guys, no bad guys, but just a misalignment of expectations and actions.

And as far as teaching him something from the other side of the aisle? Our family's observance of Judaism could easily become an example of the importance of sanctity and why some people might get upset when they feel that their traditions are under threat.

Caroline Paul, author of "You Are Mighty," a guide to activism for kids, said that activism, when taught correctly, can help instill some of these values. "Activism is never achieved successfully on your own," she said, explaining that changing the world is almost always a function of human collaboration. Also, in order to be effective, one has to "learn how to communicate in a civil way with figures of authority," she said.

"We shouldn't be teaching kids how to fight. We should be teaching them how engage," Paul said.

What does all this mean for our kindergartner and, eventually, our toddler? We will continue to talk about the issues, using the language of values to discuss how we feel about them. And we will explain what can be done about these issues, with a focus on creation rather than destruction. As to what this will all mean in practice, well, that will be up to them to decide.

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