Saturday, December 17, 2016

Yes, I'm raising little activists. Here's why.

The word activist sounds like a load of laughs, doesn't it? Yeah, not so much. It has a connotation of something dry and wonky at best (and, at worst, something irrational, far-fetched, and unrelatable). Nevertheless, I am raising my kids to be activists-- but in the best possible way. Here's why.

What's the most delightful thing about having toddlers? I'll give you a hint. The TANTRUMS. Oh my god, the tantrums. If the olympics gave out medals in tantrums, toddlers would win them. Our tiny overlords are such a source of frustration and bemusement. But they are a good indication of a child who is learning how to use their voice. Not necessarily appropriately, but that will come.

There are so many things in life that aren't fair, and myriad ways that kids can have their voices taken away before they even know they have them. Whether it's sexual abuse, bullying, or whether they are simply born into our culture where they soak up our norms from day one, I want my kiddos to know they have a voice, and how to use it.

All kids have to a greater or lesser extent this will inside of them. We just have to learn how to use it for good! Good ways to use willfulness: Standing up for yourself. Having good boundaries. Not simply accepting others' wishes or behavior blindly. Being good citizens. Sticking up for others.

-Giving kids meaningful choices to make, and allowing them to make them.
-Asking what a kid feels or thinks about the situation-- OFTEN.
-As soon as they can, teaching them how to use the telephone to call friends and relatives, or even stores or offices if they want something or need a piece of information.
-When they have problems at school, asking them what they think THEY can do to get help and identify helpers

Like everyone else, kids need to feel confident in themselves in order to make their voices heard, especially because kids' voices are not valued as much as adult voices in so many ways. Let kids practice using their voices in safe situations. Know full well that they may turn these weapons against you as they approach teen-hood. Do it anyway. We need kids to have all the skills they need to become strong adults.


Kids learn by watching and mimicking. If you're lucky enough to live in a state capitol like we do,
there are plenty of ways to let them watch and/or participate in parades, non-violent demonstrations, or to visit Museum exhibitions about important issues. A part that we should not forget, however, is modeling to them what it means to care about something and then decide to do something about it. ACTION is what we want to inspire, but action with thought behind it

-Talk to kids about their feelings. Something happens. How does it make them feel? Can they imagine how another person feels as well?
-Encourage empathy. Example: Someone you know is sick. You tell your child, and ask them what they would like to do to help that person feel better. Draw them pictures? Send them a funny email? Deliver soup?
-Take the next step. Example: There are people who are sick all of the time, and they aren't getting the health care they need. What do you think about that? Who do you think we should talk to? Help your child to write a letter to a legislator, or to make a bunch of encouraging pictures to deliver to a nursing home. Help them connect their empathy with action towards a larger group.
-Follow your kiddo's lead. Some kids are passionate about animals. Others are worried about racism, economic inequality, or wars. Pick up on what's important to them and connect them with information about how they can help.
-Attend parades. Let them hand out candy. Let them make their own protest signs.

Activism can be a meaningful, fun way for kids to connect with the world around them. It can give them a sense of being powerful (in a positive way) and learning that when they are sad, they don't have to feel stuck. There are things they can do. Even if those things simply make them feel better about themselves, or one other person!

Nobody likes an entitled person. A person who expects things done for them, given to them. A person who is greedy. On the other hand, you don't want to be that bummer of a parent who is giving out apples on Halloween because candy isn't good for you. There's a fine line to walk between wanting to teach your kid generosity and thereby denying them something.

Let's be clear, however-- if you want your kid to not be entitled, you CANNOT give them everything. You cannot let them treat people however they want without incurring the natural consequences (and yes, to some extent that means in the way they treat you).

On the other hand, you can give them a framework in which they understand that they are making a sacrifice, but they will get good feelings in return.

-During the Christmas season, talk to your kid about what matters most to them. Tell them that you will give them a certain amount of money to give to that charity. Then allow your child to write the letter, to send the check, or to buy the items and donate them. Physically involving the child is important for their learning. Same can be done on birthdays.
-Look for opportunities to help out kids their own age. Have them look through their own drawers for things that don't fit anymore and take them with you to the donation center. Make them lift the bags.
-Volunteer at a soup kitchen or some other project and have them interact with people. Last summer, my synagogue volunteered to feed homeless people one Saturday downtown, and my kids gave out clean socks to the people in line. We talked about treating others with respect, and the kids were great at making eye contact and asking people politely, "Would you like socks?" They immediately asked to go again.
-Give your child some small amount of money to loan through Kiva. Let THEM choose the recipient of the loan. Then, when the loan is paid back, let them re-invest it.


Kids are eager to love, and feel love in return. They are eager to assert themselves and make decisions for themselves. Shielding children from all conflict is actually not healthy. It's important for kids to understand situations in ways that are age-appropriate, and which are also appropriate to the child's disposition. Of course your number one job as a parent is to keep your child safe. But there are many safe opportunities for kids to engage in meaningful ways that they will enjoy, and will help form their memories and habits as they grow.

So, go ask your kid to bake cookies with you for your elderly neighbor. Talk about kids who might need coats, and go through your closets together. Encourage your goofy teen who plays trombone to google music they can play at the next protest or parade. Harness your kid's playfulness, empathy, and creativity.

Get ready to be amazed.

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