5 Missteps Parents & Caregivers Make When Engaging Kids in Activism

My daughter was one month old when she went to her first march in Washington, D.C. I still remember seeing her tiny face in the stroller with huge eyes peering out at everything around her. It was October and the slight chill in the air meant bundling her up to keep her warm in the double stroller my partner pushed, with our 4-year-old hanging on to the back. Now, she’s a 23-month precocious toddler who wants to actually do the marching, instead of being stuck in a stroller. Our son has also been involved in activism for as long as he can remember. It remains a priority for my partner and me to raise kids whose lives are centered around the pursuit of collective liberation. We want them to be conscious of how systems play a role in inequities and how each person, no matter how young or old, can fight for change. In 2016, I had the opportunity to organize parents and caregivers to attend the first Women’s March, and many of them were getting involved for the first time. Many didn’t know where to start, for fear of making a mistake, but they were still invigorated and wanted to keep the work a central part of their families. I always share with families that there are many ways to get involved, and with intentional action, it is possible to avoid missteps that parents and caregivers can make along the way.
Here are five common missteps of first-time activists and some ways to move past them:

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You think you need to get it perfectly right every time.

Aiming for perfectionism is destructive to your growth as an activist. This is especially important to remember with children. The pursuit of perfectionism robs you and your family of the chance to delve into the learning and growth that happens along the journey. The goal of activism isn’t the end result or the destination. Change doesn’t come from perfect marches and rallies — because they don’t exist. It comes from community building and solidarity. It is birthed through learning when to follow and when to lead. And it’s most impactful when we find joy in it. It’s also messy and hard because it involves deep work by us humans, and all of us are inherently flawed. If you’re waiting to get it perfectly right every time, that moment will never come, and you’ll be waiting on the sidelines when you’re needed in the game. So get comfortable with discomfort and teach that lesson to your kids. When you feel like you didn’t do your best, spend time on introspection, re-commit to learning, and then come back to it with greater knowledge and a new perspective. That’s all part of the journey.

You may not be following the lead of those closest to the problem.

As a Black mother, my lived experience puts me at the core of issues like racial injustice, pay inequity, workplace discrimination of mothers, sexism, and more. But the truth is that, as a cis-gendered, able-bodied, mixed-race woman, sometimes I’m not the one most impacted by injustices like homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and colorism. As a parent, it’s important for me to model for my kids that following the lead of those closest to the problem sometimes means taking a step back and listening. It means following the lead of those most tapped into the solutions needed to fight the injustices they face. One of the most important things to remember when getting involved in activism as a family is to get acquainted with who has already been doing the work. It’s important to follow the lead of local organizations that fight injustice when it’s out of the news and the work is needed on an ongoing basis. Do research about organizations in your community. Reach out to them and ask what their needs are. Many of them are surviving on a shoestring budget and can use some volunteers to help shoulder the work. You might be surprised by what their needs are and how you can use your skills to support them.

You might not be making it age-appropriate and your kids either aren’t engaged or don’t understand.

It is of critical importance to make activism age-appropriate. My partner and I have been doing this work for a while, but sometimes we neglect to do this with our son. A few weeks ago, we attempted to explain the occupation of Palestine to our 6-year-old. My partner did what we thought was an amazing job of explaining the historical context. He finished and asked our son what he thought. “Dad,” he said, “Your sentences were too long. I don’t remember anything you just said.” It reminded us that kids are developmentally at a different stage than adults, and we need to adjust our language and our approach to meet their needs. This past weekend, at dinner, we played a game to teach our son about Juneteenth. We did a brief lesson using short sentences and frequent check-ins to make sure he was understanding. Then he quizzed us on what he had just learned. Our son is competitive so we often play games with him to teach him things. We deliberately got some answers wrong to help him get more acquainted with the facts and he had so much fun telling us we were wrong! You know your kid the best. Think about what you do to get them to go outside and play, or how you encourage them to eat more vegetables. Apply these tactics to activism and make it fun.

You may not be incorporating it into everyday life.

Parents and caregivers should incorporate activism into everyday life. Don’t wait for an issue to be in the news before taking action — incorporate it into everyday life, from the books your kids read, to the music they listen to and the shows they watch. You also need to model activism in your daily life. When you as a parent or caregiver incorporate it into your everyday life, you’re modeling for kids what that actually means. As adults, you can be an activist in your own community by getting involved in the local PTA or local parenting groups. You can use these spaces to advocate for centering racial equity in the school community and encouraging the school to teach about fighting to end injustice. For white parents and caregivers, you can examine the spaces you occupy — from your friends to your community to your family — and seek to address areas where whiteness is being centered and where injustice and racism are given a pass. As a family, don’t be afraid to add activism into your schedule, as you would soccer or tennis or music. There’s no shame in that schedule! Try different activities like encouraging kids to write letters to local editors or your local school board about injustices they see. You can make signs for a protest and kids can use their art supplies to make them beautiful. You can organize a protest on your street or in your local town. Find ways to make it a seamless part of your regular life as a family.

You might not be de-centering your ego.

Activism is a service to the community. It’s work in service to people who are marginalized. Some people may come to activism from a place of deep pain after a personal tragedy. For others, it’s all that they know because they grew up in service to others. Others may find themselves getting active because of an awakening that is sweeping the country or the world. If you find yourself in this latter group, it’s important to decenter your ego as you seek to be in service to others. This is especially important if you are white and/or hold privilege. Don’t forget that this work needs to be led by people whose lived experiences leave them no choice but to fight daily for liberation. Practice and model for your children what it means to leave your ego at the door. If you’re new to activism, you might be coming at it with bright new ideas. Innovation is important but, if you benefit from white privilege, this isn’t the place for you to center yourself and your attempts at solutions. This is a place to listen, learn and follow.

If you’re just starting out doing activism as a parent or caregiver, remember that part of doing the work is continuously learning. If you started as a family two or five years ago, your knowledge and experience should have expanded significantly over time. Commit to learning by reading books written by the people closest to the problem (if you want to learn about racism, listen to Black people. If you want to learn about transphobia, listen to transgender people). Listen to podcasts like NPR’s Code Switch. Make sure your family library features authors of color telling their stories. Center all kinds of stories, not just stories of injustices through history but also those focusing on joy. Make sure that you and your family are constantly seeking truth and centering your work around the pursuit of justice. And always power your learning with action. Missteps are common so don’t get derailed by them. Let them fuel your determination to continue fighting for justice as individuals and as a family.

Before you go, check out these celebs who talk to their kids about racism:

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