How to Raise an Activist

As kids grow more curious and civically engaged, parents can play a key role in molding and guiding activism in the next generation.

Images of children at protests.
Photo: Getty Images (4).

As the globe grapples with multiple social, political, and ecological crises, many of today's youth are emerging prominently as leaders of these issues. Leaders like Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai have shown they don't need to be of voting age to make an impact, too.

"[Young people] have learned that they don't have to wait for permission or invitations or even action from adults. They can and are taking the lead," says Jerusha Conner, Ph.D., a professor of education at Villanova University and an expert on issues of student's voices, student engagement, and youth activism.

With issues like gun violence, climate change, and racial injustice affecting their young lives, Generation Z has displayed a strong calling to participate in social movements as well as a sense of urgency in their narratives.

Many parents of these young activists can struggle to navigate the waters, though. Supporting your child and their advocacy efforts often involve safety concerns, contrary political biases, and tough conversations about complex topics. But with an understanding of modern youth advocacy culture, parents can actively help foster budding advocacy. Experts explain how.

If You're Not Familiar with Advocacy, Learn

For parents that don't feel confident or knowledgeable enough about activism to provide this support, there are organizations that can fill the gap. Youth Activism Project fosters young leaders through online workshops that teach skills such as community building and mobilizing for a cause.

Discussing the historical and contemporary difficulties and successes of youth activists together is another place to start. Dr. Conner suggests the HBO Documentary The Children's March and Netflix's I Am Greta as conversation starters about civic engagement for younger audiences.

Model Good Social Media Behavior

While young populations have historically played a vocal role in social moments of generations past, social media amplifies the passion of youth activism like never before. "Not only are young people learning about issues, finding one another, and strategizing online, over TikTok and Instagram, but their status as digital natives means that they are used to being the authors of their own narratives," says Dr. Conner.

For parents of children growing up in this connected generation, it's essential to understand the power and inevitable influence of social media. As kids grow more curious and civically engaged, parents must take on the responsibility of modeling respectful discourse while teaching their children to think critically about what they consume online and the opinions they form as a result of that exposure.

Practice Critical Support

During research for her recent book, The New Student Activists, Dr. Conner discovered parent support typically falls into one of three categories. Reluctant support occurs when a parent doesn't encourage their child's activist mindset but doesn't actively block or discourage their pursuit either. Full-on support stands at the other end of the pendulum and involves a full, unquestionable embrace of their civic engagement. The middle ground is known as critical support.

"Though rare, critical support is the most developmentally salient type of support," Dr. Conner explains. "Parents who practice it respect but challenge their child's activism by asking tough questions and pushing them to clarify their position on the issue, further develop their commitments, or refine their tactics."

Dr. Conner finds that youth activists often prefer this type of parental support in their pursuits, as it encourages meaningful exchanges that strengthen advocacy skills.

You might be surprised at your child's capacity to discuss issues in a thoughtful way. "Ask open-ended questions like, 'This is what we're seeing on the television. How does that make you feel? What do think is happening?'" suggests Anika Manzoor, executive director of Youth Activism Project. "I think that's a great way of engaging them in conversation and allowing young people to form their own opinions."

Model Respectful Debate

Young activists can often feel stifled by a newfound sense of political urgency in fear of a negative reaction from their parents. Dr. Conner believes that parents should be direct with their kids and explain that contrary political views will not affect their love for their child. More so, engaging kids in political discourse when they share their opinions can help them see issues with greater moral clarity.

"Dismissing a child's opinion out of hand as naïve or ill-informed is counter-productive to the goal of raising thoughtful, inquisitive, and engaged children," she says. Instead, model respectful, engaging debate. The dinner table is typically the appropriate arena for this lesson, as it can allow big issues to naturally flow into the conversation.

Dr. Conner suggests that one parent take on the role of "contrarian" if a genuine disagreement doesn't exist between spouses on a subject. "And in single-parent households, a parent can share their perspective on an issue, present alternative perspectives as respectfully and honestly as possible, and then invite the child to ask questions and share their opinion," she notes.

Encourage Children to Engage With Decision-Makers

For budding activists, a significant obstacle can be the gap between noticing a problem in one's community and taking action, but engaging with those in positions of authority is an excellent way for kids to grow into this role, says Manzoor.

"If your child is aware of an unjust issue at their school or their wider community, encourage them to take action," she says. "Talk to authority figures to address the problem, and propose a solution."

Getting involved could involve everything from honing a cause's story to researching pending legislation. Parents—particularly those with young children—can assist kids as they begin to take action.

Just remember: Building a child's sense of agency surrounding advocacy is crucial to the success of a lifelong activist, says Dr. Conner. "Parents need to be able to step back and allow their child to fail." By offering an environment where kids can make mistakes, Dr. Conner says that parents can then play a role in helping them reflect and learn lessons to drive future action.

Help Children Navigate Protests

While no march, protest, or activist event is the same, planned and permitted daytime events are typically safer for children than spontaneous nighttime demonstrations. As with any large-scale event, protests that young activists attend should always include an adult chaperone.

From her own experience, Manzoor also notes that parents can quickly gauge the mood of the crowd when they arrive. "If it feels tense, maybe stay on the outskirts and leave when you feel it may turn unsafe."

Some demonstrations are designed for youth and even planned by young activists—such as 2018's March For Our Lives movement. These protests typically have a more family-oriented spin, with parents standing as allies to the march, but in many cases, smaller local demonstrations will still allow a younger child to engage without the concern of a tense situation.

"If it's something in your neighborhood, that would probably be a lot safer than a large demonstration in a city," says Manzoor.

Make sure children dress comfortably for the day, and bring a backpack with snacks and water to keep spirits high.

Most importantly, parents should have a game plan ready to remove their family and get home if the crowd takes a negative turn or their child becomes overwhelmed or tired. "As my 10-year-old daughter (who has been attending protests with me since she was 2), reminded me, 'Not all kids like to walk for long times!'" says Dr. Conner.

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