Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Why We Need to Talk with our Kids about Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and Other Political Movements

It's our responsibility to encourage our children to be free thinkers.

I have a confession to make. I love to rant. I drive and listen to right wing political pundits on talradio and shout, and I mean shout, back at them. I've been known to use an expletive or two, even when my teenaged children are in the car. My kids just roll their eyes at their crazy dad. As the years have progressed, though, I've noticed they also ask questions, really good critical questions.

The challenge is to decide how much we encourage our children to be free thinkers and how much we force them to think like us. In Winnipeg, two parents who self-identified as Nazis drew swastikas on their 7-year-old child's arm and sent her to school. I'm not sure that was a good idea, nor did Child Protection Services which apprehended the children.

But what about talking to our children about the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, the Keystone Pipeline and the failed war on drugs? Developmentally, our children tend be easily convinced of what to believe earlier in their lives. That's good if you're trying to teach them to not hit their younger brother, but it is not so great if you want to raise a critically aware global citizen. That takes humility on a parent's part. It means sometimes we have to let our kids tell us why we're wrong and the idiot on the radio (my words) has a good point to make.

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For me, the issue isn't about indoctrination, but about encouraging critical thinking. In my book, We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids, I offer lots of strategies to help parents raise kids who can think through problems. After all, our kids actually want to be connected and a part of our worlds. They may not tell us so, but they are actually listening when we speak with the wisdom of years. It's just that developmentally, they go through phases which means they aren't necessarily ready to behave like we want them to behave.

As I discuss in my book, our children become more and more ready to talk with us about politics as they grow up:

  • The toddler thinks, "Because Mom/Dad said . . . " Toddlers need direction. They need to be told what to do if they are to act responsibly. "Your sister is crying. Give her a kiss." "Pick your toys up so I don't trip over them." "Share." Part of our role as parents is to socialize our children, to tame their natural impulse to harm others, or to act selfishly. Children at this age tend to accept that the world as their parents explain it. Whatever your politics, your children will perceive the world in the same way you do.
  • The five- to seven-year-old thinks, "I want to help." Ask an elementary school child for help and he is likely to feel pleased with being asked. They want to help if they think their helping will get them recognition. This is a time when it is easy to get children to participate in social causes. Even a small child can understand that forgoing a present during the holidays means some other child without any presents will have at least one. In this simple way, we can teach our children about how connected we all are and that what we do as individuals counts. That's citizenship 101.
  • The eight- to ten-year-old thinks, "I'll help you if you'll help me." Children figure out soon enough that helping others is a good way to curry favours. While what we see is apparent reciprocity, the child's motivation to help is driven by a selfish understanding of the world: being nice to others gets you further than being selfish. Cynically I might say that sounds a lot like politics. But then, even children can understand why someone might fight a war, or dispatch humanitarian aid, or why we should open, or close our borders to refugees. In the simplicity of tit-for-tat thinking, kids can understand basic politics.
  • The eleven- to twelve-year-old thinks, "Because that's the rule." Ah, the blessed tweens! By this point, a well-socialized child who has experienced the give and take of loving relationships understands the rules of social engagement. I scratch your back, you scratch mine, and everyone feels good. But be careful what you ask for as parents. The child at this age tends to think in well-defined categories. We "always" wear our seatbelts in the car. We "always" recycle. It's little wonder that around this age many organizations try to indoctrinate children into their way of thinking. Totalitarian regimes often have youth leagues; families have ranting fathers. At one point, indeed, I had to forgo my rants while driving because my son repeated something I'd said at school. I'd forgotten, he was taking as gospel what I was thinking rather than learning the bigger lesson of critical thinking. That would come, though, soon enough.
  • The thirteen- to fifteen- year-old thinks, "Hey, look at me!" Young adolescents seeks social approval for playing good children. They begin to understand altruism and how it is a reward unto itself. We can now not only talk with them about politics, we can also explain that there is satisfaction in shaping the world in ways that are good for others. Sure, 14-year-olds, like politicians, want to get noticed, but they can still believe passionately that what they are doing is good for everyone. It's at this point that I helped my children understand the difference between a dictator who is acting in his or her own self-interest and an ideologue who passionately believes the world would be better if everyone thought like he or she did. Neither is democratic: religious zealots and political fascists are equally dangerous to the intellectual development of a child who hasn't been taught to critically consider all points of a political argument.  
  • The sixteen- to nineteen-year-old thinks, "Let's all just get along." Ah, the utopia of later adolescence when the world is full of hope. I have really enjoyed talking to my kids at this age. They can often out-think me. They can interpret facts for themselves and form their own political opinions. In fact, I think it would be more fair if we let them vote. Why not? It's their educational system. They drive cars, and spend more money than me (it seems) at the mall. They sometimes, in their naïveté have great ideas. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has shown, these ideas may be a little under cooked, but at least they are forming.

Does this work? If we help kids learn to think, will they become critically aware citizens? I think so. My son is on an exchange program in Nicaragua. We Skyped a few days ago and he told me about the elections that just happened and the street violence that followed. The home where he was staying was also attacked, the front door smashed in by rocks the size of backpacks. He was shocked, frightened, but terribly interested in why our elections here at home seldom descend into such anarchy. He's begun an interesting journey. His politics may, or may not, mirror my own. I just hope he has the capacity to be a part of the dialogue and never be swayed by the evil intentions of those who manipulate those who were never thought to think for themselves.

Raising children to be critically aware citizens isn't just good for them, it's a gift we give the world. I would rather there be protesters on Wall Street than mindless followers who let another economic collapse occur because of the greed of bankers. But I digress. I can't help it. The radio is on next to me and I'm getting upset. Where are my children when I need them to listen to me? Hopefully, on the front lines of the next social movement.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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