Paula L. White M.A.

Shape Parenting

Children & Activism in 2017: Parents Help Kids Do it Right

How politics and parents can help children to become effective activists.

Posted Jan 23, 2017

Angelina Jolie once talked about growing up with a certain sense of emptiness; a feeling that she said began to go away when she embarked on a life of activism.  Going beyond a focus on just ourselves, activism is something useful or important we do to create social change.  University of Georgia professor Jennifer M. Graff has written about how children’s literature can serve as a tool for activism and with heightened attention on various issues in our country, children have real stories all around them that can lead them to work for change.  Activism is transformative because as psychologists tell us, humans want to feel useful and important.  Try to remember how much your child begged you to help with chores when she was five years old, or perhaps you need only to reflect on a 5-year-old child you have who is doing that right now.  We might feel like they’re getting in the way of progress, but children want to help us cook, clean, garden, or do anything that seems useful or important to the family.  That yearning subsides only as they grow older and no longer see the work before them as having much utility or value.   As parents, our role is to honor the positive things that our children find value in, and help them to act in ways that lead to change in that domain.

Less Talk, More Action

Election season is over, the inauguration is complete, many major protests have ended and the ball gowns for the festivities have all been put away – now’s the time to act.  We need a time out on charged conversations so that we can commit to more action.  I’m talking about purposeful action, not armchair activism – the kind where you post your beliefs on social media for 450 of your closest friends to see.  Making a strong statement online won’t accomplish much, and words that your children may consider witty or passionate could easily land them in trouble with friends, virtual bystanders, or school officials.  High-fives or angry scowls online impact everyone’s deepest feelings but they won’t change anything else.  Armchair activism is like discussing how good you are at baking; talk is hardly enough to make a cake.  You have to put in the work – the sifting and measuring and mixing – to transform a set of ingredients into a tasty treat. 

What Activism Looks Like

Like baking, activism takes effort. I define activism with this equation:

(Empathy or Outrage) x Action = ACTIVISM

The timing is perfect right now for activism because many children are feeling empathy or outrage, and regardless of your child or your family’s political affiliation, problems are present in your community or in one close by.  Food banks are still collecting cans, 1st graders in neighborhood schools still need assistance in learning how to read well, and somewhere in your state, an organization for veterans could probably use some physical or financial help.  A 7-year-old collecting cans for a food bank can have their volunteerism paired with learning about the cost of feeding someone for a week in your state, or about the health and safety policies that determine whether or not restaurants can donate food to families.  A 15-year-old who tutors 1st graders in reading can follow up their efforts with a meeting with the school district superintendent to learn about the district’s reading programs, and then a trip to a school board meeting to suggest where some of the district’s curriculum budget should be allocated.  Supporting a veteran’s group will raise your child’s awareness about policies affecting that population and could lead your child to work with a legislator to create or revise a bill that makes some veterans’ lives better. 

Your Next Steps

When children become activists, they begin to connect the dots between the problems they see and the solutions they envision.   Here’s how to help your child to have a life that pays attention to activism:

  1. With your child’s input, identify your family’s values.
  2. Notice what your child cares about, and connect it to a family value.
  3. Help your child to come up with a plan for translating emotion into action.
  4. Affirm your child’s actions.

At your family meeting this week, or during your next one-on-one conversation with your child, have an open-ended conversation about something that your child thinks or cares a lot about.  Next, ask your child to answer these questions: 1.  What’s important about the thing I care a lot about?  2.  What could make that thing better in than it is right now?  One of these questions will connect to your child’s opinion, and embedded in that opinion is an opportunity lying dormant, waiting for your child to act.  Follow steps 1-4 above to get to action.  Like adults, children deserve to live a life that is useful and important and amounts to more than just talk.


Graff, J.M. (2013). Children's Literature as Tools of and for Activism: Reflections of JoLLE's Inaugural Activist Literacies Conference.  Journal of Language and Literacy in Education, Volume 9(1), 136-143.