“I used to think my six- and eight-year-olds were too little to be going to rallies with my husband and I, but the horrors of Trump have made me change my tune a bit. Any tips on how to talk to my kids about activism and Trump, and whether going to a march with them is too much? Thanks!”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Jamie Bruesehoff
It’s really amazing how much the past year has changed our perspective on the world. The morning after the election, I remember telling my seven-year-old son the news. He asked if we could move to Ohio. After a quick geography lesson reminding him that Ohio was still in the United States, he asked if we could move to another country instead. To be clear, that wasn’t something we had discussed in our home. In fact, we had avoided a lot of election talk. We don’t watch the news or talk politics, but my children had somehow still absorbed the contention and anxiety of this election from the world around them. They had absorbed it in bits and pieces; whether they read a newspaper headline at the grocery store or heard something a kid said at school, we unpacked each piece as they brought it home. My seven-year-old son knew enough to know that a Trump presidency was not a good thing for people he cared about, especially his transgender sister and his biracial cousin. He came up with the same solution many others had joked about along the way or some even strongly considered: he wanted to leave the country.
I didn’t blame him. In that moment, I was having my own crisis of fight or flight as I tried to process our new reality, but my response to him is one I have come back to many days since then. I told him we could not move, because there is too much work to be done. We have to be braver and kinder than ever before. We have to work in earnest to stand up for and with the most vulnerable in our country. He knew right away what I meant. He nodded his head and named his cousin and his sister among those vulnerable. “Yes,” I responded, “Trans kids and kids whose skin isn’t white. People whose religion isn’t the same as ours, people who speak different languages, and people who come from different places.” The list could go on and on, but he got it. That moment defined how I approached activism and the Trump presidency with my kids.
I know there are a lot of people who suggest we should shelter our children from all of this while we can, let them just be kids, and protect their innocence, but our kids are absorbing far more than we are aware and are far more capable than we give them credit. It is important to be mindful of our children’s mental and emotional development as we navigate this with our children, but simply hiding it from them isn’t the solution.
The human experience is rooted in struggle. Life is hard, and there’s no avoiding that. It’s true on both a micro and a macro level, and children begin learning that from birth. Our culture seems to be coming to terms with the idea that protecting our young people from failure isn’t effective or healthy. Parenting advice is shifting. Not everyone needs a trophy. Parents don’t need to come to the rescue at every turn. Young people have to learn to navigate the world and the successes and failures along the way in order to grow into adults who can thrive. It doesn’t mean they have to do it alone, but we can’t protect them from the struggle.
Glennon Melton, an author and speaker whom I adore, talks about the need to run towards our pain, instead of from it, because that’s where we grow. She speaks of this in reference to her own personal growth but also in how we parent. Our role as parents is not to shelter our kids from every painful experience, every proverbial fire, but to raise children who—with our love and support—have walked through enough painful experiences to know they are fireproof. This shifts our children from the victims of the story into the protagonists, adventuring through the ups and downs of life, knowing that they don’t have to hide under the covers, they too can go and fight dragons.
If we shift our gaze from the individual to the national and global, I’d say the same is true. Children aren’t too young to know there is suffering in the world, because they’ve known it all along as part of the human experience. We can show our kids the pain and injustice in the world—that this isn’t who we as a country were meant to be—and give them the opportunity to become protagonists in our collective story. That’s where activism comes in. Activism is showing our kids that there is pain, suffering, and injustice while also showing them that we are not helpless bystanders. We can work together to change the world.
So, what does that look like? This is the tricky and the fun part. It’s tricky because there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but it’s fun because this is where you get to be creative and learn alongside your kids. First and foremost, it is our responsibility to understand our children’s individual temperaments, personalities, and maturity and to ensure they feel safe and secure to the best of our ability. We have to be especially aware of not dumping our anxieties about these contentious times on them. Luckily, activism doesn’t have to be big and dramatic. It doesn’t have to be major protests—although it definitely can be.
At its core, activism is about going beyond just talking about the problems of the world and creating change with our actions. That is something we can start teaching our children from the time they can talk, or even before. When someone is hurting, we don’t just sit by and watch. We do something. When we see a wrong, we don’t just sit by and watch. We do something. Teach them about their rights, their bodies, and consent. Foster empathy. Talk with them about how it feels to be left out. Figure out ways you can show kindness every day for each other, for strangers, or for your community.
Books are a wonderful conversation starter—here is a great list of books for young activists to get you started. Learn about people who don’t look, live, worship, or speak like you. Learn about the civil rights movement and activists throughout history. Learn about the legislative process and what our elected officials do. Then, take a field trip to meet your legislator if you can, or write them letters if you can’t. If a march feels like too much, make your own signs to decorate your home as a reminder, or find a smaller local march that isn’t quite as overwhelming.
Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t take your kids to marches or protests! If you do, safety comes first. Make sure you know the area and where you’re going. Stay on the outskirts of the crowd and always have an exit plan. Pay attention to your kids. Are they overwhelmed? Time to go! I took my ten-year-old daughter to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and it was an incredible experience for us both. At the same time, I knew I wasn’t up for navigating that crowd with my two- and seven-year-old children. Instead, they’ve joined us for smaller, local rallies where I felt I could keep everyone safe, both physically and emotionally.
Activism is empowering. There’s nothing more overwhelming than seeing the world spinning out of control right before our eyes while feeling as if there is absolutely nothing we can do, but activism teaches us that there is something we can do. By raising young activists, by helping our children learn about the world and its suffering in age-appropriate ways, and then by responding to it, we are raising young people who will be more resilient human beings and better global citizens.
After my kid asked if we could leave the country and run away from the pain and the struggle of this administration, it became incredibly important to me that all my children know we will not move. We will act; we will create change. We still stand up for the most vulnerable. We will declare Black Lives Matter. We will continue to fight for LGBTQ rights. We will love our neighbors who are Muslim, who are Latinx, who are immigrants. We will be a voice for refugees. We will fight for women, their worth, their rights to their bodies, their rights to their lives. We will love. We will build peace while others work so hard to build walls, and we will do it in our homes, our classrooms, our communities, our legislative bodies, and beyond.
Jamie Bruesehoff is a writer, speaker, and advocate. She is mom to three spirited children including a transgender daughter. She holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Gettsyburg Lutheran Seminary and has worked in outdoor recreation and children’s fitness. You can find her on her blog, I am totally *that* mom, writing about life, advocacy, self care, parenting, faith, and more. In her free time, you’ll find her playing in the woods with her family. Follow her on twitter @hippypastorwife.