When Dallas resident Leona Schale wanted to walk in the Families Belong Together march this past June, she planned to go alone, without her 6-year-old son, Miles. “I was worried that if I took him to something I believed in, and he didn’t know what he was getting into, then it would be scary,” she says. As the rally neared, she gave him the opportunity to stay with his dad and sister. “He decided to come with me,” she says. Her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Maeve, also joined, and they ultimately enjoyed the event as a family. “It was calm and peaceful,” Schale says. Schale isn’t alone—in the country’s “golden age of political activism,” as declared by the Boston Globe, an increasing number of Americans, including many parents, are getting involved. March for Our Lives 2018 was one of the largest youth-driven protests in the nation’s history, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium; the inaugural Women’s March in 2017, which drew more than 4 million protestors, was one of the largest of any kind in history.
Yet parents face tough questions when looking to teach their kids to be engaged citizens. Even as parents take action from a desire to impact their future—and their children’s futures—the prospect of bringing the kids along can come with a range of uncertainties, from determining the “right” age for participation to weighing whether an event is safe and appropriate for children.
“With proper, preparatory education, I have found that a positive experience can be an emotional boost to children in their journey, helping widen their worldview, feel supported and build a better contextual understanding of their community,” says Lexi Johnson, a licensed professional counselor intern at Fort Worth–based Beth Lewis Therapy Group. “The first thing to keep in mind with children under 12 participating in such activities is the need for involvement on the part of the parents.”
What does healthy oversight include? It starts with analyzing the subject matter.
Weigh the Hot-Button Issues
The more controversial or sensitive a topic, the more parents should exercise caution, says Linda Metcalf, director of graduate counseling programs at Texas Wesleyan University. Events about subjects such as the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion could foster negative experiences or include imagery that might be disturbing to a young child.
“You wouldn’t want to take a 7-year-old to a pro-life rally where there might be pictures that are very upsetting to them, or subject matter they wouldn’t understand—whereas, you might be able to take a 14- or 15-year-old, as long as they understand and can process it later,” says Metcalf, who also runs a private marriage and family therapy practice.
A child’s age is a crucial factor in determining participation, Metcalf says, referring to studies by Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist Jean Piaget. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development says that children under 12 see things “in black and white,” Metcalf explains, whereas “children 12 and older are in formal operational thinking,” which is more sophisticated. “So imagine a child under age 12 who isn’t into formal thinking going to a rally where there are people screaming—they might feel unsafe,” Metcalf says. “Whereas, with a 13-year-old, you can explain that people might get excited, but that they are just passionate about what they are doing.”
Johnson agrees. “Social activist demonstrations can often involve emotionally charged environments which differ in intensity, so I would be cautious about involving kids who are not developmentally ready,” she says. “Children tend to be more empathetic, and notice this emotional tension or climate, and at young ages will need parents to help them contextualize and communicate what they are feeling, and discuss the strong emotions this may bring about within themselves.”
And of course not all kids of the same age are at the same developmental level. Parents know their kids better than anyone else, Johnson says, and should carefully judge whether their children can handle a charged environment and emotionally sensitive topics.
On the other hand, some parents see these experiences as important for their children’s education.
Adrienne Acuña Skowron and her husband, Brian, felt confident taking their son to the 2017 Women’s March when he was 7 months old. “I do my best to shelter him, but at the same time, I look at every moment as a teachable moment,” she says. At the march, “the feeling was electric, it was positive, and I think that was imparted on him on some sort of level.” Bill Holston Jr., an attorney and executive director of Dallas-based nonprofit Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, often discussed contentious subjects with his sons when they were little.“My wife and I did not ascribe to the point of view that you should protect your children from the unpleasant realities of the world,” Holston says. “So, we talked about human rights issues all of the time from when they were little.”
When Holston’s son Fred was 10, he asked to participate in an anti-war protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “He initiated the conversation,” Holston recalls. “He really wanted to attend, and had developed social consciousness at a very young age. He was familiar with the invasion but it presented a chance for us to talk about the idea that we have the right to protest. I carried an American flag, and he asked why, and I said the fact that we are opposing our government’s policies doesn’t mean we aren’t patriotic, and, in fact, shows we are very American and can express opinions freely.”
Avoid Agenda Pushing
Even with well-meaning attempts to educate and encourage community involvement, parents can unintentionally “indoctrinate.” “We see a lot of polarized opinions today amongst the electorate, and that is dangerous,” says North Texas activist Parker Hicks, who organized Denton’s March for Our Lives protest this past spring and works to encourage voter participation through the Denton Vote Group. “Inform [your children] of what you believe and why, then provide an informed decision of the other side, and let them form their own opinions.”
It’s the same sentiment shared by Skowron. “I am not giving [my son] a particular agenda—I want him to understand that we can make small changes if we participate,” she says. “I want him to be exposed to different points of view, and question everything.”
Not forcing an agenda may mean not forcing a children to participate in social activism if they don’t want to. If they are the appropriate age, they should dictate their participation level, Johnson recommends. “Children who participate in social activism should do so on their own choice so as not to simply be used to validate the sentiments of the parent,” she says. In other words, it’s a matter of consent, an important component of self-determination.
That was exactly why Schale (the Dallas mom who walked in the Families Belong Together march with her family) allowed her son to decide whether to attend the march with her or to stay at home and decorate his bike for a Fourth of July parade.
“I would never have forced him to go,” she says. “I want [my children] to make choices for themselves.”
When Lilly Neubauer had her heart set on protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline installment at a gathering in downtown Dallas in February 2017—her first participation in a demonstration—she hesitated. Her only option was to take her then 2-year-old daughter, Heidi, with her. “I was intimidated by the idea of [bringing her with me],” she says. Any qualms were quickly relieved: Upon arrival, Neubauer discovered a calm gathering of some 100 locals who shared her sentiments, including other parents who had also brought their kids.
“It was such a good experience—other moms had brought poster boards and colors for the kids, there was really good security, and Heidi took to the peaceful, engaging side of it,” she says. “I could see her respond in a positive way.”Neubauer and her husband, Markus, stick to organized and established gatherings where security will be present. When they protested President Trump’s travel ban at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, they chose not to take Heidi. “We had peace of mind since it was at the airport and there was so much security, but it wasn’t a planned demonstration,” Neubauer says. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of risk for your child’s safety anywhere, so that’s our vetting process.”
They also attend events with like-minded friends or families, including fellow church members. “If there’s an event at city hall, we will meet at the farmers market and walk over together,” Neubauer says. “It’s nice to not go it alone.” (See sidebar for more safety tips.)
Consider Alternative Action
There are numerous opportunities for parents who aren’t comfortable with demonstrations but who long to encourage civic engagement. “It is great to get [children] involved in social activities, and there are many ways that are safer and more collaborative and easier,” Metcalf says. Attending political conventions, volunteering for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), or even rallying for better school buildings and classrooms are just a few options, she suggests. “When [parents] get involved for the good of the community,” she says, “it teaches [their children] values—actions mean a lot to kids.”
Another Dallas mom, who asked to remain anonymous, focuses more on supporting elected officials and candidates. “We don’t get into issue activism particularly,” she says. “What we do is try to consistently include our kids in local elections. That scale is more approachable, and I’m hoping it gives them a framework for understanding how our democracy works on a national scale.” She says they make a point to meet the people running for local office, help promote their campaigns and, of course, go to the polls on Election Day.
Voting in itself is a simple way to take action and make an impact. “[Children] get to see what it means to live in a democracy, see who they get to vote for and who gets to be part of their future—it’s enabling them to see what it means to be citizens and have their voices heard,” Metcalf says.
Volunteering for local charities is another way to help children engage with their community while also teaching strategy and teamwork. Neubauer recently helped Heidi organize a lemonade stand to raise money for RAICES Texas, a nonprofit that provides legal services for immigrants and refugees, and to purchase books and crayons for immigrant children separated from their families. Neubauer says she and her husband didn’t explain the full extent of the children’s situation to Heidi, but enough for her to know that her work would be helpful.
“We wanted to do something and involve Heidi in a process where she had to plan,” Neubauer says. “She was able to see how good generosity feels, and knew her work and gifts were for someone who was in a bad situation she was fortunate not to be in.”
Schale formerly worked for a nonprofit and volunteers for Community Partners of Dallas, which provides support for abused and neglected children. Her children have both been on the committee for the organization’s annual fundraiser, Change is Good, and have sold cookies and lemonade to raise funds. “Miles lost his first tooth this summer and wanted to save his [tooth fairy] money for Change is Good,” Schale reveals.
Even calling a representative to voice an opinion with the speakerphone on sends a healthy message to children listening. “There are so many ways to show that everyone is part of the process,” Neubauer says.
No matter a parent’s participation level, “values start in the home—how you treat people, how you view people, it starts in the home,” Johnson says. “It’s important to learn empathy—that’s where it starts, to teach children there is a larger community to be aware of.”
In the end, that is all that Skowron wants for her son—to be empathetic. “My hope is that he becomes a person of substance with a kind heart, respectful of different cultures and a champion for the disenfranchised,” she says. “I know he’s only 2 years old and those are very mature traits for such a little guy. However, I believe that by exposing him to political rallies and marches, those experiences—regardless if he understands the nature of the cause—begin to make impressions bit by bit.”
Neubauer agrees, believing that as Heidi gets older, she’ll begin to see how her family’s social activism fits into the bigger picture of history. “Right now, it’s just planting a seed that will hopefully one day tell her, ‘It’s OK to voice your opinion,’ and that her voice matters.”