I dream of having a daughter who stands her ground, defends her rights, protects her body, and takes no shit.
But I’ll be honest… I also dream of having a daughter who gives me no sass, does exactly what I tell her with no questions, lets me brush her hair, and is sweet all the time.
It’s kind of a conundrum.
Fortunately for her future and unfortunately for my present, I think I have the former. I’m buckling up.
In addition to keeping them fed and bathed and sometimes clothed, we as a generation of mothers have added another objective to our parenting aspirations. We now want our kids to be emotionally confident and socially just. We want them to call out the inequities that they see and to stand up for the things in which they believe. We want them to advocate when needed and feel a sense of confidence even in the face of adversity.
It’s a tall order, to be honest.
Most of our own parents had vague ideas about these ideals as well and started planting the seeds, but their own conformist upbringings prevented those ideals from being fully realized. We, the ones raising the current little people of our society, have committed to actualizing this and raising a generation of activists.
But there are two challenges in doing this. The first is in knowing how to foster activism in a way that fits our kids’ developmental stage. The second, and perhaps even more important, challenge is in confronting our own internalized Good Girl that blocks us from raising real activists.
I grew up in a family that considered itself promoting of liberalism and advocacy. I also grew up in a family where “talking back” to my parents would result in some intense conflict and probably me isolating in my room.
While I internalized the activist spirit, there were also certain limitations to it. Challenge the world, but don’t challenge your parents. Tear down systems out there that aren’t working, but don’t make us look at what’s faulty right here. Use your voice, but keep it soft and kind.
It shaped me into someone who was clear on when things were unjust, but one that was still hesitant to rock the boat if it meant someone might be upset with me. I could see what needed to change, but I also held tightly to the security of being compliant and adored.
With my own kids, I knew that fostering a sturdy sense of self and an activist spirit would have to look different.
How do we actually foster a spirit of activism in our kiddos? While taking them to rallies and marches is great, I’ve realized it’s much more about teaching them to access, decipher, and use their own voices. Here’s how we can start.
Help them recognize what injustice feels like in their bodies.
The first step to calling out injustice is knowing that it’s present. The beautiful thing is that kids are so acutely aware of injustice – it’s actually wired into us at birth. It’s really about preventing the unlearning of this drive in them and helping kids begin to have words and know how to take action on those feelings.
We can foster this by helping kids make sense of the feelings in their bodies. When they see something that doesn’t seem fair or right or good, they – just like we – have an emotional response that shows up as discomfort in our bodies. By giving them language for what they are feeling (“Your heart is racing fast because you’re getting angry when he does that to you.”), we reinforce them going inward and valuing the cues their bodies are sending them.
Remind them they don’t have to have the words yet.
We reinforce that it’s okay if they don’t have the words yet for what doesn’t feel right. The words part is tricky, but they can trust their bodies to tell them when something is off. When we do this as parents, we empower them in situations where they’re not sure how to describe their discomfort or to explain why they need to leave to someone else. But if we’ve reinforced that their bodies are to be trusted, they know it’s safe and valid to pull themselves out of an uncomfortable situation.
Be ready to have them practice on you, even when it feels hard.
Perhaps the most challenging part of this for us as parents is that we are the perfect people to be on the receiving end of all those feelings. We are the safe place for them to practice alchemizing their anger, setting boundaries, and using their voices. Lucky us, right?
It’s inevitable that all that practice will trigger our own emotions as parents, and that’s where the real hard work of all this comes in. They will call out places where we are screwing up and being unfair, and I know my own instinct is to shut that down fast. A common example in my house is when one kid complains, “It’s not fair that he got 30 minutes on the iPad and I only got 15!” Even when I know he’s right, my frustration, exhaustion, and irritability gets activated. Underneath that might sometimes even be guilt about not maintaining more fairness or allowing so much screentime, and that doesn’t feel good either.
But helping them develop confidence in their perceptions and validity in their feelings means noticing how activated I might be getting, settling my own body, and validating their experience of the situation. That doesn’t always mean that I will or can “fix” the situation, but the power here is really in helping them know that their experience of injustice is valid and it makes sense to be upset about it. It also means reinforcing that destroying your brother’s lego creation is not an appropriate way to express that upset.
Reinforce that the bravest among us are the ones who are scared and do it anyway.
One of the most important things we can help our kids recognize on their journey to activism is that you don’t have to feel brave to be brave. It’s easy for any of us to perceive others who are out there standing up for important things as more confident or less fearful than us. It can feel like something they can do because they’ve been blessed with less anxiety or nervousness.
But the reality is that we are all afraid on some level, and that’s often the key signal that we are embarking on something that’s important or right. We can help our kids see that being nervous or doubting ourselves isn’t something we have to get rid of before acting. We can do it scared. The best way I know to teach this is – like most things – to model it. That means calling out when we’re feeling afraid of doing or saying something, and demonstrating our willingness to do it anyway.