Putting the ‘active’ in activism: How to get kids to step up and get involved


— Katie Danziger, a mom of three in New York City, remembers when her daughter, a college senior, called last year as there were demonstrations around racial issues on campuses across the country.

Her daughter asked what she should do.

“I said, ‘It’s really important that you are there,’ ” said Danziger, chairman of the board of Planned Parenthood in New York City. “Not that you click the ‘Like’ button on Facebook, not that you take a picture, but actually you need to be present because there are certain things where having the visual of how many people are standing there in solidarity is important.

“It doesn’t mean you have to be the organizer all the time, but it’s important to show up,” Danziger remembers telling Jilly, her middle child.

And so Jilly attended that event on campus, and called her mother after to say how amazing it was to see so many people coming together, and how glad she was to have participated.

She’s now planning to join her mother and hundreds of thousands of women and men expected to march in Washington and in cities across the country, many along with their sons and daughters, the day after Donald Trump is officially sworn in as the country’s 45th president.

“I think sometimes you sit behind your computer and I think you feel like … it isn’t really going to make a difference,” said Danziger. She tells her kids, ages 10, 21 and 23, they need to remember to “be present.”

“You have to write the letter, not just click the petition. You have to make the phone call. You have to be at the march because it’s very powerful.”

After one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern history, and when the incoming president has one of the lowest approval ratings for a new commander-in-chief in recent memory, parents are urging their children to engage in their world, and more than they did as young people.

“I understand that there is a difference, sometimes subtle, sometimes huge, in volunteerism and activism,” said Carolyn Munson, a pre-K teacher and mother of two in Decatur, Georgia. “Now is the time for activism. Take that root word ‘active’ and go all-in for something.”

Munson will be marching in Washington with her 16-year-old daughter, Ellie. “This election has been like no other and I hope desperately that Ellie will never see such a divisive mess again. She’s 16 and this is a pivotal time,” she said.

Her only concern about bringing her daughter to an event that could draw more than 200,000 people is the possibility her daughter will see graphic visuals regarding abortion held by people protesting the march. Organizers of Saturday’s march list reproductive freedom among the event’s values and principles, including access to abortion.

“Being pro-choice doesn’t mean we are pro-abortion,” Munson said. “It only means we have the right to choose what we want to do with our own bodies.”

Rallies aren’t the only way to be active

Large rallies are one way to encourage activism in kids, but not the only way, many parents say.

Munson’s daughter is in the process of trying to raise $40,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, along with a classmate. “They are learning how to plan a campaign, how to make a case, how to ask for support, how to be strong,” said Munson, who also has a 20-year-old son. “I am beyond thrilled with all the experience they’re getting under their belt. And all the while, they’re raising money for blood cancers.”

Many children, like Bennett Abrams, need no urging from their parents to get involved. Bennett, 18, a liberal Democrat, was devastated by the election results and angry at the Democratic National Committee for not being prepared enough to win, according to his mother.

“He wrote to all of our representatives in (Washington, DC) and begged them not to overturn the progress that the Obama administration had made regarding climate change, which he considers a vital priority,” said Lisa Abrams, a mom of three and pediatric ophthalmologist in Baltimore, Maryland. “As soon as we heard about the march, he said he wanted to go.”

She said her son, the youngest of her three kids, has always loved history (she sent him books about the Roman Empire when he was at sleep away camp!) and has always been interested in current events. His school also encourages independent thought, respecting other people’s opinions and civic responsibility, she said.

But it was this election cycle when he really became active in a way that he hadn’t been before. She’s confident that activism will continue when he starts college in the fall, when he plans to study political science and history.

“He has a very strong sense of fairness and really wants to make the world a better place and that makes me more optimistic,” she said. “I probably would have gone to the march without him but I will definitely not miss it because of him.”

After marching together in the nation’s capital, Lark Pelling of Vashon Island, Washington, said she will be encouraging her daughter to pick one or two issues that she will commit to this year.

“No matter the issue, there are groups out there doing good work and no matter the amount of time you can provide, it all adds up,” said Pelling, a mother of two and an attorney.

“I want her to understand, too, that even a small gesture — volunteering one afternoon at a food bank or licking stamps on a mailer — can make a big difference to this world if everyone did something,” she added. “This is what this march will illustrate so well. If only my daughter and I showed up and marched, it would go unmentioned, but hundreds of thousands of individuals show up together at the same place and at the same time? Now you have a voice that will be heard.”

Encouraging empathy and curiosity

Encouraging kids to be more involved in their world can start when they are very young.

“For me, at a very micro level, it is about teaching empathy, understanding, compassion and kindness in the home, then making sure they see it in our actions and act on it in their everyday lives,” said Lainey Canevaro, a mom to two daughters, ages 11 and 13, in Chicago.

She said she tries to empower her kids to stand up for themselves and others if they feel that something is unfair or mean and tried to find age-appropriate ways to help her kids understand the differences and commonalities between races, religions and other cultures, “not shying away from learning about new people, places or things.”

Jamie Berndt, a mom of four in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, has taken a similar approach with her four children. More than anything, she says she and her husband have encouraged their children, ages 16, 20, 23 and 27, to be informed and curious.

“Around the dinner table, driving in the car, we discuss thought-provoking and relevant issues — current events, history, politics, religion — and we encourage them to think critically and to speak up for their points of view,” she said.

She and her husband also try to lead by example, giving their time and money to the causes they believe in and educating their kids about what they are doing and why. They’ve also encouraged their kids to volunteer.

“Giving our time, over a period of time, allows us to commit to something we believe in and follow through on it,” said Berndt.

Her children haven’t necessarily seen progress in what they are involved with, but that is part of it, she said. They learn that their wishes don’t always come to fruition in their lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean they give up.

“Children are naturally compassionate and empathetic,” Berndt said. “If we start early, showing them that they can make their world a better place, and help them develop the confidence to speak up and step out, then becoming an activist just becomes a part of life,” she said.