Eli Shearn believed he was doing the right thing by immersing his then-8-year-old daughter in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The outcome was not what they expected, and Miriam, who attends a diverse school, was inconsolable. When her father put her to bed, she was crying, “‘Donald Trump hates my friends,’” he said. “I started thinking ‘Why did I get her so invested in this?’”
To help his daughter shake off her disillusionment, the 40-year-old banker made plans for the two of them to attend the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. “I wanted to show her that we have a responsibility to speak up and be part of the process,” he said.
In this polarized political environment, there is almost certainly a rally, march or protest going on somewhere in the United States on any given day. Whether the cause is gun rights or civil rights, saving babies or the planet, the War on Poverty or the one in Afghanistan, like-minded people are gathering to champion a cause — and they are bringing their children with them.
Even though Catherine Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum as Shearn, she used the same words — “responsibility,” “instilling beliefs” and “taking action” — to explain why she has taken her three children (ages 13, 7 and 5) to antiabortion marches from the time they were in strollers.
“I love that concept of taking to the streets,” Foster said. “We can all sit behind our computers and raise awareness on social media all day. But there’s something about seeing all those people and feeding off all that energy that is hard to duplicate. I want my kids to experience that.”
Kids typically don’t have a say on attending and don’t understand the nuances of many issues, if they’re presented at all. But children get their values from their parents — and political activism is an extension of those beliefs.
“You can call it indoctrination, but parents do that all the time,” said Tama Leventhal, professor of child development and social policy at Tufts University. Whether that’s taking our children to our house of worship or moving to a particular neighborhood, she said, “we are passing our values on to our children through our actions. … In most cases, attending a march or demonstration is consistent with other things parents are already doing.
“Taking children to a protest teaches them a sense of agency and to look beyond family, school and community to larger societal issues,” she added. “It’s a way to introduce children to leadership skills. … We want the younger generation to be politically active and play a role in society, whatever that role may be.”
Connie Flanagan, a professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, calls the decision “complicated” — one that requires thoughtful discussions ahead of time. “You can’t just put a sign in your child’s hand and be done with it. You have a responsibility to explain.”
What should parents consider before deciding to take children under 10 to a public protest? Parents need to weigh maturity and interest, but the top priority should always be safety, said David Hill, a pediatrician in Wilmington, N.C., and father of five.
After the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February 2018, Eve Jorgensen of Little Rock, Ark., felt compelled to attend the first Moms Demand Action rally with her two kids, then ages 3 and 5.
Her advocacy for stronger gun laws is intertwined with her parenting; before any play date, she asks whether there are firearms in the home. Jorgensen, 38, wanted to take her children, but she didn’t want to frighten them, either — so she made up her own rules. They attended that initial rally together, but now, if she knows that Second Amendment activists will be at the protest, she may leave the kids with her in-laws.
She also struggled with how to address the larger issue of gun violence, ultimately coming down on the side of total candor. Despite her best efforts, Jorgensen realized she could not shield her children — especially because they have lockdown drills at their elementary school to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter. “It’s a fact of life,” she said. “I’d rather have them feel hopeful and empowered than scared.”
As the biracial mom of a 10-year-old African American boy, Michelle Hughes, an attorney in Chicago, also said she needs to give her only son the skills to stand up for himself. They have attended demonstrations about issues such as civil rights and educational funding since her son was in kindergarten, and she wants him to be prepared.
“Sooner or later, we are going to get something yelled at us,” Hughes said. “It comes with the territory. Whether racism, sexism or something else, I want him to know he can use his voice … that he’s not a victim."
They attend at least one demonstration a year, and her son likes the festive atmosphere where people snap photos of him and his homemade signs or the bumper stickers on his jacket.
She encourages her son’s participation in protests — even when he does it solo. In 2017, when an anti-gun protest was organized at Max’s school, parents were barred from campus because the event was not school-sanctioned. So it was up to the students to walk out of class on their own at precisely 10 a.m.
Of course, nurturing good citizenship doesn’t require a massive event on the Mall in Washington or a dramatic walkout at school. Parents can find ample opportunities in daily life. Experts offered these additional examples and tips for raising civic-minded kids.
* Ask open-ended questions that get youngsters to think more broadly.
* For young children, zero in on issues that affect them directly. For example, if the neighborhood playground has been vandalized, you can ask: “Why would someone do that? What should we do about it?” With the homeless, you might talk about affordable housing or the lack of mental health services.
* The difference between teaching kids about democracy and indoctrinating them with your beliefs is all about how you frame the narrative. For example, a parent could say: “Our family believes guns are bad for society, but there are others who disagree. Here’s what they say and why it’s important for us to know that.”
* Model respect, a rare commodity in today’s discourse. By inviting opposing perspectives and providing a loving, safe environment to explore ideas, you’re building the tools for civic engagement.
Foster, of Americans United for Life, said she has discussed abortion with her oldest daughter in a “life-affirming way, without vilification.” She even shared her own story of having an abortion at 19. Her takeaway: “We all make mistakes, but that’s not the end. … We can take those mistakes and do better.”
* How can parents know when the activism is too much? If it is causing your child distress — anxiety, anger, conflict with peers — it’s time to back off, Hill said. “When our own passions start to interfere, then we have to remember to let our kids be kids and not little culture warriors.”
Shearn is embracing that approach with his now-11-year-old daughter. “I still think it’s important to teach these lessons, but in an age-appropriate way,” he said. “What I’ve learned is a bit more filtering.”
Bonnie Miller Rubin is a journalist and writer living in Flossmoor, Ill. Find her on Twitter @bmrubin.