Particularly in these difficult times, we often use our children as reasons to avoid getting involved in critical issues. We’ve got all we can handle holding on to our jobs and spending a little time with them. We fear political commitments will make their lives more insecure. Especially when they’re young, it may be all we can do just to go to work, come home, pay attention to their needs, and catch a few scarce hours of sleep. Yet when we do find ways to get engaged, our children can give us powerful reasons to act.
It’s understandable that we’d want to shelter our children. We want to protect them from the ills of the world. We’d rather they focus on simple childhood pleasures than the Gulf oil spill or global climate change. It’s awkward to explain war, fear, greed, and all the shadows that hang over their future. However we handle the time constraints, raising children can make us more cautious. They may also lead us to shy away from public controversies that might risk our jobs, or to move to more costly neighborhoods with better schools. We want to give them comfort and security even if this means subordinating other values.
Yet as Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman puts it, protecting our own children “does not end in our kitchen or at our front door or with narrow attention just to [their] personal needs.” Writing to her own sons, she says, “You must walk the streets with other people’s children and attend schools with other people’s children. You breathe polluted air and eat polluted food like millions of other children and are threatened by pesticides and chemicals and toxic waste like everybody’s children. Drunken drivers and crack addicts on the streets are a menace to every American child. So are violent television shows and movies and incessant advertising and cultural signals that hawk profligate consumption and excessive violence and tell you slick is real. It is too easy and unrealistic to say these forces can be tuned out just by individual parental vigilance.” If we want our children to lead generous-spirited lives, we need to give them ideals to inspire them.
Collaborative approaches can help: When my wife Rebecca was pregnant with my stepson Will, she approached another pregnant woman in her apartment building and initiated a baby-sitting co-op that quickly spread to 20 families. The group soon became a close-knit extended support system, watching each other’s children daily, holding a weekly play group, volunteering together at a local community help line, and sharing emotional support. If we want to attract parents to our political movements, we’d do well to create similar networks or find other ways for people to bring their children along.
Truly protecting our children from the destructive forces of contemporary society also requires working for common solutions. The stronger our public schools, the less we have to fear that our daughters and sons will be unsafe, neglected, or poorly taught. For all its limits, the recent health care reform means we’ll be able to pay their medical bills even if money is scarce. If we had less of a winner-take-all society, we might feel less pressure to shuttle them to round after round of outside activities, all supposedly preparing them to succeed. We may believe we can make our homes into castles, but whatever we do, the world will intrude, so we’d best work for a world that works for all.
We can affirm our children’s instinct to care, not through a silence that too easily connotes indifference, but by helping them make sense of troubling aspects of the world–instead of pretending that they don’t exist or don’t affect them. When they worry about the environment, urban violence, or people sleeping on the streets, they do so because they feel the empathy and compassion that we want to nourish–or because they’re legitimately concerned, for reasons we should hardly dismiss. Rather than wrapping them in a domestic cocoon, we can explain an adult society that might otherwise induce despair or callousness. The more they see us responding to the world’s problems by acting, the more they gain a sense of hope and purposefulness. Otherwise they may be moved and disturbed by the crises they see, yet remain silent to protect us from questions they sense we’d rather not face. This collaborative silence can become like the denial in alcoholic families, where people offer rationalizations like, “Your mother’s just taking a nap on the floor.”
Passing the Torch
Beyond shaping the world that we will pass on to our children, our actions and choices offer them models for their lives. As writer James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Socially engaged parents don’t automatically turn their kids into social crusaders. But I’ve met countless individuals involved in important issues who referred to adult examples as key: “Our church has always worked with the homeless.” “My first demonstration, I was in a baby stroller.” “My mom’s been going to marches and meetings ever since I can remember.” When an activist friend in Minneapolis was complaining to his wife about the chronically late garbage pickups in their neighborhood, their five-year-old piped up, “Well why don’t you call the City Council?” She was used to people who spoke out.
Young women and men whose parents remain actively engaged are far more likely to view social action as a natural human activity. Early on, many learn to reflect on their personal choices and those of society, to challenge misleading authorities and institutions, and to think about the kind of America they want to help create. They also learn skills needed in public life and indeed in adult life generally, like the ability to articulate beliefs, engage differing perspectives, and enlist new allies. It’s worth trying to make society live up to its highest ideals, they learn, even when doing so is difficult. Steeped in traditions of engagement, they know from experience that human action can make a difference.
“Families need to both protect their members,” writes psychologist Mary Pipher, “and connect with the world.” She described how she joined her then-thirteen-year-old daughter, Sara, volunteering at a local soup kitchen for a year. Spending time with adults who were doing work they believed in, Sara found a respite from what Mary called “a shallow and mean-spirited peer culture.” She saw the value of her own efforts. In the process, mother and daughter renewed their own common bond through a shared sense of meaning and purpose.
Similarly, Marian Wright Edelman’s father, a minister, built the first home for African American elders in their segregated South Carolina town. He also constructed a playground and canteen behind his church, so that black children would have a place to play. “I have always believed that I could help change the world,” she recalls, “because I have been lucky to have adults around me who did.”
By contrast, children who grow up in politically detached households learn to fear and mistrust civic involvement, to regard it as the task of “some other kind of person.” They’re taught to focus on personal survival or advancement. The absence of family models for social action can also feed cynicism by encouraging the view that such efforts are futile, generally make matters worse, or are the domain of crackpots and crazies. If these children are ever to take on public issues, many will first have to question the values they grew up with, resolve conflicting loyalties, and find new mentors outside their family. The barriers are that much greater.
In The Little Virtues, Italian essayist Natalia Ginzburg argued that we should teach our children “not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
The little virtues have their place, Ginzburg said, but “their value is of a complementary and not of a substantial kind; they cannot stand by themselves without the others, and by themselves and without the others they provide but meager fare for human nature.” Only the great ones, which we hope our children will spontaneously develop someday but which in fact must be taught through example, can inspire a deeper sense of purpose.
As we struggle to shift a culture where our national motto threatens to become “Invest in America: Buy a Senator,” our children need more than abstract encouragement of ethical behavior. If we want them to lead lives of commitment and compassion, they’ll need tangible examples of people who act on their convictions with courage and integrity. They’ll need a connection to history, so they’ll know what it means to persist. They’ll need to feel confident speaking out on controversial issues, negotiating conflicts, and cooperating with others. All adults provide examples, whether we mean to or not. That leaves us all in a position to make a difference, giving children the models to inspire them.
Other People’s Children
Ultimately, our children give us the best reason to stand up for what we believe. Again and again, activists describe them as their living links to the future. A Maine campaign finance reform activist took her stands “so that my children won’t have to grow up in such a cynical world.” One of my closest friends, a commercial fisherman is an environmental activist “so that everyone’s kids can inherit a healthy planet.” In the words of a young Atlanta woman who worked on building interracial coalitions, “being a parent has made me realize we’re in this for the long haul. We’ll have seasons where we’re more actively involved in organizations and public life, and seasons where we focus more internally, on home and hearth. Each moment shapes the other. When I can’t attend a meeting because I have to pick my daughter up, or worry about whether she has adequate education and health care, or have to take care of my mom if she’s sick–these are the issues that the majority of people on the planet are dealing with. If I stay in a bubble where I think these things are just obstacles or inconveniences getting in the way of my real work, then I’m probably missing the point.”
Citizen activists often use the image of looking into a mirror, taking stock of their lives and choices. Our children serve as this mirror, reflecting who we are–and who we might become when we act for the common good. For instance, many of the white people of Jackson, Mississippi responded to desegregation by sending their children to private schools. As a result, the political base for school taxes shrank and public funding declined precipitously. Without a strong educational system, those left behind seemed doomed to a spiral of despair. But in 1989, a group of white professional parents, convinced that their children needed to learn in real-world classrooms among children whose diversity reflected that of America, decided to send their kids to public schools and to recruit other families to do the same.
The group they formed, Parents for Public Schools, enlisted 600 families like themselves who would normally have fled the system, then approached middle-class African American parents who’d similarly fled to the suburbs. They helped pass a $35-million school bond issue, Jackson’s first since desegregation, and created a model for parents in other cities. Though they had fears about their decision, they felt that abandoning the public schools would shortchange their children by passing on a meaner society. Also, as one parent said, “I want my children to know kids of different backgrounds, not just those who are white and middle-class. I want them to be educated in a world like the world that they’re going to live in.” Twenty years later, Parents for Public Schools has grown into a national organization with chapters in eleven states, helping parents engage with local schools and to influence the local, state, and national decisions that affect children’s futures.
As these parents recognized, our most fundamental responsibility as citizens is to love not only our own children, but other people’s children as well–including children we will never meet, who grow up in situations we’d prefer to ignore. To be sure, we’ll always listen most attentively to the cries of our own sons and daughters. But only when do we honor the ties that bind us together in common do we have a chance to pass on a better world.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, “Soul” has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.”