Activism Empower Kids Teens and Adult kids

Owning Our Fears to Support Young Activists

Written by Amy Phoenix

One of my most memorable childhood experiences comes from a time when my mom took me to a play about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Growing up in a predominantly white town as a white person, I had little day-to-day experience with African-Americans and what their lives were like. When I  did make friends with a kid who  was notably outside my own race, African-American, and described him to my mom, the color of his skin never came into our conversation.  It wasn’t until she came to a school function when I pointed him out as the student in the blue shirt, that she realized someone’s skin color wasn’t what stood out to me. So when she took me to this play, something was both shocked and strengthened in me: activism. The person who sees where something is wrong, something needs attention, and they decide to take action. At that young age action for me looked like being curious, friendly, protective of people who were different, whether it was someone who was a different race or someone who was from a different background, with a disability, an older person or someone who was teased. Coming from a long ancestral line of women willing to speak up and put themselves on the line for truth, others and the betterment of humanity, activism began to also take its hold in me.

As I grew, activism manifested in different ways. During my teen years, the Gulf war brought the heartache of war home in a very real way. Some classmates at my middle school had family members who were going to war — brothers, uncles, fathers, etc. A few of us decided to be supportive and hold a sit in at our middle school cafeteria, protesting the war, hugging those who were crying as their loved ones were deployed. That might have been my first formal experience as an activist in a group setting and it felt both scary and powerful. As it turned out, we were placated for a few hours then told  if we didn’t go to class we’d suffer the consequences. Regardless, we huddled together in our confusion and fear, making our voices heard through our willingness to take action. While we couldn’t stop these people from going to defend our freedom and safety here in a way we did not understand,  we  could sit in protest of the despair that was being experienced by those in war and those waiting for them to come home.

Various topics held strong emotion for me in young adulthood — reproductive choice, treatment of disabled and elderly people, racism and oppression in general. But when motherhood hit, a different sort of activism came into play. At first it was attachment parenting, which gradually morphed into conscious parenting — to clearly choose the presence we bring to parenting. However, before conscious parenting, a startling experience early on changed the way I would advocate. One afternoon, I parked my car at a local grocery store and tucked my firstborn into my arms. As I walked toward the entrance, I noticed a woman from behind who quickly came up beside me. This woman, another activist who disagreed with an opinion I held, which was displayed on a bumper sticker on my car, used her voice to tell me what she felt about me. Her words still strike me to this day. She said, “If my third child’s mother would have seen your bumper sticker, my child would be dead.” Shocked, and holding my baby a bit more tightly, I repeated the words on my bumper sticker with emphasis onthe first two statements. “With all due respect, the bumper sticker says: Pro Child. Pro Family. Pro Choice.” She went on to explain how that sticker would have been telling the birth mother to get an abortion. While I disagreed, and politely told her such, the interaction left me feeling sickly unsettled inside. Although I felt like the bumper sticker was relatively non confrontational on the topic of reproductive choice, it was apparent that my feelings about the sticker, and maybe even my position on the issue, needed some reconsideration.

That day I went home and I took the bumper sticker off my car, because my daughter’s safety and my safety were more important to me than activism in the form of sharing my opinions openly. On that day, sadly, the action of removing that bumper sticker also removed a good share of my enthusiasm and courage for activism, without me fully realizing its impact on me and my family.

Fast forward about fifteen years. Activism is still in my blood and now I’m seeing it in my oldest child. The same child I held in my arms while that woman confronted me when I felt fear and shame for having the beliefs that I did about respecting women’s choices with their bodies. Now my daughter is the activist, the person who feels strongly about certain situations, certain things going on in our world, certain ways people are treated. She is active in a group at school to support the LGBTQ community, she speaks up about racism and she genuinely wants to see and create positive change in the world.

When she initially showed interest in activism, I admit I felt scared and it came out as confusion and frustration. Thoughts swirled in my head that I didn’t dare voice: “I just want to keep you safe. I don’t want you to be too loud, vocal or active because there are people out there who could hurt you. There are people out there who won’t take what you say seriously and we can’t change everybody.” All of these arguments came up inside me. A lot of these I haven’t shared with her directly, but just because I haven’t voiced them doesn’t mean they aren’t influencing our conversations.

Reflecting on all of this, I’m coming to realize is that as powerful and justified as it may be, my fear is my own to work through. What I really want is to support my daughter wholeheartedly in noticing what needs attention, using her voice and being an active participant in life, which may well include activism — even if it’s risky.

As adults, parents and caregivers, what are some ways we can support our young activists, especially when we may feel uncomfortable with the topics they are active about, when we’re uncomfortable with activism or if we’re learning to become comfortable again with activism after experiences that leave us feeling concerned?

While I have some ideas, I feel like it’s much more valuable to go straight to my daughter for these insights, so that’s what I’ve done. What follows is an interview with my oldest child, budding young activist Althea Bradley.

What can parents and adults who interact with kids who feel passionate, have opinions they want to share that might be controversial or want to be active in groups that might be targeted, do to be supportive and what mistakes should we be aware of and avoid if possible? I know I’ve made like a 100 so…

Don’t discredit your child’s opinion just because they are younger than you are. Just because your kid is fifteen or something doesn’t mean they can’t formulate their own opinion and that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid just because they’re young. People can be smart and knowledgeable when they’re young. Some people will look on the internet, talk to people or read books and kind of agree with those, but for me I will have my own take on it and I won’t agree with everything just because it’s said online or by one of my friends. I’m guessing that some parents think that their kids are easily swayed because they’re young or the internet is evil or something, but that’s not how it is really. Don’t assume your teen is just being fed in- formation and they are just getting it from someone else.

Don’t assume they’re not critically thinking about it and determining whether it matches their own opinion.

Right; that’s how a lot of people form opinions, you see what someone else says and you have your own take on it.

Those are a couple don’ts,  so what could a parent to do to be supportive?

Have an open mind, listen. That’s pretty simple, just listen.

Yeah, but it’s not always easy for everybody, me included. To listen non-judgmentally, with that open mind, if you have judgments come up, you don’t blurt them out and you do realize them as your own judgments and not necessarily fact.

Kids today are growing up completely different than the way yougrew up. Things are taught different, introduced differently. For example, there’s evidence now to prove that people aren’t just male and female. People didn’t talk about that as much 20, 30, 40 years ago. Realize that some kids are growing up with that knowledge now so it’s just not the same. Try to see it from their eyes, and not your own. If you have trouble and think,”Oh why would my kid think this?” Try to think like them, not like yourself, because you’re older than them. The same information wasn’t given to you.

Yeah, that’s big and juicy right there. I heard you say a couple different things. One was that we grew up with different information, a whole lot less information really and so your generation has access to much more current, broad, diverse infor- mation that is going to help you decide and learn about things. When you personally are talking about being aware of scientific information regarding male and female not being so cut and dry, that there are various aspects that go into this, the information we had about that from science class is now outdated.

The information you received is also significantly less information than is available now. Even now we are still taught the primary binary way, but there are people who do not fit in that box, so we can’t say there’s just male and female. It’s not just what I or some social justice warrior said, it’s what doctors said. I think the reason gender exists is because our society has forced roles and expression in how you should act based on what your anatomy is. If our society didn’t force that then gender would be regarded as a different thing, and not just that you’re a man or a woman. My main point is really the information.

And really considering your teen’s point of view, that it’s valid.

Another thing you could do, and this goes along with listening, is show that you care, try to be interested. Don’t just brush your kid off and act like it’s a phase or whatever, it’s not that important, they’ll get over it, blah, blah. Maybe some kids won’t be huge activists, but it’s not a phase caring about human rights. They’re still going to care and they’re still going to want to talk about it. Don’t try to shut the conversation down because it makes you uncomfortable.

And that’s common, people do do that, I’ve done that plenty of times. It’s good to be aware of, to stay open because then you can deepen your understanding of each other and your relationship.

The thing is, and it’s sad about activism, but it’s alway the oppressed group’s job to try and fix the opinions of the oppressor and activists don’t want to. It’s always been mostly people of color’s job to fight racism and women’s job to fight sexism. A lot of white people and men don’t realize how bad it is and how it’s so ingrained in our society in every way. It’s there, even if you can’t see it and they don’t want to take that responsibility on, but they should. It gets tiring [as an activist] explaining over and over to people that something is offensive, please don’t say that, that’s not funny, please stop.

Yes, this dovetails in with the next question I want to ask. How can a parent support a teen activist when it gets rough, when there are people who are ignorant, when the bigotry shows, when people rip an activism sign off a locker, because that’s hard for you, the activist, and the parent might feel a lot of mixed feelings about protectiveness, etc. You are growing into an adult and so protectiveness is appropriate at times, but as parents we are also supposed to allow the protectiveness to blossom into supporting you in becoming a strong and resilient person, being able to deal with the challenges of life and being a person who stands up for themselves. What do you feel is supportive when that kind of thing happens? What do you feel you want or need? Maybe you’re on your way to a parade and you might face bigotry, how can a parent support or prepare you for what you might experience?

There are people who aren’t bigots and bigots are just living in their own ignorance. It would be great if people could not be igno- rant anymore, but you don’t have to help everyone. You can just let them be ignorant because some people don’t want to change and won’t be open to listen at all. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

What I am hearing you say through this conversation is how important it is for a parent to listen and remind you of this as needed. Because if you came home and told me about something hard, I want to know how to support you. As a way to support you through that,  listen to what you’re experiencing sounds like it would be helpful. Also, to remind you that you have a voice, you can use it and to support you in using your voice and to know that yes, some people are going to get it, some people you will plant seeds with, maybe later it will blossom with them you don’t really know. Some people aren’t going to get it, but  I’d still say you’re planting seeds. If you use your voice, you are planting seeds. By you using your voice when you feel comfortable doing so, you areplanting seeds. You are speaking up for what is important to you and you are speaking for the change that you want in the world.

Yes.

Vivek Patel of meaningfulideas.com says it well, “Conscious parenting is activism”. Maybe working through our own fears to support young activists won’t only ensure the children of our future will bravely pave the path ahead, but also that us elders will courageously stand up and make the positive impact we are here to make as well.

About the author

Amy Phoenix