I went to my first protest when I was 8. I stood on the sidewalk with my grandmother and held a sign. I was proud of myself. I was proud of what I was doing. I felt like I was making a difference in the world, a difference that mattered, like I had stepped out of myself into a larger world of politics and adult concerns. I didn’t feel used. I didn’t feel like a prop. I knew why I was protesting and what for.
I carry on that proud tradition with my sons. I believe in civic engagement, and an important part of civic engagement, especially these days, is the good ol’ fashioned protest. This summer, we protested the Confederate flag being on the South Carolina State House grounds. Recently, we protested Donald Trump’s Muslim immigration ban. We did everything associated with a typical protest: We made signs. We made sure my oldest, age 7, had a sign (we figured the other two, ages 3 and 5, would just run around, which they did). We made sure we had our own signs. We went to the protests, listened to speakers, and talked to friends. We stood near the road and got alternately honked and jeered at.
Basically, we were engaged citizens standing up for our rights in participatory democracy. You’re never too young to do that. It was important to me, though, that my oldest didn’t feel like a prop, so we went over the issues. We talked about some serious topics concerning the Confederate flag, about discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement, about Dylann Roof and the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre. It was scary. It was uncharted territory. But we did it because we wanted Blaise to understand why the flag needed to come down.
When it came to the Muslim ban, we talked about the First Amendment. We read “The New Colossus,” the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. We had to talk about refugees and other people who have made their homes in America being forced out. We made sure Blaise understood it as much as he could. “We’re protesting the Muslim ban,” he said. “It’s unfair because it’s on the Bill of Rights.” That’s about as much as I could ask for given his age.
I am proud to show my kids that their voices can make a difference. Yes, the younger two just ran around, but when they come with us, they learn that protests are something you do to stand up for yourself and others, not something extraordinary or weird. Blaise had a sign just like the adults. Did he listen to the speakers? Not really. He put his sign down and played until we went to stand on the sidewalk. But he was there. He didn’t agree with Trump’s executive order, and he wanted to participate and have his voice heard.
Some call it indoctrination. That’s a harsh word. We each teach our children to follow our religions, and generally don’t call it indoctrination. We teach them our opinions on all kinds of things, from organic diets to spanking to schooling. The word indoctrination isn’t lobbed at any of these. So why should politics be any different? As my kids get older, I’m sure they’ll disagree with me on some things. I’m sure they’ll argue, and we’ll be on different sides of the same issue. I won’t drag them to the protest then. They would be free to stay home. That’s the difference between indoctrination and teaching. One’s compulsory. One isn’t.
And yes, I exposed my son to the people yelling at us from their cars. We stood on the sidewalk with our signs. Some people honked and did a thumbs-up (most of them). Others yelled. I explained to him that these people disagreed with us, and it was their right to do so, even if they could have been nicer about it. I felt that he needed to see the face of the opposition and know they were normal people, like us, but who happened to disagree. I wanted him to know that we didn’t have the sole opinion on the Muslim ban. I wanted him to know that people out there think it’s a good idea, that they think we should leave refugees to languish. It didn’t hurt his feelings. It baffled him. We had to talk about it a lot.
I’m proud to bring my kids to protests — not as props, not as cute little moppets with signs, but as budding citizens learning to participate in the democratic process. Of course, we protest the things we think are detrimental to our society; this is, in the end, a form of my teaching them right from wrong. Maybe your ideas of right and wrong differ. No worries. Get your kids out there and teach away. Maybe we’ll see you, on the other side of the police line, waving signs and chanting. You’re exercising your civic responsibility. And I hope you’re teaching your kids to do the same.