Parenting in today’s political climate is like a homeschool course in social justice and you’re the teacher. You have to approach it like that. Our children have to grow up with the knowledge and toolset to be peacemakers and difference-makers and guardians for a just society, and if we don’t teach them, who will?
How do we explain what’s going on? How do we keep our children informed without making them afraid? How do we raise strong children who will stand up for what is right, whether in the face of bullying, or racism, or misogyny, or any of the other many forms of discrimination that are (and have always been) realities in our world? I suggest drawing inspiration from teachers.
I have been influenced by many great educators. Years ago, I attended a talk by Colman McCarthy, renowned peace studies educator and author, and he asked us to consider the question of why schools don’t teach students how to make peace. Grade-school history courses, he claimed, spend a great deal of time teaching about wars and generals and the history of all the violent encounters between people and nations since the beginning of time, but almost no time teaching about peacemakers and nonviolent resistance.
What message does that send to children about our values? McCarthy’s main thesis is that if we want our kids to build a better world, then teaching them the history of peacemaking and resistance to oppression ought to be at least as important as teaching about war.
Some years after that, I read acclaimed education author Jonathan Kozol who wrote, among other things, that some children are raised to be governors and some to be governed. While he was speaking more specifically about racially based education inequality, I think it can also be interpreted to describe the toolsets our students receive.
Some students may attend schools that prioritize teaching them methods and approaches to being problem-solvers in the community, to initiate and enact change, but most are mainly taught the rote basics of what it takes to pass tests and get into college. Sure, they may be prepared to join the workforce, but what are we really teaching them that will help them build a better world? This particular educational inequality is typically inversely correlated to a community’s need for agents of social change.
Years later, I attended an event with John Hunter, a master teacher who uses a semester long world peace game to inspire his fourth-graders to do the impossible: achieve world peace. When speaking about his course, his repeated mantra is “You never know which one of them just might save us all,” and it has become my mantra too.
The students I have taught are the future; they are my life’s work. All a teacher can hope is that something they say lights a fire that stays with their students and helps them become better people and better community members. It’s true — you never know what impact any one of them might have or how one of them might just save us all.
So this brings us back to the challenge of parenting in today’s America. How can we as parents raise our children to be peacemakers? To stand up for what is right and resist what is wrong? We can’t hope and wait. We must actively become teachers of peace.
It starts with conversations — lots of them. Talk with your children about race, poverty, LGBTQ+ issues, religion, disabilities, misogyny, and xenophobia. Our kids will encounter it all one way or another eventually. Let the first time they hear about it be from you so that when it happens — when they hear some sort of slur or ignorant comment — they can recognize it and call it out the first time, because if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s coming. Give your children the vocabulary they will need to know and suggestions of what they might do. Be age-appropriate, but know that there is no minimum age for understanding a human being’s worth and that it is worth defending.
For little children, an easy route in is through reading inspiring picture books. Search Google for lists of age-appropriate books on social justice. Read about peacemakers. Read about human experiences different from yours. Read about kids solving problems together. And then talk about what you just read.
As children grow, you can engage them more about current events. This is their world. They don’t need to know every troubling detail about every terrible thing that happens in the world, but they should develop some age-appropriate understanding that opens up their worlds. Seek inspiration from the teachers who contribute to educator resources such as Ferguson Syllabus and Zinn Education Project. Resources are out there to help guide you. We are trying to create citizens who will change the world, after all, so at some point they have to become familiar with the world — the good and the bad.
Actively seek out opportunities for your children to meet people different from your family — people who look different, or come from different places, or have had different life circumstances and experiences. Engage in service to the community together, and look for opportunities for friendship with a variety of people. If you are lucky enough to live in a diverse neighborhood, great, but if not or if you don’t have many meaningful relationships with people who are different from you even if they live nearby, then it is not trite or shallow to seek out connections on that basis. It is removing the stigma of “otherness” and creating normalcy. It is good parenting.
Activist Prince Peter Kropotkin once advised, “Think about the kind of world you want to live and work in. What do you need to know to build that world? Demand that your teachers teach you that.” I say to us, the parents, we can’t wait until they are old enough and aware enough to figure out what they need to know. The stakes are too high. We have to become their teachers, starting today. You never know which one of them just might save us all.