Nine Things to Teach Kids for a More Just Future
Participating in the Black Lives Matter Rally held Sunday, May 31 in Tulsa’s Greenwood District
It’s hard to know what to write for a family blog when everything in the world is chaotic and intense. Anything I can think of either seems too flippant or too heavy, and trying to remind myself that I am writing a family blog about our family for other families only seems to complicate that for me.
This year has been emotionally devastating, and we’re only halfway done. 380,000 lives lost to COVID-19, more than a fourth of them Americans. Against this surreal backdrop, we’ve watched our kids miss their school friends, graduate by car, miss out on birthday parties, and live a big chunk of their childhood stuck inside their homes. To boot, many of us have lost jobs and struggled to find our basic needs met. All of us are hurting.
All of this pain is punctuated by the preexisting condition of persistent social and racial injustice, especially in our own country, especially from those with social and/or authoritative power, especially toward those not truly represented in government, and especially toward Black Americans.
Against a backdrop of grieving, we watched Ahmaud Arbery lynched in broad daylight in the middle of a street by a former police officer and two accomplices while jogging. We bore witness as no arrests were made for 74 days until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped in, spurring a federal investigation of the Glynn County Police Department, a department that was already indicted for evidence-tampering years ago.
And then we grieved for Breonna Taylor, shot eight times after the Louisville Metro Police Department executed an illegal no-knock warrant while wearing plainclothes, causing her boyfriend, who is licensed to carry, to think they were being robbed and exercise his second-amendment right to defend his home. No drugs were found inside their home, and officers shot more than 20 times, destroying their furnishings along with Breonna’s young life.
And then we watched George Floyd executed without due process via compression asphyxiation in broad daylight and high resolution from several angles while begging for help, his death met with a delay in prosecution and an ME report that would later be contradicted by an autopsy privately commissioned by his family.
His death was horrific beyond comprehension, and yet the three deaths mentioned above are only the latest in a continued pattern of extrajudicial killings related to excessive police force in the United States that asymmetrically impacts Black Americans.
For a world already grieving on so many fronts, watching George Floyd die while pleading for his life to a merciless agent of power was a crystalline manifestation of everything broken in our nation today. For the past week, the world has cried out in protests, marches, vigils, and even riots, with hundreds of cities across the nation and around the globe angry against systemic racism, police corruption, and police violence.
It’s hard to know what to do or where to place your energy in times like these. It’s important to protest injustice in all forms and support those in our community who are victims of injustice, and at the same time to remain cognizant of self-care and mental health to continue to be an ally to those communities and a good parent to our kids so they can grow up to do the same.
If you’ve been frustrated and angry at systemic injustice in the United States for a long time but you can’t physically go protest because of your job, because of transportation, because you’re drowning in kids, because of COVID-19, because of ability, because you suffer from mental health issues, or any number of other reasons, remember that there are many other important ways to fight the system, and it’s going to take all of them together to effect change.
One thing I really try not to do with this blog is mislead anyone into thinking I believe I’m any kind of an expert on parenting or that I have anything different figured out more than anyone else does. But today, I wanted to share with you some of the things I’m trying to do to help my kids grow up and become positive forces of change in the world. Think of it as less a complete list or directive than a hopeful prayer to the universe.
My hope is that they’ll use the things we’ve taught them to be in some way part of creating a more just and kinder world. The great thing about this list is that these are all good practices to engage in for every aspect of life as a general rule, and they impact interpersonal relationships as well as global citizenship.
1. Make them aware of global current events.
A lot of people think kids shouldn’t know what’s going on in the world or follow government affairs because they’re too young to understand. But kids can handle a lot more than most people realize, even young kids. When you speak to them about complex ideas and issues, it can be surprising how readily they engage in spirited conversations and offer meaningful contributions.
President Obama emphasized in his George Floyd virtual town hall speech that young people have historically been at the forefront as the biggest agents of change.
The great thing about teaching kids about global events is that it puts the onus on ourselves as parents to continually learn, process, and contextualize current events in a way that we can then educate our children and engage in discussions with them.
It has also made me hypervigilant about biases in what I’m teaching so that they’re getting the broadest possible understanding of the situation at hand. I’ve learned that they’ve often already heard references to many current events with the YouTubers they follow, which is another reason it’s important to build on that information and make sure what they’re learning and processing is balanced.
You can subscribe to a newspaper or magazine for kids or do something as simple as turning on a couple of different news stations for a few minutes once a day. I try not to editorialize too much to them but instead to focus on making sure they understand the significance and impact of events. I play news that features short clips and avoid any kind of punditry in favor of sort of headline-style news features. Local news is a fairly good source for this type of information, but it’s also really limited in scope.
If you have a Roku, you can click on “Latest News” and see a list of the live news stations. I try to switch between sources so the kids can notice how different news sources report on an issue or get more information on a topic.
2. Teach them history, geography, and civics in context.
An understanding of civics, civil rights, and how change occurs is essential to helping create positive change, whether in the voting booth, in city council, in our neighborhoods, or in Congress. It’s also key to understanding where the system needs work.
One of the hardest things to do is to access and teach history in a way that isn’t biased, whitewashed, Disneyfied, diluted, and every other nature of distorted ad infinitum. But the more young people understand that fact, the greater the chance that could change over time.
The best solution I’ve found in the meantime is to try to access as much information as possible. Read books from different perspectives and teach history in the context of larger events and current events.
An understanding of social studies can be a key facilitator in developing empathy for others’ experiences. Teach the kids about their relationship to the rest of the world, how our government is similar to other government structures, and how different people live around the world.
3. Teach them that it’s an American right to fix things that aren’t working.
How often have you heard this phrase: “If you don’t like this country, then why don’t you leave?”
Nobody should have to leave their home because they want to make it better. Imagine you live in a beautiful old Victorian home that needs a ton of work. If your ceiling is caving in, you don’t move. You fix the roof and then patch and paint the ceiling. It’s hard work, but it’s your home, and it’s worth it.
It’s far worse to sit in a filthy, moldy house where the roof needs to be repaired and pretend like it’s the greatest house in history. On the other hand, pointing out that the roof needs to be fixed doesn’t mean it’s any less of a beautiful home with good bones. What do you do with a beautiful old home that needs work? You fix it up to be a place you can take pride in.
Teach the kids that the United States government is meant to be for the people, by the people, and that means our politicians and law enforcement are on our payroll. We have the right to demand better.
It’s all of our house.
4. Teach them to educate themselves.
If you’ve ever wanted to expand your vocabulary, here’s a trick: look up every new unfamiliar word and concept you encounter. When I was growing up, you could be forgiven if you didn’t go for the encyclopedia or if you’re old like me, the microfiche, every time you learned something new. But today, there’s no reason you can’t learn a new concept every time you hear one.
You can’t know everything, and as a former supervisor used to say, you don’t know what you don’t know. But in this day and age, most people have the processing power in their hand that makes my high school computer look like an abacus, and there’s no reason why you can’t and shouldn’t take a few seconds to look up new words, concepts, and historical events every time they come up.
When we’re at home and my kids don’t understand a concept or word, they’re expected to look it up.
They’ve been taught that aside from their teachers, elders, mentors, and parents, they are responsible for their own education. This is something I didn’t always know because like most of the human race, I can be kind of oblivious sometimes. Oftentimes.
Those who have been on the receiving end of injustice, bullying, prejudice, and the like are emotionally tired, and asking them to teach you when you haven’t taken the time to seek out stories, experiences, knowledge, information, and advice on your own can be frustrating, even exhausting for them.
If you begin to seek knowledge on others’ experiences with intent, you will quickly realize that there are many countless voices in our society that are getting silenced, drowned out, overlooked, missed, and so on. You’ll also realize pretty quickly that there are countless opportunities to listen to the words of those who aren’t being heard if you only look.
I’ve been really fortunate to have incredible friendships where we can get into conversations about some very heavy topics and there’s room for mistakes and learning, but that’s not something that should ever be taken for granted or expected, and it’s important to practice emotional intelligence when getting into painful topics with loved ones.
If you’re looking for ways to amplify Black voices, this incredible anti-racist reading list from Victoria Alexander is an excellent place to start.
5. Teach them that changing their mind can be a good thing.
I saw a meme circulating online this week that hit me where I live because I was so late coming to understand this. It read, “Normalize changing your mind when presented with new information.”
I think stubbornness is sometimes held up as a value in our society. People will say of others, “You didn’t think that way in this Facebook post last year!” or be criticized for contradicting something they said previously.
In a world where we don’t encourage people to admit they’ve been wrong and grow, that means nobody is encouraged to change. But it seems like people changing their hearts and minds could be the key to doing better by those who are suffering in an unjust system.
6. Show them it is a virtue to admit when they’ve been wrong.
This is an extension of #5 but so important it needs to be discussed at length.
Confession time: I definitely struggle with this. I had a gaslighting family member who never admitted they were wrong, and if anyone admitted fault, they would use the fact to berate and abuse that person. It took being married to someone who normalized honesty about mistakes for me to start to realize I had a problem with it.
I’ve also noticed that “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean much if it focuses on the fault rather than reparations and a change to follow.
We’re teaching the kids to look at mistakes, criticism, or correction not as a sign that they’re an awful person but as a chance to be better than they have been. We’ve emphasized that all people are capable of doing something that hurts others with or without realizing. We talk a lot about impact versus intent; just because they didn’t mean to hurt anyone doesn’t mean they can ignore the damage they’ve done.
If someone in our family breaks something that’s dear to someone else whether through their own negligence or on purpose, the damage is still the same, and how they take ownership, work to make reparations for that action, and choose to do better in the future is important.
For example, Arthur broke one of my favorite mugs last week. He started to make excuses, but we reminded him to rethink his approach. After a moment of reflection, he admitted he had been careless, apologized, discussed the habit he needed to change, offered extra household chores to apply his earnings toward buying a new one, and told the other family members about his mistake so they wouldn’t make the same one.
7. Teach them that justice is all of our problem.
“Why does it have to be a black or white issue?” I’ve read that phrase at least a dozen times in the past week in news article comments sections. It’s usually hanging out with its sister comment, “All lives matter!”
After engaging in discussions with many of the people who make these kinds of comments, I’ve concluded a few things about this perspective. I learned that many of these people are reacting because they are in a position where they have had a poor lot in life.
It’s hard for white Americans who have been born into generational poverty, worked decades below a living wage, or harassed by police themselves to understand why no one is outraged or fighting for them.
It’s true that the baseline of the injustice bar is set pretty freaking low for all Americans.
What they don’t realize is as horrible as all of that is, police brutality is even more likely to kill you if you’re Black. According to the National Academy of Sciences, it’s 2.5 times more likely to kill Black men than white men.
One thing I have taught my kids is that justice is not a zero-sum game. We’re not outraged about one thing or the other. We’re outraged about all of it. One thing doesn’t cancel the other; it’s all intolerable.
Many of the same power structures and systemic problems that allow police brutality/corruption and racism to persist are part and parcel to problems like homelessness, generational poverty, lack of opportunity, and so forth that affect all races, and we need to be focused on solutions together.
It’s like If you’re injured and someone needs CPR, you stop what you’re doing and administer CPR and then you get your wound dressed.
If you’re worried about the hole in the roof and someone tells you there’s a fire on the stove, you don’t get angry because they’re ignoring the roof. You go put out the fire and then work together to fix the roof. And when you’re done, you look around and make sure the rest of your house is in order.
8. Teach them that protest is important.
Think of all the major social changes in modern history and their connection to protest. Protest can work very effectively because it disrupts the status quo and puts pressure on those in positions of authority to move forward with change.
I’ve seen many folks say, “But what about the riots, looting, and vandalism?”
It is devastating when American businesses are damaged by riots and looting. Too many people depend on them for their place of work or to get things they need to live. But it’s the job of our leaders and law enforcement to encourage and facilitate continued peaceful protest while arresting those who use the riots as an excuse to cause harm.
In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King said, “…you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence…We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.“
I believe that teaching kids to speak out against injustice creates the type of thinking that is seen in the many videos surfacing where protestors attempt to stop looters and vandals from hurting the cause of just as much as it creates kids that aren’t afraid to shut people down when they’re openly racist, homophobic, ableist, and so on.
9. Teach them to step back and process.
I can’t emphasize enough how absolutely much I’ve failed at this many times. I am painfully aware that I consume and share information far too quickly.
I’ll never forget the revelation I had when Lucy was a baby and I was driving into work every day feeling low but not understanding why. I realized that every morning I was listening to the BBC World News in the background on my drive to work, and all too often, that news covered bombings and murders, delivered calmly but delivered nonetheless.
I had come to realize that listening to the news as background noise had been hurting my ability to bring good into the world. I didn’t stop listening to the news, but I stopped doing so passively, choosing to give myself doses of news when I was wide awake and in a healthy state of mind.
Remember, you can’t be a good ally or change advocate if you’re not mentally healthy. Over-consuming information can distort your ability to process what you’re reading/seeing, and you can end up getting sucked into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Teach the kids to step back, take a break, mentally process it before responding or reacting.
And while you’re teaching them to process, try to help them understand nuance. Often in life, it’s not necessarily all one way or another. I noticed this with the rumors about who was behind the looting at the protests. Folks blamed angry protestors, outside agitators, a left-wing conspiracy, a right-wing conspiracy, all kinds of groups. As this incredibly detailed VICE article explains, the answer is much more complex.
Thanks for sticking with me through this super long post, and I hope you were able to find something you can use in it. Remember that nobody is a perfect parent or a perfect ally. What’s important is that we keep trying. Parenting is hard, especially right now when everything is hard, but as the custodians of the future generations, it’s also our best investment in a more just world.
Here’s hoping for peace, love, and beauty in all of our nebulas and a silent agnostic hippie prayer for justice in the universe. Keep fighting, keep demanding justice, and have a beautiful week.