Like most parents, beyond helping my kids learn how to sleep through the night, I want to raise kids who grow into people who contribute well to the world. I want my kids to become people who care about other people, who live ethically, who stand up for justice, and use whatever talents and resources they have to help make the world a better place.
But, sometimes this is difficult even for myself, let alone thinking about how to pass on those values to the little people living in my house. Even as an adult I am continually learning and growing, and in this rapidly changing world I find myself constantly encountering new questions and challenges surrounding social justice issues that I am rarely equipped for… and mostly stumble through.
At the time of writing this article, I have a seven year old and a five year old—and that’s not a whole lot of runs on the board in terms of parenting experience. Hardly enough to be considered any kind of expert. Writing an article on “how to raise a child engaged with social justice” at this point is fraught with difficulty. I may well be raising the next Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi… but I might not be. And for all my attempts to involve, engage and inspire my children toward lives of generosity, compassion and sensitivity to social justice issues, I’m not certain how it will turn out. So rather than giving you any sure-fire advice, let me share with you some of the things I am experimenting with right now.
We spend a lot of time with stories. Stories that inspire children to love better, and to imagine a better world. We are always on the hunt for age-appropriate books about people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. We look for books about great innovators and problem solvers, creative thinkers and helpers- as these are the skills and ideas that help shape a better world and a way forward. We read stories together to stir compassion and empathy discussing all the characters and how they treat each other. There are also many other fantastic children’s books around like Beatrice’s Goat1 and Planting the Trees of Kenya2 that highlight good development and help children understand how aid works.
In the past few years, there has been a spike in the publication of picture books—particularly in Australia—that explore the heart-wrenching experiences of asylum seekers and other oppressed and marginalised groups. Despite the friendly format, the content and themes are often quite disturbing and confronting, more suitable for older audiences, so it is important that parents use discretion when selecting books about justice issues. While we need to be honest with our kids and help them understand the very real injustices in the world, it is important to develop patterns of learning about justice that inspire hope and don’t create unnecessary anxiety or fear, particularly in younger children. Elevating our discussion toward solutions and focusing on positive progress is the goal.3
In the world
In order to develop a strong sense of equality and a foundation for understanding human rights, we spend a lot of time exploring the world around us–celebrating and valuing all people! We read about other cultures, experience as many different foods as possible, learn about music and traditional dances, play games from other countries, and attend various cultural events in our region. We love books like Mem Fox’s Whoever You Are4 for stimulating great discussion about unity despite differences.
In addition to deepening their appreciation of and respect for other people in the world, spending time outside in nature has also been of utmost importance for our kids. Nature crafts, camping trips and growing our own organic vegetables provide great opportunities for us to talk about our place in the world and to develop an understanding of our relationship to the earth, the impact we have on it–positive or negative–and the people we share it with. We want our kids to not only understand their responsibility to care for the environment, but to love it deeply so that they are internally motivated to do so.
We are committed to practicing peace and passing on a message of non-violence to our boys. With so many violent games, movies and toys targeted specifically at kids, we need to be intentional, creative and resourceful in encouraging positive play. I do recognise that while we refuse to buy war and battle themed games, books and toys for our kids, they will probably still build slingshots in the backyard. Certainly, exploring heroes and villains, great battles and good versus evil in the context of great stories, classic literature, myths and legends has its place. But in these contexts, violence is not separated from its effects or from the characters’ suffering. I imagine this might be the realm where my boys can develop a strong sense of right and wrong, and their call to action to defend the weak and vulnerable.
Perhaps navigating this will become trickier as our boys get older. But we are convinced that encouraging positive, imaginative, creative and constructive role-play, without “pretend” violence, is essential for reinforcing the values of kindness, gentleness and peace. Most of all, my husband and I recognise that peace begins at home and is modelled in the way we all speak to each other, serve each other and deal with conflict.
Like many families, we have various family traditions. A song for this one. Special bunting for that one. A set of candles and a particular tablecloth for another. Once a month we have a “mercy meal.” We eat a small serving of plain beans and rice, and use it as an opportunity to think about people who don’t experience the privileges we do.
While we might not be making a tangible difference to someone else’s hunger, we hope we are raising a consciousness in our kids that stirs compassion. I’d like to be able to say we are incredibly consistent with this—but we aren’t, yet. Perhaps in time it will become more solid like some of our other traditions.
I know other families who choose to forego the regular gift giving at Christmas and select a gift from an aid agency catalogue5, giving crop seeds or workplace training to people in developing nations, instead. I taught a high-school student whose parents took her and her sister to a developing nation every summer, simply to learn, witness and widen their understanding of global issues.
Creating traditions together is a wonderful opportunity to get creative and build family connection. Fundraise together, volunteer together and speak up for justice together.
Meet and greet
There’s nothing quite like a child getting to meet a real-life hero. So we take the opportunity for our kids to talk to people who work in the field—or even behind a desk—pursuing justice and caring for the vulnerable.
Lucky for my boys, they have an aunt who works in international studies researching human trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region and an uncle who has worked with a humanitarian development organisation. The point is not that they learn all the details of human trafficking or keep up to date with the latest financial aid reports, but that they are meeting and talking to real-life people, already in their sphere, who are doing this thing called justice in different ways. Chances are, there is someone in your workplace, street, or a parent in your kids school community that your children can talk to and ask questions, allowing them to put a face to the good things you talk to them about.
We want our kids to hear about our heart for the poor and oppressed. We try to involve them in meaningful discussions about world issues, with age-appropriate language and explanations. But most important of all, we want them see us being generous, to see us volunteering and serving others, to see us shopping ethically, to see us engaging with our communities, to see us caring for our environment—to see us consistently living justly. While I opened with a solid disclaimer about giving advice, I will say this with certainty: leading by example and actually doing justice is the most significant way to leave a lasting impression on our kids.
Seeing us support various aid organisations motivated our boys to run a street-side vegetable stand to raise money for an aid project themselves. And nothing helped them understand the importance of loving our neighbours more than joining us on several peaceful marches welcoming asylum seekers. Model peace, generosity, and love inside your home and outside of it.
Parenting. We do the best we can, using whatever wisdom we may have acquired and the sound advice of mentors around us. But we are always revising. It seems that as soon as you’ve mastered one nap routine, your child has formulated a more complicated one. None of this is straightforward.
Over the past few years, my ideas about justice, aid and good development have changed and grown. The more we do justice, the more we learn. Which means acknowledging that the things we used to think were a great help, perhaps are not. At one point, we thought child sponsorship was the best way we could respond, but realised that in many circumstances it is not. Or there was a time when short-term volunteer trips were wonderful, but we realise now that they are not always as beneficial as we might have thought.
We can’t know everything about everything all at once. And we can’t do everything to change the world today. So take the pressure off yourself to be a Justice-Ethics-Conservation-Peace-making- Civil-Rights-activist Superhero. Of course, be educated, make informed decisions and be passionate about doing justice. But even in caring for the poor, speaking for the oppressed, and protecting the environment, it is never helpful to become legalistic and stress ourselves out about whether we are doing it right—or doing it enough. And we must never create that kind of pressure for our kids.
So be prepared to shift a few degrees in the way you talk about justice and the ways you do justice as a family. The goal here is not to shape a career for your children as the next generation of United Nations ambassadors or pre-determine them as future aid and development workers, but to share a delight and joy in loving and helping others, wherever they are and whatever they do. So please, don’t should your children to distraction. Instead, focus on a life of learning to love better—with your children.
* This is an edited version of a chapter that appears in ‘Do Justice: Our call to Faithful Living’, Signs Publishing, 2014.
We’d like to especially thank Jo Darby for her contribution to the Buzz. Jo is a mother, artist, author and international speaker. Her life is a practical reflection of the values she holds, often running personal projects to finance social justice causes, including selling postcards printed with her artwork to finance operations treating Nepalese women who suffer from uterine prolapse. Jo can be found on her website, and on Facebook.