A lifetime of teaching children, youth, and adults about social change has taught me that all young people have innate and unique voices that want to be expressed in action. My experience as a parent and adult ally has shown me that children can be a valuable activists. Young people and adults have taught me that involving younger and older children is a great way to create an ethic of action that can last a lifetime.
Here are a few tips to tap into children’s energy, enthusiasm, ability to think outside the box and create new ideas.
Don’t tokenize children.
Children should not be decorations or tokens in your activist campaign. Rather than simply making them walk in front of your march, engage children in sharing their ideas, creating dynamic promotional materials, teaching adults about the issue, and engaging adults.
Foster child/adult partnerships.
Interdependence of children and adults is a key to successful social change. Engage children and adults in meaningful action that is designed to foster positive relationships between them. Encourage intergenerational mentoring by introducing this concept to children and adults and create safe spaces for mutual teaching, critical thinking, and support.
Focus on historically disengaged children.
Children of color, low-income children, students with low grades, foster children, homeless children, children with disabilities, children of parents in the justice system, and other disconnected children are historically disengaged from activism opportunities in their communities. Focus on engaging these children in your activism campaigns to create vibrant, vigorous social change.
When adults’ views are favored over those of children, it is adultism. While this is appropriate in a variety of circumstances, it’s important to acknowledge that children have important ideas and knowledge, and can take action to affect their own lives, as well as the lives of those around them. Challenge adultism by engaging children in your activism, teaching them about adultism, and by training adults to accept children as partners.
Create Opportunities for Children to be Involved in Planning and Leadership.
Genuine leadership activities can include project planning, team facilitation, teaching others, and meaningful evaluation. Allowing children to take on genuine leadership activities helps them to develop lifelong skills and creates goodwill towards your community. Also, engage children and adults in meaningful and fun activities designed to foster positive relationships between them.
Accept Children for Who They Are and Meet Them Where They Are.
To foster positive relationships between children and adults, avoid dismissing technology, insulting children’s culture, or criticizing what children know. Instead, challenge adults to accept children as partners. Engage children in the communities where they live, learn, and work every day. Involve organizations that children participate in and, where possible, connect their activism to learning. Help children identify resources that exist in their own communities and build social capital among neighbors by showing the positive force children can be in their own communities and throughout their lives.
All communities are not equal, and it is important to acknowledge that with children. For children, serving in neighborhoods where they do not live can help build understanding. Especially for historically disconnected children, serving where they do not live can help them recognize how they can become key to creating healthier, safer communities.
Sustain Children’s Engagement.
Don’t limit outreach to children to one day a year. Instead, use community activism as a launching point for children’s engagement by involving them in activities throughout your community all year long. Children can provide vital energy, creative thinking and critical reflection in a variety of ways that can benefit your activist campaign or entire community! Always ask, “What’s Next?”
Make Action Meaningful Through Reflection.
Children can become easily disenchanted without meaningful opportunities to reflect on their involvement. Challenge children to make meaning from their activism and encourage them to think critically about their involvement.
Build Knowledge Among Children.
Don’t expect children to be fully knowledgeable about your issue or the purpose of activism. Instead, ask them to share what they know and teach each other as well as the adults who are participating.
These are some basic steps to take when engaging children in activism. What would you add?