How do you get your kid to care about social justice? Well, you can bring her to marches and protests on important issues before she’s old enough to walk; croon her to sleep with freedom songs; or fill her Christmas stocking with fair-trade goodies.
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My parents did all that when I was little. Some of my earliest memories involve talking to homeless people in my neighborhood, attending demonstrations with my church, door-to-door lobbying with my mom, even dressing up as Winnie the Pooh on a couple occasions to raise awareness about corporate child labor practices. But these events were just the side effects of having activist Christian parents; they say little about our family life and my own formation as a young person.
Perhaps one of the keys to social justice parenting is to ignore the question above. You can’t get your kid to care about social justice issues. Much like you can’t force your child to be a Christian, to dress a certain way, or to listen to certain music, you can’t set out with a goal to shape your child’s passions and interests. Parents who do this either get lucky or, more likely, meet strong resistance from their young ones. My father tells me that the question parents should continuously ask themselves is this: How can I reflect a vision for a more just and compassionate society within my family?
The goal of social justice parenting is not to produce the “right” kind of child—it is to create an environment in which love flourishes and the structures of family life are consistent with a vision for a better world. In my family, this meant that we functioned democratically (or, to my 4-year-old mind, with everyone “on board”). For the most part, we made decisions at weekly family meetings in which everyone had an equal opportunity to participate. My parents tried not to use age, education level, and income as trump cards for important family matters. That is, we rarely heard the phrases: “Because I said so,” or, “Because I know more than you do,” or “Because it’s my money.”
We had an understanding in our family that each member should contribute according to his or her abilities. My sister and I weren’t expected to contribute to our household financially, but we were expected to help out and be present. (Although now, when my sister and I are home on vacation, I’ve heard my parents say more than once that they wish they had made us do more chores when we were little. They’re probably right.)
We were always allowed and encouraged to communicate our feelings honestly. We were never told to stop being angry, to stop crying, to accept what we were told without question or clarification. In a space where communication is safe and open, there are opportunities for transformative discussions. Today, I still talk with my parents about most things, and we have great social and political debates.
My mother remembers that she and my father had to be careful not to let their passion for social justice issues lead to neglectful parenting. While my parents could have spent a lot more time at meetings or other events, they made conscious efforts to be home for our family. They didn’t want us to resent the work they did in the world. Instead, they wanted to reflect their love and commitment for our family in the work choices they made.
Christian social justice parenting will look different in each family. And so will the formation of children. Ultimately, each young person chooses her own passions, her own perspective, and her own lifework. Parents have an important role to play in helping their children live into their full potential—that’s what justice parenting is all about.
Anne Marie Roderick is editorial assistant at Sojourners.