For many people, childhood is not a time to protest; it is a time meant for innocent play. It’s a time when adults are supposed to insulate children from the cruel realities of life. We all attempt to limit our kids’ exposure to the adult world: to the news, and to the things that make us mad and angry. I so want my daughters to enjoy hours of that innocent play in their childhood. These days though… there’s just too much in the world that makes me furious. I can’t pretend that everything is okay, that I’m okay with the world just as it is.
And since I can’t hide all of my emotions from my kids, and because my husband and I want to teach our children how to stand up for the things that they believe in, we march as a family in protests.
Sometimes, I fantasize about finding an isolated spot on a mountain somewhere far away from politics and the poisons of the world. We’d raise goats, and I’d knit cozy sweaters for my kids. But my husband hates goat cheese, and I’ve never quite figured out the mechanics of knitting. So instead, we live in a small city and talk about the news as a family. We talk about everything that we think is wrong and everything that could be better for us, for our neighbors, and for other families not so different from our own, living in places far away.
We want our children to know that we can make the world a better place when we speak out against things that are wrong. We want them to know that as Americans, even as young Americans- when they protest with their friends and neighbors to make their voices heard, that they become powerful.
We’re not original in including our children in our protests. For as long as there have been conditions to protest, children have been a part of protest movements. From marching with Mother Jones, to the Shirtwaist Strike, to youth uprisings against apartheid, to the Children’s Crusade during the Civil Rights movement, children have marched, held signs, or joined boycotts in protest. In many instances, it was the very fact that children were protesting that brought more attention to these issues and resulted in real change. Children are powerful and their voices need to be heard.
The truth is, that as much as we want to shelter our kids from the realities of the adult world, they live in it alongside us and are coming to know all the same inequities and injustices first- hand themselves.
When we protest, we are teaching them, first, that adults too feel anger and frustration, second, how to express these feelings, and third, how to use these feelings to make change. I want my children to experience what it’s like to be part of a movement that’s working to make the world a better place. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a few strategies for maximizing the benefits of marching together, while minimizing the risks or challenges.
March only when it’s something that matters to your whole family.
I was actually surprised the first time we joined a march at how ready the girls were to participate. When we first discussed with them marching for climate justice with our church, the girls were quick to say that they wanted to go with us, that they cared about this issue. We were careful to keep our conversation on this topic age-appropriate; our youngest is easily scared by anything that’s too detailed, we’ve found. But the girls knew enough science to understand what is happening to the climate and cared enough that they wanted to “do something.”
The starting point for other marches has continued to be talking about the issues as a family, keeping in mind their different age levels. What’s the problem? What are people doing about it? Is it something that we can help make better by giving our time? Our money? Our voice? There are a thousand things you can get involved in, so we try to prioritize issues that impact our community directly or issues that are aligned with the values we want our children to learn. Before we go, we make sure to ask if the kids are interested, and then we take the time to make sure that they understand what all the fuss is about.
Simply dragging your kiddos to a rally because you want to go will likely result in the same crankiness you get dragging your kid anywhere.
Protest with people you know.
A protest, by its nature, is an event that attracts, you hope, a large crowd of people. We’ve found that the girls get more out of the experience if they know someone in that crowd, preferably with kids. When kids see other kids around, we’ve found they check into the experience more because the march is clearly not just a “grown-up” thing. Checking to see if a group of people from your school or church are going tells you too what the tone of the event will be. It’s a good bet that if religious leaders will be present, the spirit of the march will be one of a peaceful protest. If you find out that your somewhat crazy uncle or that kooky neighbor that you had to “unfriend” because of their online vitriol are also attending, maybe give that particular march a miss or go without the kiddos.
Take snacks. And some entertainment.
Turns out that there’s an awfully large amount of standing around during a so-called “march.” There will be speakers, often there’s music, but there’s really just plenty of plain old standing still waiting for something to happen. For some parents, this probably a deal breaker. For us, we’ve found taking plenty of snacks and water buys us some time.
In terms of entertainment, we like to carry our art supplies with us so they can make their own signs to go with everyone else’s. I sometimes take our old camera or phone so the girls can take turns “documenting” the event. We also take time to look around us to admire what everyone’s wearing or we enjoying dancing to whatever music is happening. Finally, a good old-fashioned game of “I Spy” takes on a whole new feel when you’re in a crowd of passionate people.
Protest safely by making a plan.
When the kids were little, we were religious about their nap schedule. That same instinct has carried over to us planning mostly for events or marches that happen during the daylight hours. We’ve attended a few candlelight vigils, a few evening protest meetings, but have generally found the daytime events are more meaningful for us as a family.
We think about the crowds before we go, too. Have you ever lost your kiddo in a grocery store?
I’m betting I’m not the only one to have experienced that panicky, stomach-clenching sensation upon turning to say something to my kid only to realize she’s not there. It only had to happen once for us to come up with “The Plan” for if they get lost. This strategy is doubly true for places we go with a crowd. From Disney World, to sporting events, to protest marches, we review “The Plan” with the kids for what to do if we get separated.
We talk with the kids about who to approach (a police officer, store clerk, or another mom with a stroller), what to say (“Can you call my mom?”), where to stand (“See that statue/water fountain/funny doorway? Go there and wait for me…”) if we’re separated for any reason. We rehearse our phone number and our last names with them (Quick tip: try setting both to a tune!) and when they were really little, we’d go as far as to write our phone number on their arm in permanent marker.
I used to laugh at the pictures of my brother, my cousins, and me all wearing matching shirts that my mom had made us on vacations. These days, I recognize the wisdom of putting your kids in brightly colored, matching shirts when you plan on being in a crowd. In a moving crowd, I’ve been especially thankful for the girls’ matching purple jackets. I’m sure they’ll laugh at their pictures someday, too.
We also develop a plan for how long we’ll march or how long we’ll stay at a protest. For longer marches, we’ve taken a stroller or the girls’ scooters with us for them to ride. It’s a good idea to check the weather to make sure you have the right clothing and gear for extended periods outside. My husband and I make sure we have a good sense of the protest route and our transportation options, just in case we need to leave with the kids early.
We also trust our gut.
This hasn’t happened to us yet, but I know that if the crowd doesn’t feel right, if we don’t see other families (see above), we won’t stay. One or both of us will leave with the children, knowing there will be other opportunities to protest ahead.
Marching isn’t easy. This is one reason why I think my girls appreciate doing it; they recognize that they’re contributing to something serious. My eldest at 10 is starting to recognize that we cannot sit idly by and wait for someone else to solve the world’s problems. We also cannot let these problems overwhelm or scare us into feeling hopeless. So when we march, the girls like to negotiate for a celebratory ice-cream or hot chocolate afterward. Having taken the time to speak up for what we believe in, we take the time to revel, just a little, in our power to protest.
Children’s Protest Literature Did you notice that Click, Clack, Moo was a protest book? Check these out and more!
I Took My Kids to the Protest– Another protester’s rationale for taking her kids to a protest
Talking to Children about Racism, Police Brutality and Protest– Here, a clinical psychologist gives advice about at which age children are ready to talk about scary but important topics.
Very thoughtful and insightful for folks who haven’t marched for a cause to date. Reminds me that a few can affect the masses by peaceful means.
Thanks Mary Beth.