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5 Things Parents Can Do When The World Is Burning Down

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It seems like each time we blink, there's more horror to contend with: natural disasters inflicting chaos and devastation (and the inadequate government response that typically follows), despicable hate crimes, neo-Nazi violence, and atrocious mass shootings, one after another after another. With this terror all around us, it's only natural that our minds focus on all that is wrong in this country and how impossible change can feel. But it is not impossible. There are things parents can do in the wake of tragedy to ensure that we push the country in a positive direction.

It's often hard to stomach the America we’re leaving to our children. We’re a nation littered with racial and social groups still fighting for equality of life and basic rights. Our government is run largely by multi-billion dollar special interest lobbies (think: guns, tobacco, big agriculture, big finance, coal). Our supposed leaders continue to fail in taking actionable steps to even begin to protect, or heal, our divided country. We’re surrounded by despair, and some days, it’s hard to not be overtaken by it.

Despair is characterized by inaction, and inaction will not make you feel better.

We can't deny what this country is lacking. There is, clearly, a mountain of crucial work to be done. Today, as on so many days, we are mourning the loss of children's lives — this time in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Despair comes easily. But as citizens and, especially, as parents, we can't afford to wallow, because despair doesn't accomplish anything. Despair is characterized by inaction, and inaction will not make you feel better. Doing something, like making small changes in our own worlds, helps us cope with the weight on our shoulders by creating opportunities for success and joy. Our children take their cues from us; when they see us act, they'll know that the power to create change is within their reach.

By consciously remembering the goodness of our nation at its root, and resisting hopelessness, we give our babies a chance at something better. We can choose to take steps that reflect America's oldest and most genuine belief — that everyone is created equal, and everyone is entitled to the pursuit of happiness.

Here are five concrete ways to do that:

Give.

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Give to reputable local or national organizations that provide aid on the ground during natural disasters or violence relief (and, do your research so you know exactly what your donations will benefit). Experts agree that cash is best in these situations (goods can be difficult to store and distribute), and no donation is too small. If there's a call for blood in your area following a terrorist event or other disaster, go donate.

On a more macro level, give to the ideals you want to see realized. Support your local district’s arts or physical education programs by giving money, supplies, or your time. Call a public school and pay off a student’s outstanding lunch balance. Hell, buy someone coffee, lunch, or gas, and do it in front of your children.

Give to others consistently, in any way you can and without expectation of anything in return, and watch your kids grow up to believe that this is how people behave in our society.

Teach.

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Teach your children how and why to be kind, compassionate, and empathetic. Push them to think outside of themselves. Develop your children's worldview, and make it one that encourages consideration for all places, people, things, and animals they come across (and those they don’t).

Instead of downplaying kids' fluctuating feelings and tantrums, acknowledge the validity of their emotions and help them work through it. Elaborate on the complexity of certain feelings, like the intensity of anger, jealously, and frustration. More importantly, show your children how to manage emotions in an appropriate and constructive way.

This country has been nicked by mistakes and conflict, but it’s made of ambition, determination, and gutting vulnerability.

Give them creative outlets as a means of expression, and surround them with books and music and art, not as a distraction, but because art allows us to see ourselves, and others, at the same time. Not only do we find personal meaning in art, but it's often through relation to the piece that we truly begin to understand how others live, and what they live through.

Begin to teach your children the concept of self-validation — to be aware of what they feel, think, and know, and to trust themselves through all of those emotions. Give them the tools to be strong enough to stand up for themselves and for others. Taking a principled stance that goes against the tide can be difficult — it goes against our instinct to go along with others, to appease — so it’s best to start now.

Talk.

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Have real, open-ended conversations with your kids about hate, ignorance, and injustice based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and other prevailing biases. Be candid about your own prejudices, and talk about the missteps you took as you grew into the person you are. Be clear that personal growth is constant — that it's important to never stop learning or evolving.

At its core, the United States is the realization of the improbable idea that millions of different people from every walk of life can live in one place in relative peace.

Talk about the realities of how our nation was founded, what came before us, and what we want to come after us. Explain our Constitution, The Bill of Rights, and why every person deserves the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Talk about civic responsibility, and what it means to be a citizen — how we’re all meant to be productive, responsible, caring, and contributing members of society. Hold yourself to that standard, and let your kids see you do it.

Show.

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Stories of courage, perseverance, and unity are everywhere. Though they're sometimes not as dramatic as the latest Twitter firestorms, they do exist in spades. America is built on stories of people helping people, neighbors picking each other up, strangers coming to the rescue of complete and total strangers. In the face of unspeakable evil and contempt, good is always present, and that’s what we need to hold close to ourselves and, especially, to our kids.

"Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” Fred Rogers wrote in the Mister Rogers Parenting Book. Show your children to look beyond destruction and devastation, and find the helpers.

Act.

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Call your representatives in Congress; talking about civic responsibility does nothing without demonstrating it. Demand change where change is needed, and let your children be a part of it.

Vote regularly, in national elections and also local ones. Study candidates with your kids, disregarding party affiliation and instead focusing on policy plans and voting records. Compare and contrast the candidates’ views with your own, and explain to your children why you choose the candidates you do. At home, make sure your kids have a vote in family decisions, from what to make for dinner to where to go this weekend. Help them find dignity and grace in defeat, and show them how to strengthen their resolve in the face of loss. Help them hone their voice without making it sound exactly like yours.

There are limitless ways to volunteer your time or talents in your own neighborhood. Find opportunities that are important for your kids and your family, and make volunteering a habit. Whether it’s organizing drives and donations, canvassing for candidates, making/delivering meals, or training therapy dogs, there are impactful ways to make a difference in your own community.

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in America, because we still believe in its power on a day when everyone comes together. This country has been nicked by mistakes and conflict, but it’s made of ambition, determination, and gutting vulnerability.

Just like all of us.

At its core, the United States is the realization of the improbable idea that millions of different people from every walk of life can live in one place in relative peace. It's a seemingly farfetched concept that generations of people — many of them immigrants — have brought to fruition through constant striving. As every mass shooting, every act of hate or terror demonstrates, our union is far from perfect, but we pursue it nonetheless. And especially in the worst of times, we are bound to show our children how to do the same.

Want To Do More?

I want to donate blood (Red Cross).

I want to contact my local representative (House of Representatives).

I want to donate to gun violence prevention efforts (Everytown For Gun Safety).

I want to be a part of the effort to reduce gun violence (Coalition To Reduce Gun Violence).

I want to support clean water efforts (Clean Water Action).

I want to volunteer for tutoring, food banks, hospice care, and more (United Way).

I want to visit residents of a nursing home with my children (search "near me").

I want to donate to organizations that work to teach tolerance and fight for justice (Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, Council for American-Islamic Relations, NAACP).