Journey Niles at Pride in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Harmony Niles

The Tricky Politics Of A Radical Education For Little Kids

Should children be shielded from the political conversation, with its sometimes violent undertones, or do parents have a responsibility to teach their kids about politics? Madison Young explores both sides of the issue.

“Mama can we talk about something?” asked Cara Kelsey’s 6-year-old daughter, Aubrey, while they were sitting down for lunch in a sandwich shop.

Kelsey told her of course, and asked her daughter what she wanted to discuss.

“Civil rights.” Aubrey responded, taking a bite of her sandwich and looking to her mother for answers.

For Kelsey and her daughter, activism, freedom fighters, and civil rights are frequent topics of conversation. Kelsey is the co-director of Peace Out Loud, a direct action summer camp for kids.

“I believe in the value of using our power to help others and to help build up the people around us. I have used this belief as the foundation to talk about systemic oppression with Aubrey,” says Kelsey, who believes that it is important for her to instill a sense of community and solidarity in her 6-year-old.

But tackling politics, hate, and systematic oppression in conversation with our kids is not an easy task. It can can be terrifying and daunting, and some believe that children should not be a part of the political conversation.

I want them to have a full childhood, granted we are libertarian-leaning anarchists.

In Anthony Bourdain’s final interview with Maria Bustillos for Popula, he mocked civil rights activist Michael Skolnik for exactly that variety of woke parenting: “He’s been indoctrinating his son Mateo Ali — this poor kid is like, three — ’See honey? This is our homosexual friend, you know, it’s okayyy, you know, there’s two mommies! Mateo and I were in the demonstration today for Hillary Clinton.’ The kid’s f*cking four! It’s like, come on man, let the kid alone. Let him have a childhood!”

“I want them to have a full childhood, granted we are libertarian-leaning anarchists,” says Melanie Adams, a mom of three children under 10 years old, who doesn’t believe in burdening her kids with politics yet.

But whether or not parents indulge in face-to-face conversations, politics can creep into their lives, as when brands take a political side. Free to Be Kids, a children’s clothing line, recently came under fire after releasing a children's t-shirt reading “ We Should All Care” in response to First Lady Melania Trump wearing a Zara coat that read “ I really don’t care. Do u?” while on her way to visit a child migrant detention centre.

“I never could have foreseen that celebrating love and kindness would become a political position,” Courtney Hartman the CEO and creative director of Free to Be Kids tells Romper. “But here we are, living in a time when caring about others, seeing others as human, is polarizing. If love and kindness are controversial, we will take sides. And we will make no apologies.”

Primary, another children’s clothing line, came under similar backlash after featuring CJ, a gender non-conforming child, on Pride weekend on a social media post. People took issue with the company showing a political stance to align themselves with the LGBTQ community.

One mother commented on their social media post,” I was so happy to find this company but I won’t be purchasing from you again. Sad that we are pushing this lifestyle on our children.”

Another mother echoed this sentiment, writing, “It's so sad your company can't just be about making great clothes for kids instead of promoting your ideology and using kids as political tools.”

Their objections were not necessarily partisan — parents object to the idea that children be mired in the battles of their parents.

After all, when we scroll through our social media stream and gaze upon a daily barrage of violence and injustice in the world it can be overwhelming for even adults to take in. And we as parents, are presented with a conundrum, do we share our fear, our pain, news and politics with our children or keep it to ourselves?

Photo courtesy of Cara Kelsey

“The way I see it, Aubrey is already learning about racism and the hereto-normative patriarchy just by existing and if I am not combating that by having hard conversations, I am contributing to it,” says Kelsey, who also feels her daughter can sense when she is anxious about something and not being open about it.

San Francisco-based mother, Harmony Niles, talks of an “emotional cost” attached to both withholding her fears about the world from her daughter, and off-loading some of that weight to her child. She struggles like many parents between not wanting her daughter to feel left out or disconnected but also not wanting her to feel overwhelmed or anxious.

Moorea Malatt, a parenting coach at SavvyParentingSupport, is an advocate of involving children as young as 3, and tells Romper that children are able to process these difficult topics and emotions best through imaginative play.

When Malatt’s 3-year-old son wanted to know why she and her wife were we crying and repeatedly asked why they didn’t like the new president, Malatt tackled the challenging conversation regarding bigotry and bullying by likening the experience to a favorite saga her child likes, reminding him of the time the protagonist felt discouraged or worried. There are a wealth of books available to discuss niche political concerns and figureheads of the left and right with children, and offering a political education to children is nothing new.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood ran on TV from 1968 to 2001 and tackled political topics like the assassination of Bobbie Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Challenger tragedy, and 9/11. Rogers addressed these topics with honesty, play and storytelling, often using puppets, music and pretend play to address heavy topics and big emotions. Fred Rogers’ work is documented in the recently released documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? directed by Morgan Neville.

Tackling topics such as racism and hate strikes some parents as less a choice and more of a compulsory piece of their awareness and safety. In that case, how do experts suggest breaking downsystematic oppression, racist policing, or discriminatory laws?

Malatt suggests starting by asking questions, opening the dialogue with your child, strategizing with them and giving them agency. Malatt says that this starts with talking about the basics of equality. “State what you believe. Ask how they feel. Help them feel agency in participating to make things better.”

Let your children know you are worried about your family/friends/ people with brown skin, she suggests. Then ask them open questions like “What could we do to help make a kinder world?”

“The thing we always do is lay out the bad news and then sandwich it with the positive things like hope and community,” Reba Sparrow, a mother in Portland, Oregon tells Romper.”

For example, Sparrow says that when talking about the presidency she is quick to tell her son that even though things seem really bad, it's great that more people than ever are getting involved and trying to find out what they can do to make a difference.

“The empowering part is always asking him to define what he thinks we're talking about and to give us his opinions on it.”

I totally told Atticus about the migrant children.

Some parents also involve their children in their activism. For Niles, it is a part of her identity she wants to share with her daughter, but she suggests they leave protests when her daughter seems tired or bored. “Making signs is fun. She loves that part. I let her pick what the sign will say. If costumes are involved, even better.”

Niles wants her daughter to have real and personal memories of it. “I want her to be able to say later, ‘I’ve been protesting this sh*t since I was 4 years old!’ I want activism to be a core part of her identity. “

And of course children will ask questions about goings on of their own volition. Niles’ daughter asked about the treatment of immigrant children on the border. “I didn’t want her to worry about the children; I emphasized that they are going to be all right, and it is our duty to show that we care about this,” she says. “She’s only 6 and I am ‘editing’ issues to what I think she can handle well.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to leave out the most devastating part — about the children?” says Malatt. “It would be nice to try and avoid our children inferring and worrying about their own family togetherness, but I will not do this because immigrant families do not have this privilege. You can reassure your children that they won’t be separated from you, but here the open door to talk about privilege.”

“I totally told Atticus about the migrant children,” author Michelle Tea, who lives in Los Angeled, California, tells Romper. “He was asking why we don’t have 4th of July decorations on our house and it just led into a larger conversation.”

Tea says her son was upset — not scared but mad at the injustice. “I was a little worried that I’d told him, but then I’d always planned on bringing him to the protest and would have told him honestly what was happening.”

Photo courtesy of Cara Kelsey

While the more politically passive might view this as indoctrination, the literature on parents sharing their beliefs with their children has reached a curious finding: politically engaged children become politically active adults. However, “the children who are most likely to initially acquire the political views of their parents are also most likely to later abandon them as a result of their own engagement with the political world,” found the authors of a 2014 study in the British Journal of Political Science, cited by The Atlantic.

By extension, exposure to a range of viewpoints will let children find their own positions. Niles’ mother will go on long rants about Trump, she says, “ut when Journey asks me questions about Trump, I talk in the same way I would say there are no bad kids, just bad behavior. I say I disagree with what he’s doing and I would like it to be done differently.”

I feel like I’m privileged to get to decide whether or not to share this with my kid.

Parents also make a point to expose their children to people from different backgrounds. When we were at the Trans March, I mostly talked about how important it is to feel like you can be the person you want to be, and love the person you want to love. I talked about gender fluidity. I did not talk about the horrible oppression and violence that trans people have suffered. Which is an important part of the story that I’m leaving out for now.”

“It puts [a] much [greater] burden on our children to hide our feelings and refuse to give them real information while hoping to protect them,” says Malatt. “It is much more respectful to our children to let them in on what is going on and to see that we are processing our feelings in a healthy way and that we have plans to make things better. I want my children to grow up knowing that I have always spoken out against bigotry.”

For some parents, the choice comes down to whether or not you can afford to stay apolitical. “I feel like I’m privileged to get to decide whether or not to share this with my kid,” says Tea. “I think so much about kids [my son’s] age that don’t have the luxury of a period of innocence where cops are nice and the world is safe. I’m so grateful that his world is safe, but it’s crucial that he understands it’s not safe for everyone.”

What all the parents Romper spoke to shared was a belief that they were providing some sort of a foundation for their children, whether a safe space from which to explore the world, or an early taste of radical action.

My daughter will grow up to have her own opinions, and they may not align with mine,” says Niles. “She may look back on this as stupid things I made her do. She may even see it as a manipulative attempt to mold who she would become. And, yeah, that’s true. I’m OK with it.”