In the 2020s, knowing how to help young activists might just become a prerequisite to parenting.
If it seems like all the ~kids today~ are becoming activists, you’re not wrong: The 2010s saw a promising spurt of youth-led activism, from Malala Yousafzai’s trailblazing advocacy for girls’ education to the young people leading climate strikes and gun control protests in the latter half of the decade. It’s been clear for a while now: In activism, young people are paving the path ahead.
It’s not always smooth sailing, though. Despite their centrality in social change, young people trying to enact progress through activist efforts may meet hostility, condescension, and sometimes (at least when the president is involved) outright ridicule.
That’s where you come in. With proper support from the adults in their lives, young people can make their activism all the more productive, Dr. Jessica Taft, a Latin American and Latino studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who focuses on youth activism, said.
To understand how to support youth activists (without stepping on toes), we talked to Taft, along with Alanna and LaWanna Miller. Alanna is a 19-year-old member of the advisory board for Students Demand Action, the student arm of the gun safety organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, while her mother, LaWanna, is a volunteer with the Texas chapter of its parental counterpart, Moms Demand Action.
Taft’s research focuses primarily on youth between the ages 10 and 18, and the advice here can apply to any of the youth activists you know who fall within that age range. But, Taft maintains, there’s not necessarily some universal age at which young people should start getting involved in activism. (Just ask Licypriya Kangujam, a 8-year-old climate activist forging a path entirely her own.) For younger kids, though, LaWanna suggests making sure they understand that others may disagree with them, in order to prepare for potential bullying or intimidation.
Parental discretion should be applied, though, when determining what kind of activism you personally feel comfortable allowing you kid to partake in. In some situations, parents might not feel comfortable allowing their kids to participate in public events, like protests. If that’s the case, LaWanna suggests careful adult supervision if possible, as well as making attempts to assess the safety of the event prior to attendance.
Take youth seriously (and don’t patronize)
Taft notes that adults sometimes make false assumptions about the activism potential of children and youth. For instance, she says, adults sometimes hold the belief that when young people engage in activism, they’re merely “practicing” for future civic participation, and that their efforts won’t actually incite change. This isn’t true, Taft says. No matter their age, activism is activism, and all of it has the potential to make a difference.
“We tend to underestimate what 10-year-olds are capable of,” Taft said. “[Underestimating them] assumes that kids are not already thinking about these things. Young kids can have an incredibly nuanced understanding of inequality and the issues they’re engaging with.”
Additionally, Taft says that adults often fixate on the ages of young activists or post on social media with captions like “absolutely adorable” or “wow, so incredible.”
To counter this, Taft suggests that when you’re referencing their activism, refrain from using language that focuses on an activist’s youth, like reiterating their age, as well as words that (sometimes unknowingly) patronize, like “cute.” You probably wouldn’t use this language when talking about adults engaging in activism, Taft explains, and doing so with young people could discourage them by minimizing their work.
When discussing their activism, rather than giving your kid a congratulatory pat on the back for their young age and ending the conversation there, Taft encourages parents to engage with the meat of the discussion. For any cause that your kid is mobilizing around, talk to them about it in a way that encourages them to present and refine their own ideas. Ask them about technical, meaty stuff. In doing so, Taft says, you make it clear that you’re taking them seriously, while also helping them clarify their position for potential naysayers.
Ultimately, you know your kid best, Taft says. Some 10-year-olds might be really mature; some 16-year-olds might not be. Challenge your kid by talking to them at the level you know they’re capable of reaching.
When you do so, there’s also an added plus: You might learn something yourself in the process. When Alanna first started talking to her mom about her activism, which was first sparked when she planned a walkout at her school in support of gun control demands from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, her mom, LaWanna, felt like she had a lot to learn.
“I’m a full-time working mom,” LaWanna said. “I’m not always paying the closest attention to politics. [My kids] know way more about it than I do. They’ve done so much research. [Alanna] educates me.”
Offer the resources you have
Supportive and informative dinner table convos are just the start. To move words into action, Taft says it’s crucial to offer some of the “key resources” that adults might have (and that kids and teens often do not.)
To begin, there are two simple ones: money, and older friends. Adults may have financial and social resources that youth activists do not, Taft says. Where possible, you might be able to leverage your financial resources to help with fundraising efforts, or encourage other adults to do the same.
Leveraging your financial resources can mean motivating other adults to donate, since their spending power might be higher than that of young people, Taft says. Alanna’s mom did this for her by posting about Alanna’s fundraising efforts on her own Facebook, which allowed Alanna to reach a different audience.
If you, or those in your social circle, lack the financial resources to help with fundraising efforts, you can also provide social resources, like fellow parent volunteers. At volleyball tournaments, for example, Alanna’s mom helped organize voter registration drives, where adult volunteers meant more hands on deck.
Additionally, you can connect kids to institutional resources that might be otherwise unfamiliar or difficult to access as a young person, Taft says. This might mean helping the kids in your life figure out how to set up a meeting with a school official, or finding the right contact information to call their congressperson, and then helping them write a script.
“Part of what my mom helped me with was figuring out how the world works,” Alanna said. “When there’s a problem, she would help me figure out the right place to go to fix it.”
If you or anyone you know has time in their schedule, you might also be able to offer other forms of help too.
For Alanna, for example, going to the city council meetings that she wanted to attend would have been impossible without the help of parents in the Moms Demand Action chapter in her city. There was only one window to sign up to make a public comment — 8 a.m. to noon — when she was at school. She relied on parent power: Any time that Alanna needed to make a public comment, her mom would ask other parents in the organization to see who would be available to sign her up.
Finally, you can use your (relative!!) old age to the advantage of your kid’s activism. While they might not have first-hand access to all of the historical context for a particular issue (or memories of life before the internet), you probably do.
In this regard, it can be really helpful, Taft says, to let your kids know what other young people have done in the past. She maintains that doing so can inform their activism in the present. So, let’s say your middle-schooler is looking to organize a LGBTQ Pride Parade at their school. You might remember that the principal agreed to do something similar three years ago, but never followed up on the promise.
This extends beyond local happenings at school. A quick U.S. history lesson, whether on student protests of the Vietnam War or on the visionary tactics of Civil Rights leaders, can also go a long way especially for young people who might not have yet been exposed to this history at school.
While it might seem like some topics are too heavy for younger kids, Taft points out that some kids have been exposed to many of the horrors of the world, like racism and violence, at an incredibly young age. Accordingly, she maintains that there’s not a hard line on what age might make someone “too young” to engage with history: Just use your own discretion based on your kid.
Provide emotional support
Activism aside, being a young person is already tough enough.
“Remind young people that these things are hard, and that change is slow,” Taft said. “It’s important to remind them that other young people in the past felt discouraged and disheartened, but we wouldn’t have what we have today without their struggles.”
Taft says that doing so can make young people even more confident about their ability to accomplish something with their activist efforts.
You can also back up young people by helping them practice for more nerve-wracking activist endeavors. For example, whenever Alanna was preparing for a city council or school board meeting, she would practice her speeches the night before in front of her mom.
“She was my little audience, and it gave me more confidence for the real thing,” Alanna said.
Taft also encourages parents to acknowledge that because activism is such exhausting work, their kids should prioritize self-care. Because self-care methods are going to look different for every young person, regardless of age, Taft suggests taking cues from your kid to determine how to help them. In LaWanna’s experience, she found that having her daughter belong to a larger group (in her case, Everytown for Gun Safety) helped her provide support since the organization already had experience addressing the needs of young people.
There’s also an added level of urgency to this if your kid happens to achieve any kind of visibility online. If this is the case, and your kid is especially young, Taft suggests acting as a filter, either deleting or reporting harmful content as it comes up. For older youth activists, Taft says they might be able to do this kind of monitoring on their own. In general, she recommends using the same age-based discretion that you would otherwise apply when allowing your kid to use social media. Throughout the process, the key is making clear that you’re there for your kid.
Respect their space
Finally, it’s helpful to remember the adage that unites all of teenage life: Parents are, like, SO embarrassing. This applies to activist endeavors as well. While you might feel like you can take all the credit, ultimately, Taft says, their activism belongs to them, and they might want some distance.
“You’re the scaffolding,” Taft said. “Teachers provide students with the tools to write an essay, but they don’t actually write the essay for them. Similarly, you’re providing them with resources and background information, but their vision is their own.”
You know your kid best, Taft maintains. You’re going to know how much or how little support they need in a given situation. Her and LaWanna recommend working together with your kid to find a healthy balance.
Taft also notes that there’s a tendency to assume that young people somehow lack the ability to form their own opinions and beliefs. (As Greta Thunberg said: “That’s basically all I hear.”) But as Alanna and her mom can confirm, that’s far from true.
LaWanna says that although adults sometimes underestimate young people, assuming they “know nothing” about the world due to their relative young age, parents in particular need to quickly learn how to honor their autonomy.
“You have to respect that they’re young adults,” LaWanna said. “Be prepared for them to have their own thoughts and opinions.”
Alanna backs her mom up here.
“It’s important to respect the autonomy of a youth activist. It was always my speech, and my stories, and she understood that,” Alanna said. “I’ve always been so grateful for finding a balance between respecting each other’s spaces, and being there for each other.”
There’s also the danger of the opposite problem occurring. Alanna, for example, wants parents (and everyone) to understand that no one should be sitting back and waiting for kids to solve the world’s problems. They should help out, like her mom did.
“When you say ‘you’re the ones to save us,’ it also kind of puts the whole world on our shoulders,” Alanna said. “It’s something everyone should be helping with. It’s not my generation that will save the world. Together we’ll save the world.”