“Let them be little”—it’s a hashtag I use on Instagram often enough, and it’s a sentiment I hear on Facebook. But when a friend wrote this in response to a post I’d written about involving my kids in the resistance against injustice, my gut told me, no. Sheltering children from reality at any cost doesn’t do them any good, and it is a mark of white privilege.
After all, parents of color can’t “let them be little” when it comes to teaching their kids how to deal with a police officer so they don’t end up shot. Undocumented parents can’t “let them be little” when it comes to preparing their American-born children in case parents are detained or deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or police.
We live in a time where raising children to grow up and create the world we value is more important than ever. For me, that means raising socially conscious, compassionate and strong citizens.
The good and bad of “Let them be little”
“Let them be little”: I agree in many ways. My kids play and enjoy their tiny age. Their time is mostly unscheduled, giving them the freedom to wander a trail and spend an entire afternoon building a “nest” in the living room with every piece of clothing and pillow we own.
On its face, “let them be little” sounds like wonderful parenting. It’s protecting children from the pressures to grow up too fast and to take on more than their little shoulders can bear.
But “let them be little” shouldn’t be a cute refrain that justifies keeping our kids in a bubble.
My children—who are white, who live in an affluent area, who have educated and involved parents—have the privilege of not “needing” to be aware of the complicated issues facing our country and communities. Many African American children have to learn hard lessons about how to act when a police officer stops them or someone they’re with. Children of undocumented immigrants have to learn hard lessons about what to do if they come home to find out their parents have been arrested for coming to this country without papers. Children of same-sex parents have to learn the hard lessons about enduring hate because their parents do not fit a description of what love “should” look like.
If only we could let those children be little, too.
Balancing reality with the pursuit of justice
Pushing back against the “let them be little” refrain is scary. It’s hard to be honest with my kids about the injustices of the world, from homelessness to hunger. I want them to feel safe and secure.
I also face criticisms from other parents. They tell me I’m exposing Kiwi and Peeper to issues that are too grown-up, that I’m brainwashing them, that I’m ruining their innocence.
I want my daughters to grow up with the confidence that they can change the world and help shape it into the even more wonderful place it could be. Even if they don’t understand all the issues, and they shouldn’t at their age, I want them to know that their voice has value. I want them to see me and others fighting for what we believe in.
How to empower children to work for justice
We must be honest with our kids. Pretending won’t solve problems. And silence around tricky topics only teaches our children that they can’t ask us about thorny issues.
We must make activism relevant. A two-year-old won’t understand petitioning her congressperson to change a law, but she does understand giving her toys to children who don’t have any.
We must make social justice part of everyday conversation. When I roll down my window to give a spare wool cap or a baggie of snacks to someone experiencing homelessness, I talk to the girls about it. When Peeper asks if people really go to jail, I am honest with her. When we go to the grocery store, I express gratitude that we have enough money to buy ourselves food and a store nearby that stocks healthy ingredients for our meals.
We must cultivate compassion. Children who care about others and appreciate, not vilify, differences will grow into adults who will make a better world. Kids can invite a lonely classmate to play, carry a struggling worm to a soft patch of grass and apologize when they hurt someone’s feelings.
Finally, we must provide opportunities for our children to make a difference. One friend’s kids started a blanket and warm clothing drive for the homeless, but children’s action doesn’t have to be that involved. Your kids can craft cards for senior citizens, select school supplies for a new refugee arrival, paint a sign to welcome immigrants or help prepare a meal for families at a homeless shelter.
That way, we can “let them be little” and let them be powerful.