Raising Kids Who Care

Cultivating your children’s social consciousness can spark a lifelong devotion to bettering the planet. It’s also one of the most powerful ways to build them a brighter future. We asked the experts to weigh in on what you can do to make social action a family affair, whether your children want to clean up nearby parks or stop injustice around the world.

Listen up

While some kids might boldly announce that they want to fight for animal rights or battle global warming, others may need some help in expressing their cares and concerns. “Parents need to grow a second pair of ears,” says Wendy Lesko, director of the Youth Activism Project (an organization that provides resources and training for young activists; www.youthactivism.com). “Often kids will put something out there that’s just a partial idea. But if parents sprinkle a little fertilizer on it, it can grow into something quite extraordinary.” To encourage your kids to share those partial ideas in the first place, turn everyday gatherings into forums for conversation. “There’s a lot that can happen over the dinner table,” says Dan Chiras, author of Ecokids: Raising Children Who Care for the Earth. To get a dialogue going, Chiras recommends bringing up a piece of news that might kindle your child’s interest. “You could say, ‘Hey, I read an article about an endangered species today,’ and then pair that with a discussion about what you as a family can do to help.”

Scavenge for ideas

Staying local is often the simplest way to begin. To find out what changes your community needs, take your kids out on a problem-spotting scavenger hunt. Armed with notepads and pens, walk around your neighborhood and ask the kids what they’d like to improve. “Don’t give them the answers,” advises Barbara A. Lewis, author of The Kid’s Guide to Social Action. “For instance, if you pass a vacant lot and see needles on the ground, say, ‘I just saw something really curious,’ and wait for them to identify what it was.” Back at home go over what you’ve found and key into which problems most resonate with your children. Then start to brainstorm ways they can make things better.

Put the kids in charge

Both in your brainstorming session and when you move into action, resist the urge to take control. “Parents often want to be in charge because they don’t want their children to fail,” says Lesko. “But if they step back and let the process take its time, then the young people will have an entirely different sense of accomplishment.” Still, parents should always serve as backup for their kids, especially when it comes to chaperoning trips to city hall or attending demonstrations. “When the kids are calling the shots and the parents are there as protectors, that’s when things really happen,” says Lewis.

Defend against disappointment

Once your children set out to make change, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll experience some degree of discouragement down the road. For that reason, Lewis recommends starting small and keeping clear of highly controversial issues. “You don’t want the kids to feel like they’re responsible for solving the world’s problems. Stick to things that are exciting for them.” A little behind-the-scenes work can also keep their spirits up. “When children call the statehouse, they’re going to have at least four transfers,” says Lewis. “By the time they get through to somebody, they might be ready to give up.” But if you call ahead to get a direct number and let the staff member who answers it know that a child will be phoning soon, the process should be less frustrating.

Build up your resources

Activist organizations can provide direct paths to getting involved with certain causes—or just offer inspiration for your children’s personal projects. “With every issue, there’s probably a minimum of five national groups,” says Lesko. “You and your children can visit the websites that are most relevant to their concerns, check out what they’re doing and compare the different activities and efforts.”

Walk the talk

As you’re working to foster social consciousness in your kids, remember to teach by example. “Children can spot hypocrisy a mile away,” warns Chiras. And if you’re already involved in activism, ask the kids if they’d like to join you. But don’t make it mandatory. “You don’t want to give them the sense that ‘if you don’t feel the same way as me, you’re bad,’” cautions Lesko. “There are so many problems to deal with and so many good ideas out there. Let your children know that whatever they care about is important.” Support them in their own endeavors and as they grow up, they, too, will be likely to practice what they preach. “Once kids get involved, they stay movers and shakers,” says Lesko. “Then, when they’re older and they see things they want to change, they’ve got the skills and they fly right into action.”

Success stories

Proof that kids can change the world, these superstars are sure to inspire your children to good deeds.

Freedom fighting

As a seventh grader, Zach Hunter discovered that millions of people the world over were enslaved. Determined to deliver freedom to slaves everywhere, Zach got together a group of classmates and raised $8,500 in just over a month—simply by collecting loose change from friends and family members. Now 15, Zach is author of the book Be the Change and head of Loose Change to Loosen Chains, an effort that’s generated more than $70,000 to free slaves worldwide.

Empowering through education

Dubbing their initiative School Girls Unite, 15 Maryland teens and preteens have helped provide scholarships to dozens of girls in Mali, a West African country where about two-thirds of females never attend school. The group, which first teamed up in 2004, regularly fundraises (by selling school supplies) and communicates with its Mali chapter about removing obstacles that limit access to education, such as forced labor and lack of qualified teachers.

Protecting the planet

After learning that Americans waste four million gallons of gas each day by driving on underinflated tires, Savannah Walters founded the fuel-conversation campaign Pump ’Em Up when she was only nine. Motivated by her desire to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, Savannah, now 14, and her volunteers promote her cause by giving drivers across the country free tire gauges, donated by Firestone and other manufacturers.