Political engagement in the form of protests, community activism, or letter-writing campaigns seems like part of the adult world, but some parents — an increasing number in this period of political turbulence — buck that notion and bring their kids along for both political and non-political reasons (including not having a babysitter). Many parents believe that these experiences will help their kids learn the power of their voices in a rapidly changing world.
Fatherly talked to seven fathers about why they have taken their kids to protests through their childhoods, and what values they hope to pass on to their children.
Jeff Strauss, Cook, Writer, Producer, Los Angeles, California
Protests Attended With Kids: Pre-Iraq Invasion Protests
The first protests I took my daughter to were the Iraq war pre-invasion Marches in L.A. in February of 2003. In fact, while I might have gone on my own anyway — I had protested the Gulf War in 1990 — in many ways, my daughter’s very existence and awareness of her world were major motivators. I wanted her to understand, and see in action, the importance of participating in our democracy by speaking up and speaking out. I wanted her to see the breadth of faces and feel the energy of what turned out to be tens-of-thousands of people who felt the way we did — to know that she/we were not alone. As a writer and a parent and a believer in democracy, I wanted her to witness peaceful resistance. I also wanted to point out to her some of the ways of staying safe at protests, about who might cause problems on either side — police or protesters — and how to watch for places and situations that might put her safety at risk. Also, she was already a socially-engaged kid — she had led (with the tiniest of nudges from me) a large group of her elementary school classmates and teachers participating the L.A. AIDS Walk. I wanted her to know that the first amendment protections were not essentially about things like porn, but were actually about the people’s right to oppose the actions of their leadership. I wanted her to know that our responsibility to participate as citizens in this democracy actually only begins with the vote — and that if we do not speak for ourselves, others who we may not agree with will speak for us.
Matthew Rohrer, Poet, New York, New York
Protests Attended With Kids: BLM Marches, Women’s March
When Eric Garner was murdered by cops on Staten Island, we took our kids to a big march that began in Washington Square Park and went uptown. It was extremely emotional and everyone was shouting “I CAN’T BREATHE,” which the kids did too. There were a lot of families there, and we had explained what happened to Eric Garner and the thing is, kids understand things like ‘killing people is wrong.’ It was obvious to them that everyone would be mad.
Not long after that, my wife was walking with my daughter, and when a cop car drove by, my daughter flipped them off. The cops were turning a corner and slowed and stared incredulously, then drove off. My wife was mortified. “Daddy does it all the time,” my daughter said. There was a period after Eric Garner’s murder that fall when he, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and Tamir Rice were all murdered by cops and I was walking around the city in an absolute rage, and apparently flipping off the cops more than I remembered. We had to have a little talk with her about that, and my behavior had to change too.
I guess part of their awareness comes from seeing how seriously my wife and I take politics, and the discussion of it, and political action. But there’s another part of me that knows it’s just where and how they are growing up: in Brooklyn, in diverse schools, surrounded by different people every day. When he was very young, my son asked me who Martin Luther King Jr. was and when I told him the story, he seemed incredulous he’d been murdered for demanding equality. “Duh, everyone looks different,” is what he said. I like to think I’ve had something to do with my kids’ political awareness and their general acceptance and tolerance, but I also know that lots of what’s wrong with fascist America is they never see anyone who doesn’t look like them or pray like them. They deride an alleged “East Coast Bubble” but I grew up in Oklahoma and THAT is a fucking bubble of white, frightened Protestant sameness. Brooklyn is filled with everyone you can imagine.
Andry Kryza, Writer, Portland, Oregon
Protests Attended With Kids: Women’s March in PDX
My wife and I are not overtly political people. We have very strong views, but we don’t typically engage in public activism. We just thought there was an urgency to set an example for our daughter during the Women’s March.
We took public transit to get there, and there was a guy on the platform who was shouting at the women, which was very crazy. The whole reason we wanted to take her there was to show her you can silence people like that, through your presence and your being with other people. She’s not going to remember this, but we thought it was important for her to have the experience. I wanted to make sure I was there with her, her mother, and all of the women in her life and that she knew that there were people that wouldn’t take this kind of shit. It was a unifying thing, to get her to get to bond with some of the people that she doesn’t usually see outside of her house.
We sat her down before and we told her that the reason we were going was to show her that she was strong and that she had a voice and that she wasn’t alone, and if she was feeling sad, or scared, that she had other people. And then we had a chat with her afterward. Because the crowds had swelled to the point where public transit was getting shut down, and that’s what we took, we ended up taking about a 3-mile walk home in the rain. We talked the whole way there, and she was chanting what we had taught her. She was saying, “I am powerful, I am beautiful, you are powerful, you are beautiful,” the whole time. We would consistently sit down with her and say, this is why we did this, this is to show you that you have a voice, that your voice is stronger than a bully’s voice. She doesn’t even know what a bully is! But it’s important to tell her that a little bit at a young age because, although hopefully this doesn’t happen again, if it does, she needs to know.
Daniel Sagan, Professor, Montpelier, Vermont
Protests Attended With Kids: Local “Gunsense” Rallies, Climate March
No one ever says, “Figure out what your values are as a family, and then see if you can live by your values, if you can use your values to inform family decisions.” A lot of people don’t talk about what their values are. In the context of parenting, that’s thinking hard about what your values are and then making sure that you’re communicating those values in a way that makes logical sense to the kids. If you say one thing and do the other, they’re gonna be like, “You’re such a hypocrite.” If you create too high an expectation, they’re gonna think you’re just living in a fantasy world. But if I say, “These are the 10 things that we do because we care about this and that, and this is what we’re doing,” then they’ll pick those values up. We have values in the family that aren’t about politics about all, they’re about art, and architecture. The girls don’t get to choose what we do on vacation. We go and show them art and architecture. And they always give us a hard time about it, but we say, “No, these are our values. And when you’re with us, this is what you’re going to do.”
We’re cultivating in them the idea of public forums and direct democracy. We live in a very political town. Calling your senators, and writing postcards, and going to the state house, you kind of take it for granted that that’s what you do, because you live in a democracy.
I have two daughters and we’ve been discussing sexist bias since they were three years old. Everything is political in our household. They are always challenging us to do more. My daughter now has this idea that she’s gonna make choirs out of refugees in Germany. They have a very political sense of the world. They also have a strong sense of social justice. They think we’re slackers, that we don’t get arrested enough. We participate in the mainstream democracy that’s available to us. We’re not radicals. We just definitely see the world through a political lens.
Dave Plihal, Art Director, Silver Springs, Maryland
Protests Attended With Kids: Free speech rallies, Women’s March on DC
They all bought into it wholesale, so it’s not as if I persuaded them. They didn’t persuade me either. They were going to go regardless of whether or not I attended. I think as a family, my wife has the exact same values as I do, and so unless your kids are really, really independent, they’re gonna believe in what you believe in. They see me reading the paper every day. And we’re always talking about the news. We never left them out of that conversation. And then after a while, they felt comfortable enough to actually initiate the conversation. So we were just always like that. When you meet somebody, you have common bonds. What I liked about my wife was that she was always thinking about things and I was too. Among other things, it was a point of mutual reference, mutual common beliefs.
Things change. In our case, things never changed that much. With all that said, as long as you make sense and can defend your beliefs, if any of my kids turned out differently, conservative, Republican, whatever, that’s their choice. It’s not like they would have been excommunicated.
I don’t worry about my kids when they go to protests without me. It makes me profoundly proud. They do what they do, man. I’m not worried about it.
Zach Hunter, Author and Human Rights Activist, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Protests Attended With Kids: Women’s March in D.C., Interfaith Rallies in Philadelphia, Protests against Muslim Ban
Eventually, our kid was going to grow up, and learn about what’s happening now in America and in the world in her history classes, and she’d ask us what we were doing at the time. We felt like we had to do something, and this was a really good place to start. We dug into the history of protest in America and read a couple pieces on why parents should make sure that their kids see and participate in activism and protest in general to make that normal. I want that to be normal for our kid, and maybe kids plural, someday. It’s really important to normalize the power of our voices, to help her feel that her voice matters, to set an example that this is what we do as a family.
I think now more than ever we’re seeing a lot of other people, young white Christian families, starting to see protest as a viable part of living out their faith but also living out part of the community activism. They’re not viewing themselves as the problem solvers but taking a supporting role.
We’ve talked a lot about how to talk to our daughter about political issues that will affect her. We haven’t quite had to cross that bridge yet, but I think we will very soon. In her future, we will definitely start talking to her from the standpoint of safety. It’s awful that she is going to have to be more aware of her surroundings and her safety than potentially a male child might have to be. That’s something that most parents will shield their kids from, but in order to make positive change, we can’t really afford to. If we end up having a son, we will make sure that he knows he’s solely responsible for his actions.
Joseph Lang, Attorney, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Protests Attended With Kids: Occupy Rallies, Tulsa Protests Following the shooting of Terence Crutcher
In St. Louis, where we were living at the time, protesters began “occupying” Kiener Plaza, downtown. I wanted my son to be a part of that moment in some way, so that, as he grew older, I could tell him that he marched in solidarity with the “99%” — that his dad didn’t sit idly by while others demanded the rights he might one day inherit.
More recently, my son and I attended a “prayer rally” at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, here in Tulsa. In 2016, Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by an officer while his hands were in the air. The officer involved in the shooting was charged with manslaughter, and during the week of her trial, members of Terence’s family and faith community held a rally at the Jazz Hall of Fame, praying for long-awaited vindication for his untimely death. My son and I are not particularly religious, but I wanted my son to witness one of the most iconic civil rights figures of our time speak in such an intimate, historically relevant setting. What was most special, for me, is being one of the few Caucasians in attendance. My son and I will never know what it is like to be a racial minority, but being surrounded by minorities as they prayed for justice is, perhaps, as close as I will ever come to understanding the constant sense of loss that comes with being an African American. As we left the rally, my son and I talked about slavery, why Terence was killed, racism, and how racism is manifested in ways in which we’re not always aware.
To be sure, the events we attend hew to the left. Yet, strictly speaking, they are not political because they do not share an intractable political affiliation. The rallies, demonstrations, and protests we’ve attended center on particular social issues, such as poverty, racial inequality, or workers’ rights.
At bottom, bringing my son to protests has never been about indoctrinating a particular political ideology; it’s about teaching him to be an engaged and thoughtful citizen. The philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil”—that is, the idea that evil arises from thoughtlessness, not from inherently evil people. By those lights, the political affiliations my son forms throughout his life are relatively immaterial. I hope that he will always be guided by empathy for the powerless, but ultimately, my benchmark for success is whether I have fostered in him an unflinching desire to challenge his ideological allegiances and to question the wisdom of those in power.