Particularly in these difficult times, we often use our children as reasons to avoid getting involved in critical issues. We’ve got all we can handle holding on to our jobs and spending a little time with them. We fear political commitments will make their lives more insecure. Especially when they’re young, it may be all we can do just to go to work, come home, pay attention to their needs, and catch a few scarce hours of sleep. Yet when we do find ways to get engaged, our children can give us powerful reasons to act.
It’s understandable that we’d want to shelter our children. We want to protect them from the ills of the world. We’d rather they focus on simple childhood pleasures than the Gulf oil spill or global climate change. It’s awkward to explain war, fear, greed, and all the shadows that hang over their future. However we handle the time constraints, raising children can make us more cautious. They may also lead us to shy away from public controversies that might risk our jobs, or to move to more costly neighborhoods with better schools. We want to give them comfort and security even if this means subordinating other values.
Yet as Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman puts it, protecting our own children “does not end in our kitchen or at our front door or with narrow attention just to [their] personal needs.” Writing to her own sons, she says, “You must walk the streets with other people’s children and attend schools with other people’s children. You breathe polluted air and eat polluted food like millions of other children and are threatened by pesticides and chemicals and toxic waste like everybody’s children. Drunken drivers and crack addicts on the streets are a menace to every American child. So are violent television shows and movies and incessant advertising and cultural signals that hawk profligate consumption and excessive violence and tell you slick is real. It is too easy and unrealistic to say these forces can be tuned out just by individual parental vigilance.” If we want our children to lead generous-spirited lives, we need to give them ideals to inspire them.
Collaborative approaches can help: When my wife Rebecca was pregnant with my stepson Will, she approached another pregnant woman in her apartment building and initiated a baby-sitting co-op that quickly spread to 20 families. The group soon became a close-knit extended support system, watching each other’s children daily, holding a weekly play group, volunteering together at a local community help line, and sharing emotional support. If we want to attract parents to our political movements, we’d do well to create similar networks or find other ways for people to bring their children along.