Family

Kid Activists Aren’t Political Pawns

Civically engaged youths are essential to a healthier public discourse—and possibly an antidote to violent extremism.

A kid sits on his father's shoulders and yells into a megaphone in the midst of a protest.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

The Kids is Slate’s science-based parenting column, assessing the latest research around children’s health, development, and well-being.

Hundreds of teens packed into Cathedral Square in Christchurch, New Zealand, to protest for action on climate change at 1 p.m. on March 15. One mile away and 40 minutes later, a 28-year-old far-right extremist began to open fire at the Al Noor Mosque. The two events at the same time in the same small city couldn’t seem more distantly related.

Really, though, they may be two sides of the same coin. Political activism and civic engagement provide teens and young adults with a sense of inclusion, purpose, and self-identity at a crucial time in their lives. Extremist ideologies, though different in almost every other way, fulfill the same needs.

Let me back up in order to unpack that idea. A few months ago, because youth radicalization seemed to be increasing, I began digging into the research on how and why young people get radicalized. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 50 extremist-related murders took place in the U.S. in 2018, a 35 percent increase from 2017. The shooter who attacked the Christchurch mosques (I am deliberately not going to name any perpetrators) as well as the men who terrorized Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, were all extremists (most of them white supremacists)—as was the man who rammed his vehicle into Charlottesville protesters in August 2017, and the New York City truck driver who killed eight people in October 2017 in the name of a jihadi militant group.

These perpetrators all have different backstories, but a key characteristic shared by many violent extremists is that they felt isolated, alienated, and hopeless about the future before they turned radical. The Christchurch shooter had “computers as his best friends.” The Parkland shooter’s neighbor described him as “ostracized.” A classmate of the Newtown shooter said, “I never saw him with anyone.” Certainly other factors contributed to their decisions to commit mass murder, but loneliness played a fundamental role.

Child development theory helps to explain why. Social alienation is hard no matter what, but during adolescence it is particularly painful and meaningful because teens desperately feel a need to belong. (This is why teen’s social lives—when they have social lives—typically take precedence over everything else.) Also, during the teen years, kids develop a strong and stable sense of self. “They’re figuring out who they are in the world,” says Nancy Deutsch, director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education’s Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, known as Youth-Nex. Teenagers are, in effect, hunting for causes to care about and latching onto immutable ideas about themselves—I am this kind of person, or I am someone who believes in that.

The teens at Cathedral Square on March 15 were defining and expressing themselves as people who cared about the planet and wanted to save it. This was their collective self-identity, and it was one that also gave them a sense of membership, as they were literally surrounded by like-minded others. The shooter defined himself that day too, but as someone who committed mass murder to support a hateful ideology—which would also grant him acceptance among others who shared it. “A sense of meaning and belonging is a big thing, especially for young kids who are competing in a marketplace of popularity,” explained national security and counterterrorism expert Mubin Shaikh at a global summit on homegrown radicalization at the University of Southern California in November 2017. Kids are always “chasing after this sense of validation, and unfortunately, if they don’t find it in their normal peer networks, they’ll look for it somewhere else.”

Former extremists agree. “In the skinhead neo-Nazi movement, I found power where I’d felt powerless, I found acceptance when I’d felt invisible, and that’s what drove my decision-making,” said former white supremacist Tony McAleer, co-founder of the nonprofit Life After Hate, at the 2017 USC summit. Angela King, another Life After Hate co-founder, said that before she became a skinhead, “I really struggled with my self-identity.”

There is good news in all of this, which is that parents and teachers can steer kids in the right direction by helping them find the right kind of purpose and inclusion. One obvious way to do this is to encourage kids to be civically engaged. I’m not saying that if a teen becomes a terrorist, it’s his parents’ fault for not dragging him along to political rallies. But by giving kids the opportunity to participate in civil discourse and find nonviolent causes they care about, we may be able to prevent them from searching for the same experiences in dangerous places. Like online: One of the reasons YouTube is so worrisome is because loner kids often spend tons of time on the site, and YouTube’s recommendation algorithm—the box that says “Up Next” when you’re watching a video—has been skewed to present extremist content, although the company said in January it was working to fix this problem. (The Christchurch shooter referred to controversial YouTube influencer PewDiePie right before his attack.)

What are the best ways for parents to encourage civic commitment? Well, for a start, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about politics with our kids. “My philosophy is that if you don’t give them information, they’ll get it from somewhere else,” says Celeste Lay, a political scientist at Tulane University. Case in point: My 7-year-old proudly told me the other day he had made up a song about “the wall” with his friends. The notion of a flippant second-grade song about President Donald Trump’s politically divisive project made me cringe, but I realized it was an opportunity for me to discover what he knew about the wall (which, turns out, wasn’t much) and to share information on the subject, including ideological considerations concerning immigrants’ rights and family separation. Talk to your kids about not just your politics but the values that underlie them too—why you stand for or against certain principles and why you agree or disagree with what politicians are doing.

Explain, too, the various ways Americans can use their political voice—by voting, protesting, writing emails and social media posts to elected officials, going to town hall meetings, and donating money. Or, better yet, show them by doing these things yourself. “Role modeling is so important,” Lay says. “If parents want their kids to be participatory and vote and engage with their elected officials, or maybe if they want their kids to grow up and protest—they should model that behavior.”

This is not to say that it’s a good idea to involve your kids in every political issue. You probably don’t want to drag your sensitive 8-year-old to an abortion rally or bring your kids into other situations that could get overwhelming, angry, or scary. Think, too, about whether they will actually be able to understand an issue’s nuances or whether they might get the wrong message—if they hear you say pot should be legalized, will they think it’s OK to start smoking it? Ultimately, it depends on the kid—their age, their temperament, their maturity level. Use your best judgment. And let them make their own choices too. Instead of pushing your kid to protest climate change or volunteer to help the cause you care about, discuss with them a handful of issues they might find engaging to help them discover where their passion lies. And find ways to infuse civic thinking into their daily lives. In his book The Opposite of Spoiled, Ron Lieber explained that his kids organize their allowance money by splitting it into Spend, Save, and Give jars—the money in the latter goes to institutions the kids care about.

Commentators and leaders should also stop shaming kids for having political voices, even when we think they’re too young or naïve to have them. Sen. Dianne Feinstein may not think the Green New Deal is realistic, but she could have found a way to share her concerns without basically telling the kids who approached her in February that they should be quiet and let her do her job. It’s important for adults to challenge kids to think clearly and critically, but we don’t want to make them feel impotent in the process. For that matter, if your kids harbor different political opinions than you do, don’t automatically shoot them down. Instead, engage with them to understand why they feel the way they do and share how and why you feel the way you do.
This information-sharing exercise will, if nothing else, teach your kids how to argue more effectively. Eventually, they might change their minds—or, perhaps, you will.

We should stop referring to civically engaged kids as “political pawns,” too, which many people and organizations, including Slate, have done. Kids can have political agency. Our society treats children and teens as fragile beings who should be protected from reality. And while we certainly need to make kids feel safe and loved, “they’re part of what’s going on in society, they’re not separate,” says Katherina Payne, an education researcher who studies the civic lives of young children at the University of Texas–Austin. We should “make sure that all young people know that they have the right to be participants in society.”

Plus, even if kids participate in politics for the wrong reasons—because they’re being pressured or forced to, for instance—they will still likely benefit from the experience. In one study from 2007, researchers found that eighth-graders who had been involved in community service (either voluntarily or because it was required as part of a class) were nearly twice as likely to graduate from college as kids who were not. Granted, some of this association may not be causal—kids who have the means and interest for community service may be more likely to go to college for a number of reasons—but when the researchers separately analyzed the kids who participated as part of a class and not because they chose to, they found that they also fared better academically in subsequent years compared with kids who didn’t. Other studies have linked civic engagement in adolescence with higher income and better mental health as adults. And among urban minority adolescents, studies have shown that not only is civic engagement associated with higher educational attainment, but it is also tied to fewer arrests in early adulthood and greater life satisfaction. When you’re engaged in these kinds of pro-social, larger-than-yourself activities as a teen, it “becomes incorporated or internalized into your view of yourself as a moral, caring kind of person,” says Joan Grusec, a psychologist at the University of Toronto.

Of course, it’s possible for parents’ civic nudging to backfire down the line, at least in certain ways. A 2014 study reported, for instance, that kids who grow up in highly politicized homes are more likely to change their political views (and thus diverge from their parents’ views) in early adulthood than kids who don’t. That’s because, the researchers argue, kids who are primed to think politically are then more receptive and attentive to political information as adults—information that might incite them to change their views.

But this isn’t really a downside, is it? Because what the findings suggest is that involving kids in politics makes them more politically engaged as adults—there’s no evidence to suggest that political engagement in childhood backfires to make kids less engaged down the line. Yes, by bringing politics into your family discussions, you might run the risk of raising kids who will later challenge you. But that’s not because they are rejecting you or politics; it’s because you’ve raised them to be political thinkers too.

And let’s not forget that sometimes kids really do have a lasting political impact. The civil rights movement involved many student activists, including the nine black students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School and the four freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University who staged a lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1965, high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands and were suspended for doing so, which ultimately led to a Supreme Court ruling that upheld students’ First Amendment rights. Youth participated in the Arab Spring protests too, and in the United States, teens have been key drivers of the Black Lives Matter and gun control movements.

In many ways, teens and young adults are uniquely suited to lead social movements, because they are at a point in their lives when they are primed to take risks. “It’s no surprise to me that young people are often at the forefront of social change movements,” Deutsch says. “We tend to position adolescent risk-taking as a negative thing—it leading to fast driving, drug use, and drinking—but that same neurological system in the brain that contributes to negative risk-taking can also contribute to positive risk-taking.”

Most of the time, kids aren’t going to change the world or have a mature understanding of American politics—my son’s wall jingle is evidence of that. But sometimes they will understand just enough, and perhaps more than the average American. And regardless, they’ll grow into more knowledgeable and confident adults for having participated in their society. Plus, by inviting kids into the world of politics and showing them that everyone has a civic voice, we may help stamp out radicalism and extremist violence in the next generation.