Why I Take My Kid With Me To Protests
And how I talk to her about the return of concentration camps
“Hey, hey, Donald J., how many kids will you cage today?” My daughter’s squeaky 4-year-old voice chants along as we march downtown with over 200 of our friends and neighbors for the worldwide Lights for Liberty protest.
She holds her hand-drawn FREE THOSE KIDS sign, which she planned and drew herself, me helping only to tell her how to spell the words.
When you’re feeling personally crushed just contemplating the state of the world — and I am — it’s hard to know how much to tell your kid. I don’t want her to feel afraid or experience depression.
And yet, kids like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg remind us, when given the facts, children become politically active well before they’re able to vote.
Children have a strong sense of justice — just try giving one of them a smaller cookie. The world hasn’t yet convinced them to give up fighting for what’s right, to accept inequality as just the way it is.
And that’s why kids can handle the truth, can handle going out to protests, why it’s good for them: they’re not yet jaded, so protesting feels productive. Whether or not we teach them about history and current events, they know the world isn’t fair, and protesting helps them feel like they’re doing something about it.
It’s crucial that the hard truths you teach them also come with opportunities for action. Action can come in many forms, and protesting — when safe — is a perfect action for young people to see they’re not alone, that lots of people care and are actively trying to better the world.
For me, a Jewish American with a NEVER AGAIN IS NOW sign, my hope is tempered by nihilistic impulses: “What’s even the point? The world is cruel, and there’s nothing we can do about it! Does a protest even make a difference?”
How many protests have I come to, and still, this is the world we’re living in?
My daughter, on the other hand, feels empowered, holding her sign alongside her parents and her young friends, with their own hand-drawn signs. The children believe they’re making a difference, and they’re not wrong.
With their earnestness, their kind hearts, and their natural desire to live long lives in a better world, our children get the cars driving by to stop, to take photos, to keep thinking about the issues, hopefully to donate to help migrant families. With this particular injustice — children in cages — our tiny protesters remind passersby not to turn away from the victims of US immigration policy.
My daughter joins two of her friends behind a baby gate with a sign on it: DON’T FENCE ME IN, with a heart. There are so many hearts on the children’s signs.
How do you talk to young kids about the return of concentration camps, about children separated from their families and imprisoned in squalid conditions?
Until this week, I’d avoided talking about the camps. We talk about immigration, with the help of great picture books like Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. We talk about historical and current institutionalized racism. And she knows our president is a racist bully who wants to literally build a wall.
But I hadn’t told her about the camps. Whenever NPR reported on it, I turned down the volume. It just felt like too much.
To prepare for this protest, I reached out to friends having these hard conversations with their kids, asked how to do it, if it was necessary to explain the details.
One mom spoke of multiple conversations, explanations of asylum-seeking and how families are being separated and detained. She focused on the mistreatment and human rights violations in the detention centers. Her family brought the baby gate to the protest, and her youngest — my daughter’s age — drew a FREE THE CHILDREN sign.
One father told me he’d explicitly told his 3- and 6-year-old the details: the wretchedness of the camps in the context of a governmental/national failure to help/welcome those in need. He included context about how much wealth there is in our country that isn’t being shared, either with those of us already in the US or with people trying to find a life here. He also told them about people dying in the desert, and how US foreign policy destabilized Central America in the first place.
His children’s signs read BE STRONG and I LOVE KIDS.
The children believe they’re making a difference, and they’re not wrong.
Knowing these families can have these conversations helps me do the same. The day before the protest, in the bathtub with my daughter, I take a page from Mr. Rogers, and basically let a puppet teach my kid about the camps.
“Hey,” her DJ Suki troll doll says, “did you know we’re going to a protest tomorrow?”
“No,” my daughter says, leaning toward the little doll, “Does that mean we’re going to make signs?”
“Yes, exactly! Can I tell you what the protest is about?”
“Well, remember about how Trump has been a bully and tries to keep people from coming and living here in the US with us?”
“What do you think about that?”
“It’s not fair,” she says.
“I agree. Everybody deserves a safe, happy home.”
“Yeah, like we have a safe, happy home,” my daughter tells her doll. “Everybody should get that.”
And out come all the details. Not every single painful fact I know. For instance, I don’t show her photos of dead children, even though I myself have stared and cried at those photos. But I tell her all the things my brave friends told their children. I tell her I feel sad when I think of all the grownups and kids who are locked up right now, but our voices are strong, and we can keep finding ways to help.
“Can we make signs when we get out of the bath?” my daughter asks.
“Definitely, sweetie,” I say, putting the doll aside. “That’s a great idea.”
After an hour of holding her sign, she complains her arms are growing tired. My husband lets her sit on his shoulders to rest, and she gets a view of our small town’s big turnout.
When the crowd starts to march, my daughter comes back to the ground and grabs her sign again. She’s recharged and ready to chant.
We’re meant to march a few blocks, then come right back. But when we pass the playground, the kids all ask permission to play.
At home, after dinner and brushing teeth, we cuddle up with Twitter, to watch videos from other Lights for Liberty protests. Our protest was one of about 800 happening simultaneously around the world, and we all receive hope from this fact.
For her goodnight book, she grabs A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara.
“Are you an activist?” my husband asks her.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes, you are,” he says. “You went out there tonight and stood up for what was right. You are an activist!”
She doesn’t feel scared, or depressed, or hopeless. She feels empowered and proud! And right now, so do I.