When CBS announced in mid-2021 that they were launching a reality TV show called “The Activists,” they were slammed around the internet. The show would consist of six competing activists. Whoever received the highest amount of social media engagement would win.
Andy Wilson, an environmental activist, said it might “be the worst idea for a TV show ever.” He wrote, “Measuring the success of activism by engagement and social metrics is inherently wrong. I have seen campaigns do incredible, powerful work that isn’t quantifiable by how many retweets it got. And I have seen apparently incredibly popular things on social media fizzle and not take hold, never affect change.” He added that “it reinforces this zero-sum game ideology that we can’t deal with all of our issues together.”
Educational consultant Janice Gassam Asare said the idea for the show was “performance activism personified.” She wrote that “many people lose their lives advocating for the most marginalized. These individuals should be amplified, venerated, and celebrated — not the folks who join a show to win a competition. If you’re going into activism for fame and popularity, then is it really activism?”
The backlash was so severe that CBS decided to pivot and turn the show into a documentary.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about this situation with CBS, it’s clear that in the era of social media, activism is a heated topic. People feel pressure to produce content that generates engagement and likes — and sometimes this pressure lends itself to “performance activism.”
The answer, of course, isn’t to write off activism completely. There are too many pressing problems in the world for that. As Carl Sagan once wrote, “You are, by accident of fate, alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet. Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something.”
So, how do we teach kids healthy activism?
Here are a few ideas.
1. Introduce children to a wide range of stories and situations.
Fictional stories in books and film about a variety of topics can help kids of all ages get a sense for a variety of perspectives. Kids ages 10+ might be ready for heavier topics such as global warming, factory farming, or children living in harsh conditions.
If they don’t regularly see dire human suffering first hand, it can also be worth taking them to shelters or food banks in their own community. This way they can see the eyes of humans who need help and sense their pain directly. As the author Marianne Williamson writes, “In every community there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart there is the power to do it.” As you guide your children to listen to their heart, you take the first step in teaching kids activism.
2. Invite children to pay attention to their natural curiosity and passion.
As they get a sense for suffering, help them see where their natural curiosity and passion leads them. What types of suffering affect them the most? Where does their passion most naturally lead them? Help them see that we don’t have to all do the exact same form of activism to improve the world. Rather, we have to play our role as we feel called to it. Tuning into their inner voice can help kids choose activist causes they deeply care about.
3. Sign them up for a cause.
This suggestion might seem at odds with the idea of inviting children to follow their natural curiosity, but at some level we all have to actually try something to fully understand ourselves. Just like adults, kids might not know how they want to serve others until they do it. “How wonderful it is,” wrote Anne Frank, “that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” We don’t have to wait until the perfect cause arises. We can just start, knowing it’s all part of the process.
Signing them up for a cause also helps them connect to others who are invested as well, helping them achieve more than they could alone. Ben Kirshner, professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, writes that “youth activism groups represent distinctive environments for learning and development. Youth contribute their interests and skills to a collective cause that goes beyond their narrow interests, enabling them to accomplish goals that might be unreachable on their own.”
4. Think small.
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change,” writes author Howard Zinn. “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
It’s true — and it’s part of of teaching kids activism. We simply can’t solve all the problems in the world, and we’ll get psychological crushed by the weight of it all if we try. But we can consistently do small acts over time. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
5. Encourage quiet activism.
In an era of social media, it’s perhaps more important than ever to focus on quiet activism. Jesus of Nazareth declared, “When you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In one translation of the Gospel of Matthew, he added, “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. … When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure — ‘playactors’ I call them — treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it — quietly and unobtrusively.”
Help kids sense that the long-lasting rewards of activism arise to the extent we help alleviate the suffering of other people. Short-term, attention seeking may result in a short-term increase in flimsy popularity, but that sort of activism ultimately doesn’t transform us.
6. Let your children see you doing acts of charity.
Similar to the suggestion to sign your kids up for a cause, this one might seem contradictory to the one we just listed. But if your kids don’t see you doing acts of service from the heart, they may not get the sense that it’s part of their culture at home. The intention should be to do what your soul calls you to do, without any sense of performance. On this note, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “All of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I want to leave a committed life behind.” As you live a committed life, you’ll instill something profound in the heart of your kids.
7. Encourage gentle firmness.
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi. And it’s true. As kids move toward activism, it’s important to hold a sense of love for those who they may disagree with. After all, as they invest in a cause they care about, they may come to understand that the issue is more complex than they ever initially realized. That’s a good thing. But it means that they must open themselves up to love for others, even those who oppose them. As the author Neale Donald Walsch writes, “A five-word sentence that could change the world tomorrow is: What would love do now?” If we continually live that question, standing firmly aligned to our inner voice, we improve the world bit by bit.
Want to get a better understanding about how to teach kids activism? See our lesson on activism in the lesson library.