How to Raise Kids Who Care

This was a busy year for Shannon McKenzie’s three children.

The boys, ages 3, 11 and 13, marched in two Black Lives Matter protests, they joined their mother in the voting booth on election day — after plotting out exactly who they wanted and didn’t want to lead their country — and they had animated dinner table conversations about everything from sexual orientation to privilege and abortion rights.

“My goal is to raise good, kind men who are critical thinkers and who try to make the world a better place,” says McKenzie, who is a single mom, a doula and a childbirth educator in Libertyville.

The new generation

Our children are living in a world with smartphones, data and easy technology within reach. They’re bombarded with news alerts, they’re watching riots outside their windows and they are offered gender-neutral toys.

So, will this be the generation that’ll finally be woke? And how do we, as parents, pave the way at a time when the world appears to be more divided than ever before?

Generation Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — already appear to be ahead of the game. And Generation Alpha, who are the first group of millennials’ children (the group born post-Gen Z), are expected to be the most educated and technologically immersed group of individuals that we’ve ever seen.

That’s not all.

Hotwire, a global communications agency, recently polled 7- to 9-year-olds, and found that Generation Alpha cares more about all the issues than millennials and baby boomers did (and do). The poll found that 96 percent of these children believe people should be treated fairly, no matter what they look like, and 95 percent of them are already concerned about the environment.

“Generation Alpha brings with it a strong set of opinions about the world we live in today,” says Laura MacDonald, EVP and head of Consumer North America at Hotwire.

On TikTok, millions have confronted racism, begged their peers to encourage the BLM movement and urged multiple school walk-outs to support everything from climate change to gay rights.

This generation has more access to information than any previous generation, and they’re interacting with people across the globe through social media, learning about different perspectives, says Natalie Asayag, a licensed clinical social worker at DiveThru.

“They have also grown up consistently experiencing major historical events, been tasked with saving the planet, and struggled with their own mental health,” Asayag says.

It’s not all good news.

Gender roles regarding consumer culture today are more rigid than at any other time in history, according to Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist whose research on gender, children’s toys, and social inequality examines this question. Toys, clothing, baby gear and even snack foods are separated by gender. Even the gender reveal party — the big bash to reveal and forecast a child’s gender before the child is even born — is a relatively new phenomenon.

And our children aren’t born into believing that the world should be a fair, safe place: This is something that’s learned throughout their childhood.

“It’s important that children learn about social justice issues and movements when they’re young because it will shape them as inclusive and empathic adults who have the ability to enact great social change,” Asayag says.

That’s why many parents today may be struggling with how they can mold a new generation of allies for the environment, racial justice, gay rights, gender equity and more.

“This question has come up in parenting sessions more than ever before,” says Courtney Bolton, a family and child psychologist.

Teaching empathy

The first place to start is by teaching children to think about others. We want to cultivate a sense of empathy by modeling and guiding our children to be compassionate: How do our actions make others feel? Why do other people have different beliefs? We need to normalize different ways of life, such as blended families and non-traditional families, Bolton says.

“The more parents can introduce different experiences, ways of life and belief systems in a compassionate way, the more comfortable children will be in a variety of situations and with people from different walks of life,” Bolton says. “When children are sheltered, exposed to limited belief systems as right or wrong and insulated, the more fearful and uncomfortable they tend to be.”

This can start at a very early age.

Leticia Gomes has been following the rule she made for her family: “If a Black 5-year-old kid has to see, and to be aware of the violence around them because of the color of their skin, my 5-year-old is old enough to be aware of that, too.”

Gomes, of Chicago, strives to teach her children to be as open and as inclusive as possible — and she started doing this when her children were toddlers. For example, if one of her children’s friends’ parents is transgender, then Gomes says it’s her job to make sure her 3-year-old knows that someone can be a mom and can also be a man.

“So you use ‘he/him’ pronouns, or you can be a dad and be a woman, and you use ‘she/her’ pronouns,” Gomes says. “Or, instead of having a trans-kid transitioning having to be coached by their parents on what to say when somebody says something about the clothes they are wearing or the toys they are playing with, it is my job to make sure my kids know that clothes nor toys have gender: they wear what they want and their friends wear what they want, and same goes for toys.”

Arizona State University researchers found that children begin segregating their friendships by sex by the end of preschool, enforcing gender stereotypes. If, however, the children were encouraged to play with friends of all sexes, they were able to learn to problem-solve and to communicate much better, the study found.

It’s also key to expose children to people who are different from them and to have dinner conversations about different points of view — even if these views don’t align with the views within your own family, says Annie Henderson, a certified professional life coach and host of the podcast “Coming Out Loved and Supported.”

“Allow this conversation to happen without judgment or shame,” Henderson says.

Ages 3-5 is when children start to understand social convictions and moral issues, so it’s important to be exposed and to experience important causes throughout their childhood, adjusting the age appropriateness as they grow, Henderson says.

Racial and gender identity typically develops between the ages of 2 and 3, as children become aware of the differences between them and other people. Studies found that 3-year-olds who are exposed to racism and prejudice accept these beliefs, though they may not understand them. This is the age when they start to notice physical disabilities, skin and hair color and ethnicities. By the time they start kindergarten, they identify with their ethnic group.

Not sure how to start the conversation?

The beauty of parenting right now is that we have access to many tools, from books to the Internet, to teach and expose children — even if your particular community is homogeneous, Bolton says. Guide your child through a discussion, and rather than saying something is right or wrong, have a conversation about how you reached the decision that something wasn’t in line with your beliefs.

For example, when talking to your child about systemic racism, parents can share a story of a child who was punished because of the color clothing he was wearing or because of the person he chose to be friends with — and then move the conversation toward talking about the color of skin, Bolton says.

Once your child is a little older, you should encourage his or her social activism efforts.

Lead by example

Amy Guralnick, a pulmonologist who lives in River Forest, says her 12-year-old recently submitted a film to the One Earth Youth Film Festival about eliminating single-use plastics and beach clean-up in an effort to save sea turtles. She’s also running for charity miles to support the World Wildlife Fund.

Gomes’ oldest daughter reminds her to be more conscious of the plastic they buy, of recycling, of choosing paper packages, cloth napkins and more.

“The most valuable thing is to provide representation in their lives, lead by example, support and guide them on their interests and accountability,” Gomes says.

Here’s the good news: It’s already happening naturally. Young children are more accepting today because they are exposed to more diverse backgrounds via media and technology than ever before.

YouTube videos made in India have become some of the most popular Netflix videos for young children and feature music from Bollywood. Books for young children increasingly feature diverse families and people of color, and early childhood programs are making a concerted effort to ensure children in the classroom see themselves in media displayed around the room, Bolton says.

“And while mothers still take on the majority of childcare and household duties, children have a new model, with fathers sharing that responsibility,” Bolton says. “Each of these actions increases children’s exposure and positive associations.”

The children are leading the way. We just need to guide them in the right direction.

Understanding Generation Alpha

Here are some quick facts to learn more about Generation Alpha, according to Hotwire:

  • 50% of children in the US are expected to be non-Hispanic white by 2020
  • 95% of Generation Alpha are already Climate Crusaders
  • 96% believe that people should be treated fairly no matter what they look like
  • 4 in 5 Millennials and Baby Boomers believe that Generation Alpha will have a more diverse set of opinions than their generation

These are some top issues for Generation Alpha:

  • Keeping kids safe at school (97%)
  • Making sure everyone has a place to live (96%)
  • Making sure everyone has enough food to eat (97%)
  • Being accepted for who you are (93%)

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This article was featured in Chicago Parent’s March/April 2021 magazine

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