The expectation for children to grow up and be world changers can either be beneficial or detrimental to young minds, because although we want to protect our children, we can’t hide them from the world forever. It is the modern parent’s fear to come home to a child who asks questions about social justice issues or cultural division. Parents fear approaching these significant topics because they don’t know how to explain them, but if children are to have any chance of understanding and coping with the chaotic social and political world we live in, parents need to willingly discuss these topics.
Adults want to protect the innocence of children, but social media and popular culture often oppose the idea of childhood innocence. Intense pressure is put on children to grow up, get jobs, and save the culture and the climate from the effects of human progress. Because children are the future, they’re taught that they must grow up and be the cultural change, being politically and socially active in the community before they understand what they’re doing or why. So how should parents talk to children about the reality of the world? Because we want our children to be safe, we warn them about the present physical dangers near them, but we still avoid talking about the insidious social issues that our children will encounter.
Social issues are the collective problems that a society seeks to improve or resolve, and these issues shape and inform the culture. They can include environmental concerns, crime, homelessness, and more. These are heavy topics that are fueled by compounding failings in our society and need concerted effort from a majority of people to improve, which does not occur often. Because the subject of social issues cannot be solved easily and not without much effort, we don’t want children to join the numbers of adults and teenagers who suffer from anxiety and depression about social issues.
We can never completely solve these issues because humanity is corruptible, but we and our children are confronted with more problems and injustices everyday. Greta Thunberg is the most well-known activist for her age, and, on behalf of young people, she has been invited to speak about the climate crisis at environmental conferences, including the U.N.’s. The world watched on camera as Thunberg emotionally ravaged and blamed viewers for her involvement in the climate crisis, an involvement which stole her childhood from her. Parents told their children to admire Thunberg and her work. This sends a message to children that their childhood and mental health are less important than cultural and social issues. To prevent unnecessary anxiety, parents and educators must not apply too much pressure on students or children to be the solvers of societal problems. Are children involved with these issues less prone to suffer from anxiety about social issues because they have a sense of purpose?
One elementary school evidently thinks so. In an article from NPR entitled “How kids are making sense of climate change and extreme weather,” Janet Lee covers elementary school students who learned about climate change and wanted to make a difference by spreading awareness. Students from various elementary and middle schools participated in a podcast challenge hosted by the NPR website, and they lent their voices to the climate crisis by discussing wildfires, water supplies, and floods. Even at such young ages, they participated in social activism.
Upon first reading this article, I was disquieted. Do we honestly want our children concerned about and fearing climate change like so many adults today? Should we instill that level of activism in ten-year-olds, when they should be focused on math, science, reading, writing? Teaching them to be activists at that young age only empowers them to be the next Greta Thunberg, angry and active on television, saying, “How dare you?” Does this suggest that we should return only to the basic subjects of reading and arithmetic, and ignore more nuanced topics? Perhaps not.
I was certain that children do not have a place in the social issues with which our culture wrestles, but further pondering caused me to pause and consider whether my reaction was justified. Is it not true that children can better cope with challenging ideas when they’re exposed to them at young ages? Psychologically, a person’s exposure to difficult social concepts and ideas when they’re young makes it easier to cope with them as they grow. Therefore, putting off important discussions until later could leave young minds with more unanswered questions and a resistance to confront complex topics.
If children can adapt and understand serious issues better when they’re young, then it would be to their benefit and ours that we teach them about environmental and societal questions when they are mature enough to understand them. It’s possible to teach them these big, awful issues in ways that they can understand, and it’s a parent’s duty to raise their children up with the skills to understand and think critically. For young students in elementary and middle school, the main takeaway is cultivating a critical thinking approach to social issues such as climate change. We do that by equipping them with knowledge and the boldness to ask questions.
There are three things we can do to help children begin to think critically about societal problems without becoming too overwhelmed. First, the most important step is to seek God’s assurances about the issues we see in the world. Second, present children with unbiased information from all sides of the argument. Third, let them practice their own critical thinking with gentle guidance and without trying to unfairly push them toward one ideology or the other. We need to think about how we approach topics like these with young minds. If we can introduce discourse and equanimity of purpose, then we will find a healthy balance between social awareness and spiritual peace for young minds growing up in a society often beset by chaos.