If we’re not working our butts off to make things better, they’re going to get worse, and the mountain of problems we dump at our children’s doorstep will be exponentially bigger.
Since my daughter was born, I’ve been fortunate to stumble into a community of awesome, progressive, queer and queer-friendly parents. Some are folks I knew before having kids, and some are new friends. What all my parent friends have in common is a commitment to our shared values: queer and trans positivity, anti-racism, economic justice, reproductive freedom—and a belief in the necessity of working toward a better world.
Which means, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, we’re all feeling some shade of head-spun, disillusioned, overwhelmed, terrified, and on the verge of giving up. Most of us naively believed that despite continued attacks from the regressive American right, our beliefs and values were ascendant; that the things we worked for were slowly but surely becoming inevitable. After a certain orange individual who shall remain appalling was elected, we had to reconsider that point of view. The truth is, we are losing ground—we have already lost necessary ground without realizing it. We’re reeling. We’re afraid that everything we’ve fought and organized and donated and voted for is going to be yanked out from under us, and that the best we can do won’t be enough to stop it.
And so, to calm ourselves and give ourselves something to hold onto, we reassure each other that the most important thing we can do, the most revolutionary thing we can contribute, is to raise our children well.
This is not a unique sentiment. I’ve seen it pop up in memes and advice columns for weeks now. Progressive Americans desperately need to feel that there is something we can do, some way we can fight the creeping vines of racist, fascist, misogynistic oppression before they strangle us. It’s poetic and comforting to tell ourselves that our children are the way we can invest in a better future; that by instilling our own values in them, we can equip them to change the world in ways we ourselves are not capable of. And we can do it without having to navigate around counter-protesters, get into Twitter fights with neo-Nazis, or even leave the house!
Unfortunately, it’s not true.
For one fairly obvious thing, the threats to our rights and safety are looming now, not in 17 years when my daughter will be able to vote. The amount of damage that could be done to society as a whole, not to mention individual vulnerable humans within it, during that time is incalculable. If someone who is endangered by deportation or racism or police brutality asks me to help, and I say “Well, I read my toddler A is for Activist last night,” they will rightly conclude that I am a useless person.
By the time my child and my friends’ children are old enough to vote, at least some of them will have spent years threatened by bullying, hunger, the school-to-prison pipeline, abuse, lack of access to birth control, and educational inequality. Teaching our values to individual children does nothing to address institutionalized bigotry and oppression, nor does it protect them from their harmful effects. And it’s not like the forces of hate and violence are going to kick back and take the next couple decades off until our kids have completed their Activist Superhero Training Montages. If we’re not working our butts off to make things better, they’re going to get worse, and the mountain of problems we dump at our children’s doorstep will be exponentially bigger.
Besides, teaching your children to value justice and equality is a far cry from teaching them to fight for those things. I’m almost 30, I have two college degrees, and I am totally fucking stymied by the entrenched reality of racism in American society. Yet somehow my daughter is supposed to grow up and just know how to take it on, single-handed? I don’t doubt that she’ll be smarter and more capable than I am, but that’s still a hell of a task.
Saying “the most important thing is that we raise our children well” is a dodge around the messy, complicated, and frequently painful task of undoing generations of oppressive acculturation. It’s retreating to our home turf because the world outside is terrifying and brutal, and sometimes, that retreat is necessary. Sometimes we need to seek the comfort of home, to surround ourselves with only what is within our influence, to revive our souls for the coming fight. But we need to acknowledge that withdrawal for what it is: a crucial foundation for our activism, but not its full realization.
Because, you know all those people we’re furious with and afraid of? The people who think same-sex marriage infringes on their freedom of religion, and that you should have to get your employer’s permission to use birth control, and that the words “black lives matter” are hate speech? They have kids, too, and they’re teaching their children a lot of very scary lessons. We can’t just wait for them to die out. If we do that, we just give them more time and space to flourish. They’re not hanging around at home hoping we get tired and give up. They’re fighting. We need to fight too—and teach our kids to do the same.
Raising our children to be active participants in the struggle for justice is inarguably revolutionary, but it involves much more than teaching them kindness and compassion. Compassion is a beautiful thing, but by itself it does not change the world. Your children don’t just need to see you being empathetic toward people of all genders, races, and classes. They need to see you fighting for those people’s rights, for their safety and well-being and self-determination. They need you to lead by example. That’s the only way we’re going to inspire the next generation with the grit and fire they’ll need to leave this world better than they found it.
Maybe what I really mean here isn’t that parenting is not enough. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that being a good parent means more than just fixing snacks and picking out developmental toys. Being a good parent means acknowledging that our children will be citizens of the world, as we are, and that they will have a responsibility to the struggle for liberation and justice, as we do. We need to teach them how to fight, and if we don’t know how to do that ourselves, then it’s past time we start figuring it out.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).