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Are You Teaching Your Kids Activism — or Virtue Signaling?

Clarissa Dawes

If you’re an Instagram or Twitter user, there’s no doubt you’ve seen your feed full of (famous and non-famous) people making statements on racism, or portraying themselves attending marches with their kids, or volunteering, or donating, or even organizing protests. But let’s be real: Can all this Insta-morality really be motivated out of pure-hearted goodness? Are all these parents we see posting cute photos of their kids at protests making peace signs and saying “We Are All Equal” really in this for the long haul, and for radical change such as defunding and dismantling police departments nationwide? The unfortunate answer is: Probably not.

Parents are role models for their kids, so it’s crucial to teach our little ones how to be activists — without being motivated by social pressure. Activism for activism’s sake is important for the future of an equal world. So how do you know if you’re teaching activism or just virtue-signaling?

If you’re not up on the lingo, virtue-signaling exists in a lot of forms, but most often it’s when someone shares performative posts or makes statements about something they hadn’t previously cared about — in order to show others how virtuous they are. Virtue-signaling is usually prompted by external pressures to climb aboard the bandwagon of what is trending, regardless of your real, internal stance on the issue; in short, it’s being disingenuous – something we shouldn’t be passing along to our children.

Here are three questions to ask yourself to determine whether you’re teaching virtue-signaling.

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There's an awful lot of this going on in this community. People who do good because they like to tell others how much good they do. Rather than just doing it. Consciously or not they are doing nothing but feeding the ego, putting themselves on a moral platform that is clearly higher than yours and essentially convincing themselves how virtuous they are and superior to the next person. Heck, maybe they're even hiding the fact that they're really a shithead from others or maybe even from themselves. Hey, look at me and all the good that I do and look at how bad the people are who don't do what I do. Look how moral my beliefs are and how moral my perspective is. Clearly since I have high moral standards with this one facet of life then I must be morally good on all fronts. 🤔 Yes, sometimes people share the good that they do because they want others to see that there is good in the world, and hopefully to even influence others to do the same. Absolutely. There is nothing wrong with virtue signaling to spread a positive message. There is something wrong though when the act of public expression is self-serving. Deliberate or not. That is EGO. Keep that shit in check. Trying my best to make this point without sounding like an obnoxious dick. Sometimes that is an impossible task. Well, at least I tried. Now I'm like, wait…did I just do it!? 🤣 #virtuesignaling #ego #spiritual

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1. Did you wait until right now to talk to your kids? And are you simplifying the truth?

It’s been debated whether it’s beneficial to simplify or “dumb down” our speech when talking to children, but kids are so intelligent. The phrase “out of the mouths of babes” speaks to the uncanny ability of a child to surmise truth or wisdom from a complex situation.

“I’m a firm believer in not talking down to children and really valuing the autonomy that children have and their intellectual processes,” Anika Manzoor, executive director of the Youth Activism Project, told SheKnows.

Clinical psychologist Stephanie O’Leary agrees, telling SheKnows that “kids are big thinkers, and their imaginations are not limited to fun, carefree topics. When you have honest, age-appropriate conversations about scary things, you provide an outlet for your child’s feelings, model healthy coping and establish that you are a source of support, even when topics are uncomfortable or frightening.”

So, if a child is capable of understanding, why not straight-up tell them what’s going on? Parents often resort to metaphors or vague language in order to explain tough topics. But the trouble with unclear language is that it removes the reality of the concepts we are explaining. With minimal effort, there are many experts we can turn to in order to understand the issues we need to parent on and the correct language to use when speaking.

The desire to shelter your children from the awful things happening in our world is a natural one; after all, parents are protectors. But waiting until the world is in crisis in order to teach your kids? That’s not okay. The double standard here is that people of color do not have the luxury of waiting to inform their children about racism, and a lack of information could mean a higher chance of those children being the victim of police brutality or another life-or-death scenario.

Does sheltering your children, keeping them removed from the world’s problems, actually perpetuate those problems and allow them to continue? Absolutely. Real people, right now, are suffering. So tell your kids how it is.

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This week, we on the TT staff have come to work with a range of emotions. Some of us are feeling a strong urge to be useful but struggling to imagine what that looks like. Some of us are feeling exhausted, “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as the great Fannie Lou Hamer once said. … We’re all feeling combinations of grief and anger, of powerlessness and resolve. And under it all, a deep, deep sadness. Maybe you are, too. We want to offer practical answers. Yet, as we witness and share in the collective mourning for lost Black lives and the demands for justice for victims like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, we must admit that we don’t have the answers. So instead of reaching out to share a one-size-fits-all plan, we’re asking you to commit to checking in with students individually. Instead of preparing an answer in advance, we hope you’ll find out what questions your students have. What do your Black students need to feel safe and valued in their learning space right now? What do your non-Black students need to better understand how to provide support and stand against injustice? What do your students want you to know about their understanding of justice and desire to take action? What are their fears in this moment? What gives them hope? There will be a time for takeaways. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll turn to vital questions about educational spaces and their relationship to systemic, racist violence. We’ll continue to look at our institutions and consider how they might better serve all people. When we do, we’ll look back to the solidarity we’re seeing now. … In the days and weeks to come, we’ll continue to formulate answers to the question that motivates our work: How can we help? But we’re admitting that, right now, we don’t have all of those answers. Instead, we want to let you know that we’re with you. We’re here and we’re listening. And we hope you’re doing the same for the students in your care.

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2. Is your activism happening only on camera?

You’ve probably seen the disturbing video of the influencer borrowing a power tool to pose for a “volunteering” photo for her feed, without doing any of the actual work. Or maybe it’s not that extreme; maybe it’s just those playgroup moms constantly posting about their children’s efforts to paint protest signs. Yes, sure, promoting a cause can be born out of an honest desire to champion that cause. But if there isn’t work being done outside those times you’re documenting it for your feed, it might be time to consider your motives.

Have you noticed your kids playing versions of you during their imaginative games? Of course you have, because our children learn from mimicking and role-playing. So if you’re always on your phone, posting to Instagram or speaking to your camera, this is what your kids are going to repeat. But if they see you opposing inequalities off-camera — educating yourself, donating your money, speaking encouragement, and amplifying Black voices, then that’s what you’re sowing for your kids’ future.

3. Is your activism solely responsive, or pro-active?

Timing is important in discerning whether your actions are teaching your children activism, or just virtue-signaling. Activism is usually proactive. It’s done in immediate response to an issue — or even better, it’s done in anticipation of an injustice, so that suffering might be avoided. The activists we so greatly admire — people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Wilberforce, Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King Jr. — they worked hard when it was unpopular to do so. If your activism has just sprung up in the past month or so, if it’s happening only in response to a movement that has recently risen in acceptance (even the big companies and more old-school organizations have hopped on the #BlackLivesMatter train in 2020 for crying out loud), it might be performative.

Kids need adults who are actively on the lookout for bias and inequality all the time, not just when it’s popular. Kids need us to get loud against injustice when it might be more socially acceptable to be quiet.

And you know what? Your kids are going to remember. They’re going to ask questions about why you acted the way you did when no one else was watching. This is how we can raise real activists — by being real activists.

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