Thursday, September 21, 2006

Raising kids and social change

By Chip -- A few posts back in a comment Justin questioned whether being home full time with our kids is actually "social change work"; he argued that it was not, and that raising our kids is not the most important job in the world. In his words it is "important but not revolutionary."

I have to say I disagree.

By revolution, I am assuming Jason means bringing about social change "from below," that is, building consciousness and support among real people. I think anyone talking about "revolution" in the US these days is probably actually referring to this form of change rather than the traditional meaning of the word, which involves actual violence.

And it is exactly in this goal of bringing about social change "from below" where we as parents play a crucial role. There are two ways we do so, one direct, one indirect.

The direct way involves a number of discrete elements. The first is that by spending time with our kids we show them through our actions that we are commited to them, that they are important to us. This gives them the confidence and psychological health to act on their principles in the face of a society that is hostile to those principles and values.

If we let our kids be raised by societal norms, we are doing the opposite of progressive, positive activism. Raising progressive kids requires being very proactive, being very involved in our kids' lives, talking to them from the earliest days about the values that we believe are important, about the changes that need to happen in our society, and living those values.

For me, the foundation or prerequisite to doing that was to be an involved father. First and maybe most directly, in the area of gender relations: if we want to bring about change in that area, we have to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

As a guy, I can thinking of nothing more subversive of "traditional" conservative values than the fact that I chose to stay home full-time with my daughter for the first two years of her life; that I chose to downsize career ambitions to spend time with my kids and to be more involved in their lives than I could have if I had followed my earlier ambitions. I understand that in many ways my ability to do this is related to my class privilege and educational background. Nevertheless, I think that exactly because of those factors, and the resultant fact that I had many other options, it is important for me to take steps to undermine gender hierarchies in the eyes of my kids as well as in my wider community.

Apart from gender, it takes a lot of work to deconstruct or innoculate our kids against the insidious right-wing values that suffuse our culture and society. I'm proud that, for example, my kids actively question US nationalism, that they understand that poverty and injustices are not the fault of the victims but rather of the structure of our society and economy. Getting them to that point is important work. Without this kind of work, social change is much less likely to occur.

So while Justin feared that spending time in the nuclear family is a conservative value, in fact I'd argue that it's a key way to spread progressive values. One reason conservatives cocoon is to be sure that their children absorb their values. In that sense, by not seeing family as vitally important, progressives abandon a major area of work. But unlike for conservatives, whose focus is on a competitive, disempowering individualism, for progressives the family is just the start, it's the foundation of building a conception of solidarity, the only way that social change will come about.

Indirectly, family time is crucial because activists and others committed to progressive social change need a private life. Like all humans, we need love and affection, joy and enjoyment, in order to maintain energy, motivation, and perspective. Nothing energized me more to work for social change than the time I spent with my children: directly, because I realized they are going to be living in the world we create; and indirectly, because of the energy and strength I get from those relationships.

Raising our kids as progressives is a revolutionary act. Dads staying home full time, dads being very involved in their kids' lives, is a revolutionary act. It is the most important job, it is social change work. Unless we model our commitment to a better world, including in the very concrete context of our immediate families, our kids will be much less likely to internalize the kinds of values that will lead them, in turn, to push for progressive social change when they grow up.

As Steve Earl says, the revolution starts ... Now.

Cross-posted at daddychip2


Granny said...

Better be careful.">Tucker Carlson is watching.

No politics for kids. He said so.

Granny said...

trying again

Tucker Carlson

Anonymous said...

Maybe all the political rhetoric has led me to miss the point, but, children as a tool of political activism? I have to say, I find that thought a little disturbing.

I teach my son the values I hold dear because I feel they're important and worthwhile, not to enact social change.

Fatherhood isn't about the world, it's about the child. Societal change is a consequence, not the goal.

And if our children were to meet, years from now, me the conservative, you the 'progressive', what then? What does teaching them this rhetoric serve?

There's a difference between civics and politics. I have to say, keeping politics away from kids doesn't seem such a bad idea.

Chip said...

thanks for the links granny.

Jared, politics is exactly about values. There's no two ways around it.

I teach my kids my values, what's right and what's wrong, not just in terms of personal behavior but also at a societal level. I teach my kids how to understand the world around them, about what society should look like and why it doesn't. That's politics. For you to reduce this to "rhetoric" is wrong.

My point is that as someone committed to social justice and progressive political change, raising my kids is the most important job I can do. Fatherhood IS about the world as well as about the child. You cannot separate the two. For me, my commitment to my kids and family is part and parcel of my commitment to my progressive values and goals.

So reducing this to "children as a tool of political activism" is really off the mark. I assume that you teach your kids your values, both actively and by example. That's what I do too. The difference is that my kids are growing up in a society that is hostile to our values, and I have to explain that to them, explain why, and give them the strength to stand up for what's right.

Keeping politics away from kids isn't possible. They are growing up in a society with particular structures of power -- better they understand what they're facing than that they remain clueless.

Chip said...

PS for more on my thoughts about politics and kids see my post Politics and kids from this summer.

Unknown said...


I don't disagree with any of your thoughts on raising children. As a believer in the "anything worth doing is worth doing well" school of life, everything you say is so undeniably true and joyful. There are so few things that feel anywhere near as wonderful as being a parent. And knowing you're doing it well, consistent with your values, is just all the more satisfying.

That being said, I stand by my statement that raising kids is not social change work and is not revolution. Raising my darling Violet (who is 1 today, by the way) does not change society. Raising her to be anti-racist and anti-sexist will, hopefully, result in an additional anti-racist, anti-sexist person. It will not, however, do anything to eliminate racism or sexism. I can't see how this can be argued against.

The statement I am trying to make is: having and raising children is not the most effective way to change society. That's all I'm trying to say.

There are jobs that are more important than raising children, more challenging than raising children and more helpful to others than raising children. It does not belittle child rearing to say this, just as it does not belittle anyone to say that rocket science is very complex and you have to be smarter than the average bear to do it. It does not mean you are an idiot if you cannot do rocket science. And it does not mean you cannot be a social change agent if you raise children.

Can any of us actually look, say, a janitor or homeless person in the eye and say, "don't worry, I'm doing the most important job in the world." Not the janitor's union organizer or their Local president; not the soup kitchen volunteer or the transitional housing advocate. But me--feeding Violet her Cherrios and swinging her in a swing.

Great stuff that I love doing. But we need to keep our feet on earth sometimes.

Chip said...

Justin, I still have to strongly disagree. Social change is about the long term. You seem to be focusing on short term actions, which of course are very important. But part of revolution is also laying the groundwork for change. And that cannot happen unless we understand that change does come one person at a time. Structures of power change because people come together and force change. If people aren't raised to understand those forces, then change won't happen.

So I guess I'm saying I disagree with your either-or approach. Yes, union organizing is important, but so is raising our kids. They are both important, and saying raising our kids is important and even revolutionary does not mean that other more traditional ways of thinking about these issues is not.

Thanks for the response.