Eight Ideas for Raising Critically Conscious Children

Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause – the cause of liberation. And this commitment, because it is loving, is dialogical. As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love.

-Paulo Freire

In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, educator and theorist Paolo Freire introduced the concept of critical consciousness. In simple terms, critical consciousness is the ability to be aware of historical context, to perceive oppression, and take action against it.

Andy and I are doing our best to raise a critically conscious child (in a few months, it will be children!). We are still at the beginning of this parenting journey, and we have a lot to learn. But, these are a few ideas that guide the decisions we make for our family:

Never stop learning
Critical consciousness, social awareness, or being woke is not a mental state where one arrives. It is a perpetual journey of deepening knowledge, challenging perspectives and increasing understanding. The work of learning is never finished. To raise critically conscious children, we must constantly challenge our own ways of thinking and perceiving the world. We must continue learning, reading, dialoging, listening, experiencing and examining with critical and open eyes. We must learn alongside our children.

Engage in dialogue
I don’t think it is ever too early to build an internal consciousness or a critical lens. Even if our children don’t have a complete understanding of specific issues for many years, they can learn to examine the world. We cannot filter out the world, even if we sometimes want to. So, we need to be able to talk about it. We need to spend less time sheltering children from the world and more time confronting it together in a critical and conscious manner. We need to trust, listen to and learn from our children; we can co-create meaning together.

Carter is only two, but hey, let’s talk about those Disney princesses, Halloween costumes, and biased media imagery and language. Let’s talk about history. Let’s talk about why some people are portrayed this way while others are portrayed that way. Let’s ask our kids what they think. We must talk about why things are the way they are, and how we can make a change.

Use language intentionally
The language we use matters. This is not some politically correct, liberal made up constraint on how to talk. Words have power. Saying a girl is bossy, or telling her she’s a leader makes a world of difference. Calling a boy a sissy or saying he’s compassionate leads to different sets of internalized identities. We think of rioters and protesters in very different ways. The term “alt-right” euphemizes the reality of white supremacy. Our language shapes how we see ourselves and understand others. It influences our perception, our emotions, our choices. We must be thoughtful and intentional about what we say and how we talk to our children. And we must teach our children to be intentional too.

Make conscious choices about books and media
Books and media have a powerful influence on the ways in which our children perceive the world and themselves. They can empower us, or perpetuate internalized oppression from a young age. I have written about the power and need for diverse children’s books here and here. Selecting resources that are representative of all perspectives and experiences is paramount to our children’s developing awareness. Do they see children with all races, backgrounds, religious, handicaps, family structures, socio-economic statuses in their books? What kind of gender expectations or messages do their songs and movies convey? We must be intentional and thoughtful about these influences in our children’s lives.

Nurture Empathy
We must help our children be self-aware. The more they are aware of their own emotions, motivations, and impact on others, the more they can engage consciously with the world. They need to know all their emotions are okay – it’s as okay to be mad, sad, frustrated, disappointed and scared as it is to be happy and excited. The emotions are okay, the hitting and kicking are not! We can help them to recognize their feelings and express them in constructive ways.

From this foundation, we can nurture empathy. We can talk about how characters feel in stories, how we feel in different situations. We can talk about how their actions affect us and how our actions affect them (post about restorative justice and parenting coming eventually!). We can guide our children to put themselves in others’ shoes and experience the world differently. Only then will they understand our common humanity and value.

Break the Bubble:
In our intensely segregated communities, it can be a big challenge to live outside bubbles. But, we must make the extra effort. Our kids need to have friends of all races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. Not superficial, drop-in experiences but genuine, meaningful relationships that challenge our assumptions about the world. It is impossible to be critically conscious without these relationships.

And hint, if we don’t have those kinds of relationships, they won’t either.

Step outside comfort zones:
We grow when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones. Creating an environment in which discomfort and failure are celebrated as opportunities for learning can empower children to try new things. New experiences and new people expand our perspectives and help us overcome fear. They break the barriers that divide people. As we encourage our children to take risks, we are teaching them to live beyond bubbles as they journey through the world.

Be an example:
We must walk the walk. It’s been said a million times before, but our children learn from watching what we do, not just from listening to what we say. We must treat all people with dignity and love. Read and always keep learning. Dialogue with everyone. Go to protests. Donate money. Have difficult conversations. Stand in solidarity. Bring our kids with us. They will walk where we walk.

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