As a teenager I was really serious about doing good in the world. I volunteered at my local library and as a tutor for struggling students. When an international charity came to our school and gave a presentation about starving children abroad, I gave them all my lunch money. I was the target audience for dozens of pitches on how to do good in the world as a kid – from fighting climate change to ending global hunger.
Now, as an adult with my own children to raise, I have deeply mixed feelings about how all these important moral messages were taught to me and how I see them conveyed to teenagers today. I think we can do better when we talk to kids about how we can do good in the world.
Here are some things I wish they’d told me, that would’ve been incredible conversations with my parents, and that would’ve equipped me better to get on really well in the world as an adult.
Be openly and out loud confused, but also treat confusion as something that can be resolved
Too often the messages I got from adults about how to do good in the world fell into two camps.
One camp was full of outrageous, yet contradictory, certainty: obsessed with cut out plastic bags in favor of reusable cloth bags, or tell me that I should not have to buy fabrics if I was going to lose them before using at least 50 of them. I was told never to use plastic water bottles because of the chemicals, or that the metals were even worse for the environment. I was given simplified presentations of geopolitical situations such as the now infamous Kony 2012.
Of course, this can be disorienting and ultimately disillusioning. When a situation is complex and presented to you without complexity, it’s easy to lose confidence when you learn the full picture, even in the parts that are really simple.
The other camp (perhaps made up of disillusioned veterans from the first camp) tended to go too far in the other direction, insisting that nothing really mattered and that it was impossible to know if an organization was doing something right. There I learned that there was no point in giving money to the homeless because they would just waste it on drugs, and that there was no point in pushing for political change, since nobody in Washington was trustworthy and there was no way to say whether foreign charities were making money. the world a better place for the recipients. Sometimes people who told me those things wanted me to give up completely. Sometimes they just wanted me to “choose with your heart!” instead of trying to figure out what worked.
Anyway, this was alienating. What I wanted to hear was that my questions were good questions and possible to answer. We could look up what homeless people do with money (they don’t spend everything on drugs) and which international charities are the best. We were able to explore topics that were interesting and important to us. One of the most essential transitions between childhood and adulthood is the transition between being a consumer of advice, knowledge and wisdom and a producer of those things. It can be very stimulating to tell a young person, “I don’t know the answer, and no one may know the answer, but let’s try to learn it.” Knowledge is not passed on from above; it is produced and children deserve to see and be a part of that process.
Don’t use your kids as a way to avert your own guilt, despair, or frustration—and learn to recognize them when other adults do
Some adult climate activists in particular interacting with children in a way that can be very harmful. Often they are frustrated that our society has done so little about climate change. So they write off their own generation as hopeless and say that the only hope is the children, who place enormous burdens on people who are just starting to set their own priorities.
Sometimes children are given exaggerated reports about climate change, as if they will personally die young from climate change, which is by and large not true. When I see children with signs that say ‘Why should I study for a future I don’t have?’ I don’t feel inspired by their beliefs; I feel frustrated that someone, probably someone struggling with their own guilt and fear about climate change, told children that there is no future. This is not a good way to inspire them to fight for it or a fair way to enable them to prioritize their own.
Needless to say, not only is there a future, but studying is one of the best ways to position a child to tackle climate change. It does children grave injustice to discourage them from the paths that will enable them to make a difference in the world by telling them that there is no world to make a difference in.
We all have our moments of despair and hopelessness, but children are not equipped to take those expressions of frustration with an appropriate grain of salt. Don’t put that on them.
Take Your Children’s Moral Beliefs Seriously
Teens have deeply felt moral beliefs. They can become vegans, become activists for a social cause, get passionately angry about problems, research religion or convert from religion, ask why your family doesn’t give all of its money to charity.
I know this because as a teenager I became a vegetarian, became a committed effective altruist, and was very concerned about artificial intelligencestudied Jewish customs, came out as a lesbian, spent most of my savings helping a friend in a bad home situation, and — I’m sure — gave my parents quite a few gray hairs.
But the crucial thing is none of that was a “phase”, best wait patiently. I am truly a lesbian, now married to a wonderful woman. We invite all our friends to our weekly Shabbat dinners. I’ve varied the exact details of my diet over the years, but I still avoid factory meats. I am still an effective altruist; my wife and I donate 30 percent of our collective income to the best global charities we can identify. If my parents had seen my radical life change and decided to talk them out of it, or to assume that I would outgrow them, they would have had no contact with me, their child trying to understand her moral priorities and personal identity in a confusing world.
You may be concerned if your child changes quickly and takes on many new priorities that you do not understand. And maybe they don’t stick to all their new ideas. But you want to nurture a relationship with your actual child, the person in front of you, not some extrapolated future version of them.
That means appreciating the compassion, curiosity, generosity, and conviction that have guided your child in whatever paths they go, and it means sincerely listening to them and learning from them alongside and from them. That seriousness and respect will mean the world to your children – and help them conquer the world.
This piece first appeared in cafemadrid’s Extra Curricular newsletter. Sign Up here!