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How to Be a Social Justice Parent and Raise Compassionate Kids

Author Traci Baxley shares ideas and offers support to families eager to engage with their children about issues of social justice.
Child with sign - Power is Kindness

Like many parents, Traci Baxley wants to keep her kids safe in the world. But she also recognizes that means having open conversations at home about challenging issues.

As an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, she focuses on diversity, inclusion, and belonging in education. She also offers support to families eager to engage with their children about issues of social justice. Baxley is guiding others through her book, Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World.

“The more we talk about it, the easier it becomes. We get to know where we're tripping over these things. And we also get to unpack some of these things for our own children so that it's not hard conversations for them when they're adults, when they are parents, but it just becomes a part of the fabric of your family's conversations, of your dinnertime chats,” Baxley says. “So our kids can learn and grow and do things differently. Not having the conversations probably is the worst thing that you can do, and not worrying about getting it wrong is something that we need to get through that fear around.”

In this episode of the EdCast, she discusses what it means to be an activist parent and shares ideas for how to respond to some of the challenging issues facing families.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast.

Traci Baxley believes parenting is a form of activism and that we need to do more than just raise good children. She's a mother other of five, an educator, and the creator of Social Justice Parenting, which helps guide families and their efforts to develop compassionate, socially conscious kids. With all the injustices happening in the world today, it can be challenging to figure out what to do, or how to talk to your children at all. Traci coaches parents through this and offers a guide in how to talk to your kids, or how to think about your values as a family. I was excited to talk to Traci about how to do this work at home. First, I wanted to know how she defines social justice parenting.

Traci Baxley

But it really is just the way that we more intentionally, more purposefully, really want to raise our children who are more compassionate, more kind, and that lean into this idea of activism and social justice and how the power of that can make rippling changes in the world.

Jill Anderson: When I hear those terms, social justice, anti-racism, anti-racist, I think of what's happening in our country. We're seeing a lot of pockets, and I don't know if we should call them pockets where parents hear those terms and maybe immediately go on the defense. We're seeing a lot of these movements in schools where parents are coming out and talking out against anything really that has to do with educating kids about race or social justice or anything. So I'm wondering what you would say to those parents about what this is really about.

Traci Baxley: I think it's really about belonging, the idea of having a safe place, a place that you feel like you belong, is really a human right, it's a basic human need. And I think when we think about social justice, it's really about how do we create a world where every child, every human, feels like they belong in that space. And I think social justice is connected to more political ways of viewing the world, and it really isn't, it's about creating equity, creating belonging for all of our children, and the need for us to be this village that are creating this for each other's children is really what I really lean into more than anything else, that we are in this thing together. And we need to figure it out for our children. And part of that Social Justice Parenting is really about how do we create belonging? How do we create safe spaces that all of our children can thrive, and really be their best selves?

Jill Anderson: So social justice parenting isn't explicitly designed for White parents, which I'm afraid some people might hear that and think that.

Traci Baxley: Yes.

Jill Anderson: But does it look differently depending on your own family makeup?

Traci Baxley: I think it is exactly what you make it as a family, because part of the things that I do when I work with families is really the first thing we think about is what are our core values as a family. What are those things that are non-negotiables? What are the ways that we want to show up in the world? What is that legacy that we're leaving for our children when they go out into the world? And so, because your core values may be different from mine, we're starting at a different place, but I think the foundational pieces of social justice, no matter what your core values are, are the same in terms of taking action to create an environment where kids can thrive, create an environment where our children can see themselves as part of a bigger family, and creating and supporting our children to do those things out in the world.

Jill Anderson: I know you write a lot about some of the different challenges and fears that exist for families. Obviously it's very different for a Black family than it is for a White family. And I'm going to speak from the place of White parents, because that's where I identify. And I think a lot of White parents probably struggle with the fear of getting this wrong. So they avoid hard conversations. What do you think about that? And is there a right time to start having these conversations?

Traci Baxley: I really think the only way to get it wrong is to not do it, to not have these conversations really. It's messy for all of us, even as a Black mom, it's messy for me sometimes. I don't want to have these conversations with my children about how to stay safe, but it's necessary. And so I think as we all are learning, as we all are growing, and all of our identities, not just race and ethnicity, but when we're talking about all of the identities that we have, we have privilege in some, we have, are marginalized in others.

And so we really wanted to have conversations about all of these things with our children. Race, yes, is the one that people are probably most afraid about, but I think just as a Black mom, I need you to have these conversations, no matter how wrong you feel like you're getting it, because the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes. We get to know where we're tripping over these things. And we also get to unpack some of these things for our own children so that it's not hard conversations for them when they're adults, when they are parents, but it just becomes a part of the fabric of your family's conversations, of your dinnertime chats. So our kids can learn and grow and do things differently. Not having the conversations probably is the worst thing that you can do, and not worrying about getting it wrong is something that we need to get through that fear around.

Jill Anderson: So it's never too late to introduce this, but [crosstalk 00:06:20].

Traci Baxley: Never too early, never too late.

Jill Anderson: Right. I'm going to talk about my own struggles a little bit, which I don't often do on the EdCast, but I am a parent and I have a six year old, so younger. It's been important to me to have conversations. Now I started really young because I was afraid if I didn't, it would be too complicated to talk about later. So I got one thing going right.

Traci Baxley: Yeah. That's great.

Jill Anderson: One of the things I struggle with, as you know kids will often bring up topics and questions when you're not prepared for them. And then I ramble and I think, oh, maybe I'm saying too much, or I got it wrong, or I definitely do not keep it age appropriate. So what tips do you have for managing this with younger kids preschool, early elementary, and keeping it age appropriate?

Traci Baxley: Yeah. If you feel like you need some time, I think it's okay to ask for time to say that is such a inquisitive question. That is such a great question. Let me think about that for a minute, because I've not thought about that, or I have a lot to say about that, but let me think about the right way to say that. So it's okay to take a pause. It's okay to think about the way that you want to respond to your child, but making sure that you always come back to do that.

And if it's something that you are not sure about, you can say, you know what? I don't really know the answer to that. Let's think about it and research it together and let's learn together. So again, you're teaching your child that they don't have to have all the answers, it's okay to not have all the answers, but that it's something that you think is important enough that you're going to do some learning around. So I think not being afraid to pause, being okay with not knowing the answers, and being okay with learning it together.

Jill Anderson: That's good advice. I hope I'm able to actually enact that, because I have a tendency to feel like I'm walking away or avoiding something, which I don't do, but I almost wonder if I'm doing something worse by introducing really complicated terms that even as a grown up, I struggle to fully understand, like microaggressions and things like that with my poor six year old.

Traci Baxley: Yeah, no, I think it's great that we introduce the terms to them, but then we also want to come back and say it in a way that they understand it, or an example from their lives, or your life that they can connect it with. And I think the other thing too, Jill, is when you are having those conversations and you think that it may have been too much, you want to come back and say, remember yesterday, or last week when we were talking about microaggressions? Tell me what you learned. Do you still have questions? So then you get to hear what you need to circle back to, what landed well and what didn't. And then you have the second conversation, because these are conversations that you need to have over and over and over.

And the more you're talking about it, the more you can see what landed, where there's still misconceptions, where there's still gaps. And then in the second conversation you can say, you know what? I'm not sure if I answered that well enough, let me try that again and listen to this so that it's always a conversation, you always get to know what they're thinking. And you're always adding to their ideas around these big topics in ways that you know they understand it.

Jill Anderson: How do those conversations shift a little as your child gets older, reaches the middle school, high school?

Traci Baxley: Yeah. I think you go into more depth, you are able to really use some of the nuance things that you've left out when they were younger. You may want to add to what they've already known. You're going to change your examples in what you're using, I think it's really important to, when they're younger, if there's something current going on, you just want to tell them the facts of what happened. As they get to middle school age, you can give them more details about particular cases or incidences. And then when they're in high school, you want to have real dialogue with them. A lot of times my older kids, they will see things they come across Twitter, on the news, and they'll come to me and say, what do you think about this? And so we start having questions about things that they found and trying to find the facts behind that and where it came from and different perspectives around those things. So I think as they get older, you add more perspectives, more research and deeper ideas around it, and the impact that these things are having.

Jill Anderson: I think about, they are totally aware if parents think they're kids are not recognizing these things they do. And is it Beverly Tatum?

Traci Baxley: Yes, she talks about like it's small, that we are all breathing it in even though we don't realize we're breathing it in, whether it's intentional or unintentional, it's all getting to us because of media, because of things on their phones, because of systems that are in place in our country, that we have to talk about it otherwise we're leaving what our kids know up to people outside of our homes. And that could be dangerous and scary.

Jill Anderson: We have to do more than just raise good people. And part of that is taking action.

Traci Baxley: Right. Yeah. So the difference between raising good people and raising socially aware, or pro-justice children is really this idea of good people is almost passive, we want to raise people who do no harm, people who are kind, which is great, but it's really the low bar. We really want to raise kids who not only do no harm, but who can intercede when harm is done. So the action piece, not just care about people, but care with action. So we need to get to a point that raising children who are pro-justice is the norm because of what we're doing in our homes. The actions that we take in our homes, things that we normalize in our home, the habits that we build in our home are all about taking action.

Jill Anderson: This is something I feel like I struggle quite a bit with. I'm very interested in raising an upstander as a child. I want that to happen. But on a personal level, that's something I struggle with myself. It's very easy for me to call out family members, or people who are close and in my circle. But once you get out the door and you're in the world, that becomes a lot harder.

Traci Baxley: Yeah. That's the part we have to work on, because, and a part of the idea of social justice parenting is about our own self-reflection, how do we respond in these situations? What do we need to work on ourselves? Where do these fears come from? Where have our experiences, or our childhoods really, we see how it's impacting the way that we parent. And if we start to unravel some of our own issues, fears, concerns, then we can start to think about how we want to show up in our parenting a little bit differently. And I think freezing in that moment, I think part of that is because the conversations in our childhoods didn't happen as much.

Jill Anderson: Right. Definitely.

Traci Baxley: And so we have to be willing to disrupt those things from our own childhoods in order for our children to be able to do it a little bit differently. And in that moment, in that situation that you're saying, even just a touch on the arm, send messages that I support you. So we have to think about making the small movements of just standing next to touching hand on somebody's back, even if you don't have the words to say at that moment, can send out a signal that I'm not by myself, I'm not alone, I'm not invisible, or that I am seen and heard. So I think if we can start doing small movements in that way, our children will start seeing that and it would be easier for them as they grow up. This is hard work for a lot of us, because it's new, because we've been taught that this idea of race is taboo, we don't talk about it, we don't see it, we don't address it. And so in order to be able to do it differently with our kids, we have to unravel some of those things ourselves.

Jill Anderson: Right. Because that for me is a big piece when I think how the heck do I raise an upstander when I'm struggling myself to actually really be one.

Traci Baxley: Yeah. And maybe it could be small gestures like, maybe it's writing letters. So you're not confronting somebody directly at first. That we know this is an issue. Somebody said this, somebody did something, and now I'm going to write a letter saying how I feel something happened that I didn't feel good about. So maybe the act of our children seeing that we're reflecting on the way we showed up and whether that reaction align with our core values of our house. So our kids need to know what our core values are. And you say, you know what? I didn't stand up for that person, or I didn't like what somebody said, and I didn't say anything. And saying something really is a part of our core values.

So I need to back and really reflect on what I did, and I'm going to start that off by writing a letter, either to the person who hurt somebody else, or writing a letter to the person who you did not stand with and apologize and say that I want to do better and this is how I'm going to do better, or what do I need to do, to do better? So your children can see that it's not always easy, but that you are taking the time to really try to make those changes. And that becomes a part of who they are as they grow up.

Jill Anderson: One murky area I think about is parent to parent. Everybody chooses to raise their kids differently. What advice do you have for those tricky situations? Whether it's your child's friends' family has maybe some different values from yours.

Traci Baxley: Yes. And I also see this within families.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Traci Baxley: If grandma's values are different from the way we're raising our children. And I talked about this a lot, especially during the holidays. When you're seeing family members, or you're maybe going to an extended family member, or friend's houses whose values are very different from yours. I'm a big proponent of role playing. So if you know you're walking into situations that whose families values are different from yours, you have those conversations with your children before they go. This is what we believe in our house. This is what's important to us. These are our core values. When we go out in the world, or we go to somebody's house, their core values may be very different from ours. It is good to hear people and give people space to talk about what their core values are, and that's fine. But when those core values start to bleed into your boundaries, it's okay to set boundaries. What do boundaries look like for us?

We can listen, we can hear, we can have discussions if it's getting to where that it is more aggressive, or you don't feel comfortable with it. These are some words that you can use or say, ‘I don't like the way you're talking to me.’ ‘I'm not comfortable with this.’ ‘I'm going to end this conversation right now and I'm going to walk away.’ Whatever that language is, giving kids a language to use to make it okay that they should listen to perspectives, but not if it crosses your boundaries. And so I think having those conversations, role playing so the kids have something that they already feel safe about saying, so if their boundaries are crossed, they know how to get out of those situations.

Jill Anderson: So my last question is, it's never too late to get started with this. So where's a good place to start?

Traci Baxley: I would start with, I call low hanging fruit, little things like reading books, talking about characters in the book that really, they respond to, making sure your book choices, places that you go are more diverse, more open. I hear a lot of people say read books, but you need to do more than reading books. You need to have critical dialogue around the books and the topics in the books. And I think also really giving space for your kids to lean into their own natural curiosities when they're asking these hard questions to not shut them down, but to be really open to hearing, man, that is a great conversation, I love that you're using your curiosity to drive what you're thinking.

And so don't shut that down, really allow them to have that, even if it's uncomfortable, even if makes you feel vulnerable, and then having those conversations. That's a good question that I really don't have the answer to, but I think it's important that we find that out, or we try this. That would be something I would say, using books to have critical dialogue and leaning into their natural curiosities when they're asking questions and not shutting that down.

Jill Anderson: Great. Well, thank you so much, Traci. This is really helpful.

Traci Baxley: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Jill Anderson: Traci Baxley is an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University. She is the author of Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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