This generation is using walkouts to make their voices heard. We ask if—and how—parents should support them
BY SANDRA E. MARTIN
At age 15, Audrey has already taken part in three protests around education issues at her Toronto high school. Far from being a stereotypical rabble-rouser, she’s a strong student and serious athlete who makes time to volunteer for park cleanups and charitable causes.
For Audrey (whose parents requested that her last name be withheld), protest isn’t about rebellion. “It’s what we do because we can’t vote,” she says. “You get to express your opinion. You get to make a statement. You show the adults in authority that you do have power.”
Evidence of that power is just a smartphone swipe away, with young changemakers lighting up social media and making the news on a regular basis—like in March of this year, when 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden was announced as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thunberg’s go-to move for bringing attention to governments’ inaction on climate change? School walkouts!
Since August 2018, Thunberg has walked out of school most Fridays to protest environmental destruction. Her climate strikes were inspired by Parkland, Florida, students who walked out to protest U.S. gun laws. Images from what started as a solo protest went viral on Twitter and have since inspired schoolkids (and now workers) around the world to get out with their banners. By March 2019, kids from more than 125 countries around the world had skipped school to join Thunberg’s first global #FridaysforFuture protest, and the number of strikers totalled 1.6 million.
It might be reassuring to parents concerned about their own kid’s participation in a school walkout to note that, according to a profile of Thunberg in the New Yorker, the young activist’s parents think “she should really go to school.” That said, they’ve shown their support for their daughter by listening to her concerns around climate change, reading books and watching documentaries she has brought to their attention. Subsequently, they took action by making lifestyle changes, such as cycling whenever possible, using an electric car for longer distances and, most recently, giving up meat and flying.
This type of active engagement showed Thunberg how much power her voice could have. Thanks to her parents’ willingness to listen and engage, she continued to protest, and found herself speaking with world leaders in business and politics. In November 2018—just three months after beginning her walkouts—she delivered a Ted Talk, which has been translated into 27 languages and garnered 2 million views and counting. Helping kids believe in their own abilities is a powerful gift.
In 2019, many teens understand that they can use their voices to protest what they believe to be unjust. Take Rachel Awad, a grade 10 student at Brampton Centennial Secondary School who helped to organize a walkout at her school on April 4 over planned education cuts. “I know my education is going to have a lasting impression on my life, so when it is endangered in any way, I am going to speak out,” she says.
“My parents were supportive of me, but they just didn’t want me to miss class,” Awad continues. “However, after seeing the video of my speech, my dad sent it to all of his friends. I think they are proud of me taking a stand, having firm beliefs and making an impact in my community.”
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Beyond sharing footage of a child’s speech, parents can go the extra mile by teaching their kids valuable life skills, such as finding reliable sources and accurate data to build a solid case. They can act as a guinea-pig audience for their children and give feedback on which parts of their speech made an impact and which could be tweaked. That way, missing out on class for an afternoon becomes a valuable opportunity to go deeper into important issues and make a real-life presentation.
Rather than fret over their child’s decision to walk out, parents can simply allow themselves to feel humbled by how well informed and capable of mobilizing this generation is. “I do think our kids are more aware of current events than I was at this age,” says Louise Gleeson, a mom of four who lives in Oakville, Ont. “Primarily because of the way they are being taught to be global thinkers in school, but also because of their ability to access the news media and the Internet. I am often caught off guard when one of my teens brings up a current issue and shares their thoughts with us.”
Retired Toronto District School Board teacher Peter Morgan describes participating in a walkout as an experiential learning opportunity. “We want kids to take part in civil society; we want to create autonomous youth who become adults who can think and speak for themselves,” he says. “What better civics lesson is there than to engage in the democratic system by speaking up?”
But caring about an issue doesn’t mean joining a walkout is the right choice for every kid—and that’s something to talk about at home too. Gleeson’s son, Seth Britton, chose not to participate in either of the two walkouts staged at his school this academic year. “I’m not one to speak out or draw attention to myself, and that’s sort of the idea of a protest. I’ve written essays about social issues before, but haven’t spoken out otherwise,” he says. “I don’t feel ready to do that [and] I think others are better at that than I would be.” Interestingly, Britton isn’t convinced that all of the kids who did participate “actually understood what it was for. A lot of kids just wanted to leave class,” he says.
That’s one of Jackie Gillard’s concerns as a parent too. “It’s great that kids are interested in politics and advocating for themselves… but you have to balance that with students walking out because they’re passionate for the reason behind the walkout, and not doing it to go along with their friends or to get out of school.”
Gillard believes it’s her responsibility as a parent to ensure that, if her daughter chose to participate in a walkout that she “understood the complexity of the issue and did so respectfully.” And that’s the best rule of thumb a parent can adhere to: Before you walk, we need to talk.
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