Reflections on Children Participating in Demonstrations

Posted by Debbie and Charles Gibbs on 1/12/17 3:15 PM

Crowd-Walking-2.jpgSince the election, many members of the Lowell community, ourselves included, have struggled to understand how to honor our core values—including mutual respect, inclusivity, and diversity—when they seem to be under assault. We have heard many parents wondering what it will mean for them and their families to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, to stand up publicly for the values they cherish, and to stand in solidarity with people and rights they feel are threatened. We’ve heard parents discuss marches and wonder about taking their child(ren).

Given this current reality, and since, living in Washington, DC, it is not unusual to encounter a demonstration in progress on a family museum trip on the Mall, we feel called to offer some reflections to help parents decide if and how to include their child(ren) in demonstrations in support of values they cherish. To frame the question from an educational perspective: How do we help our children understand and exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of the United States of America in support of the values they hold most dear? We believe the future of a strong democracy requires that we answer this question in thoughtful, proactive ways.

Having been teenagers in the late sixties and college students in the early seventies, we’re very familiar with marches and demonstrations and standing up publicly for our own rights and the rights of others. Many times throughout our lives, we were able to experience firsthand the difference a collective voice made. As parents of young children, in the eighties and nineties, we had opportunities as well.

One particularly poignant protest we participated in with our 3rd grade son and nursery school-age daughter stands out in our memories. We elected to participate as a family in a vigil outside San Quentin Prison, protesting the death penalty. Our son was interested in the issue and well-prepped to participate in the vigil. Our daughter was too young to take it in at the same level, but, from birth, was fascinated by people and emotion. This was a small, peaceful, and relatively brief demonstration, so safety issues were no different from any other outdoor nighttime outing. That we still remember this family event says that it was probably a good call for us to attend.

Does this sound like an appropriate activity for a family? Not everyone would answer the same way. For our family it was. How do you know what’s appropriate for yours?

Deciding Whether to Bring Children to a Vigil, March, or Protest

Children do learn from the examples their families set, and a family working together to fight for ideals is a way of sharing family values and connecting in a meaningful way. If you plan to involve your child(ren) in a demonstration, ask yourself:

  • Why is this important to me?
  • Why might it be important for my child(ren)?
  • Does it make more sense for me to attend alone or with my family?

If you decide to bring your children, then it is important to find ways to help give them some context for the experience. These are some questions you might discuss:

  • What are the issues?
  • Why do they matter enough for your family to consider taking part in a public event?
  • Who else would care about these issues?
  • Why are so many people demonstrating?
  • What is the other side’s point of view?
  • What do you hope to accomplish by being there and what do you hope to accomplish for your children?

If it is important for you to be present to make a strong statement of solidarity with a cause, your child will learn by your actions, even if your child does not attend. To include your child, share in advance where you are going and briefly explain why. Take pictures of the event. Afterwards, share what the experience was like at a level of detail appropriate for your child. This may be enough for a younger child. On the other hand, your child may be engaged in the issues and feel strongly about participating. If you decide this is appropriate, you need to plan your participation to safeguard your child’s wellbeing and do everything you can to help them have a positive experience.

Supporting a Positive Experience

If you decide to take your child(ren) to a vigil, march, or protest, be ready to be very responsive to them in real time. It is important to remember that much of what we take away from an experience is not the words, but the overall feel of an experience and the internal impact it made.

So, you may need to experience the event from the outskirts where the experience is less intense, or you may need to leave early because your child(ren) have had all they can handle. You might also make a plan to be able to allow part of the family to stay, even if part of the family leaves early. An advantage of leaving early is that it can cut down on crowded public transportation experiences, which are hard with young children.

You should be prepared, and know how to respond, if you encounter people who support the issues you care about, but whose behaviors violate your beliefs. For example, you may encounter people engaging in violent speech and/or actions. You may also encounter counter-protesters. They may hold different beliefs but share the same values about appropriate behavior, or they may demonstrate both beliefs and behavior you feel are wrong. If you’re sure that you and your child(ren) are safe, these moments may provide an opportunity for learning.

Safety Considerations

  • Going to a demonstration or political event but staying on the edges may be the best choice for safety, especially for younger children. Sometimes you can even locate a playground in the area so the children have a chance to play and run around safely and the adults have the feel of being at the event.
  • Marches, as long as people are not really packed in, can be easier to manage in general than a demonstration that is all in one place. Children can engage in a march better because they are moving and can see more—as long as the marchers are relatively spread out.
  • Avoid over-crowded situations. Keep in mind that adult crowds are very difficult for children. Standing in one place or walking, children can easily be overwhelmed by a sea of legs and rear-ends. They can’t really see what is going on, and they can be more easily knocked over. While kids can jump up and recover more easily than adults, they cannot do this if it is too crowded. And, it is easy to lose a child in a crowd.
    Crowds can be encountered getting on/off the metro, moving towards the location of the event, and at the location. If for any reason a crowd starts to move quickly, it becomes all the more difficult to keep children safe. Also, be alert to the mood of the crowd. When emotions are high, triggers are more frequent, so you need to be vigilant for unexpected threats or violence. When in doubt, move to the outskirts of the event or cut the day short.
    If you find yourself in a potentially dangerous crowd situation, edge sideways or diagonally towards the side, not working backwards against the tide. If your child is able to keep up, keep a firm grip and move together. If your child is not able to keep up, temporarily lift the child up into your arms balanced on your hip rather than overhead.
    Make sure you have a plan for where to meet if your group is separated. Children should be taught exactly what to do if they end up alone, which includes looking for a uniformed officer and explaining who they are. If they know the agreed upon meeting spot, the officer can help them get there. Children old enough to carry a cell phone and use it ought to have one, as this is one of the easiest ways for you to stay connected.
  • Dehydration, extreme cold, or too much sun can be dangerous. Be prepared.

Practical Considerations

  • Supplies: Bring plenty of snacks, water, warm layers for winter, sun screen, sun hats, baby wipes or hand sanitizer, etc. in easy-to-carry backpacks. Also, something to put out on the ground to sit on (in case there is an opportunity to sit down) can be handy. It should be lightweight and, ideally, keep ground moisture away.
  • Time: Be realistic about the amount of time a child can participate in an event like this. This varies with the child, the conditions, and the child’s interest level. Make your plans around the probable length of time, but bring more supplies than you think you will need in case all is going well and you can stay longer.
  • Entertainment for waiting times: A deck of cards does wonders to hold kids’ attention and weighs very little. Fully charged cellphones, loaded with a few games, might be a good idea. Having kids document the event through pictures adds some meaning and a context for debriefing later.
  • Restrooms: Needing a restroom with little notice has often been one of the most challenging aspects we’ve experienced when taking children to these events. So, know where there are nearby restrooms, even if the only option is to buy something at a fast food place in order to use the facilities. A small pack of baby wipes can come in handy for hand cleaning.

Talking About the Experience Afterwards

Finally, if you do take your child(ren) to a demonstration or a march, make time to debrief afterwards in age-appropriate ways. Your child may want to discuss the event directly. You may find smaller moments when your child connects to the experience, and you can add your own observations. Sometimes it is best to let a child simply absorb for a while. You can ask about their experience a little later. If your child doesn’t bring up the event, look for ways to have the conversation. For example, “I was thinking about the march yesterday and how much it meant to me to be with so many people who wanted what we want.” Then, see if your child responds. A direct question sometimes works, but many children feel more open and are more likely to talk when it feels like it is a conversation, not a lesson or inquisition, so be creative.

(Photo Credit: © Andreusk |—Crowd of People)


Debbie Gibbs is head of school at Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and currently serves on the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs is an Episcopal priest, a visionary, and a poet who has dedicated his life to serving the sacred in the world, especially through interreligious and intercultural engagement. His new volume of poetry— Light Reading: Selected Poems from a Pilgrim Journey—is now available. He recently became Senior Partner and Poet-in-Residence for the Catalyst for Peace foundation, providing leadership and support for CFP’s organizational evolution. From 1996 until his retirement in 2013, he served as the founding executive director of the United Religions Initiative. As executive director, he worked with thousands of colleagues around the world to guide URI’s growth from a vision to becoming the world’s largest grassroots interfaith network.

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Topics: Parenting, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion