We often talk about children in terms of potential. We consider that one day they might do something important, something world-changing, or just be more than they currently are. You see and hear it all the time “he has so much potential” or “One day she will be a community leader”.

These are lovely sentiments, and the thought behind them is usually well-meaning. But think of them as part of a woven blanket. Each statement that puts children into having worth in the future or being able to contribute to their communities one day adds a patch or thread to a tapestry that ultimately can serve to silence them.

What if we started considering what children can do now? What if we told them that you can just as easily change the world at five as you can at 35 or 55? What if we really believed that? And then explicitly acted on it to try to encourage those around us to believe it too?

What if world leaders and people who can make real change in the world included children in their consultations and planning?

Wouldn’t we then have an even better chance of turning things around?

You might argue that toddlers and under-fives don’t have a great interest in politics – I’d say that isn’t true in my experience. We just need to widen what we view politics as being. Politics should be considered in terms of social justice. Right and wrong. Fairness. Respect. Caring for others. 

Social justice is hugely important to children, and so it should be. We talk about social justice every day with our children. I promise we do!

Consider this – How often has your child said: “It’s not fair!” Children have an innate sense of fairness. They want us to live by what is just and true. Of course, there are times when they must realise that having to leave the park because it’s getting dark might not feel fair but it is. But then there are other times when their view of fairness is spot on.

My son said to me after seeing homeless people on the street – “It’s not fair!”

He was very upset and told me firmly: “It’s not fair that some people have homes and others don’t”. My budding socialist wanted to understand injustice. He was displaying empathy and compassion – and justified outrage.

So where to from here? I wanted to encourage this, to talk honestly and openly with him, to help him understand his place in the world (and in that his privilege, or how lucky he is compared to other children). But I also didn’t want him to feel powerless or overwhelmed. It’s a balance.

3 kids holding hands

Here are some of the ways I have encouraged and nurtured these attempts at understanding world-changing issues with my children.

My first tip probably seems simple:

Listen

I think this is the most important one. I’ve listened. When my children have queried things that they don’t understand, things that confuse them because they’re far outside their experience or strike at the heart of the sense of justice – I listen. I listen rather than changing the subject. I want to admit that this has been hard to do. I want to protect my children. When they saw the WWII exhibit at our national museum, I lied and said that the soldier was sleeping. Later I considered why I’d said that – was I protecting my child? Was it better to speak honestly?

I didn’t and don’t have the answers.

Many children cannot avoid war. They live in it. But also, I now realise I didn’t need the words or answers to explain to him why the soldier was dead. I just needed to listen to him.

Luckily, to listen we don’t need the answers.


We assume children cannot cope when we say we don’t have the answer. That’s not true I think. I really believe they can cope, and it helps them understand that nobody knows all, and learning is a journey.

This leads me to my next tip:

Learn together

When my son has questioned me about war – and I’ve been unsure how to answer, we have looked up books and read together. We have learned about conscientious objectors, his ancestors and nonviolent resistance. We talked about courage and the sadness of war. We have read Sadako and the thousand paper cranes. We then made cranes and looked up pictures of her statues around the world.

Learning together we were on equal footing. I encouraged questions but I was also open about not having the answers. I tried to steer clear of stories of “bad men” and focused on the heroes of war, those people who helped others, hiding them or protecting them.

Had I not encouraged this conversation (because let’s be honest, I didn’t want to have it. I was worried about scaring him, saying the wrong thing . Also they always bring up these conversations at THE WORST TIME!) then we would not have been able to then talk about different ways of showing courage.

All of these conversations then flow into other parts of your child’s life.

If you’ve ever thought – in a war, I hope I’d be brave and help others – do you then consider ways to be brave and show respect and empathy for others in the playground? What if these conversations then encourage your child not to be a bystander when another child is being hurt?

My third tip is really not to do with children, it’s to do with adults.

Don’t laugh at children when they come up with ideas. Don’t minimise the things they come up with. And please don’t patronise them

My son came up with an idea to spend the day “patting every dog”. When we laughed and expressed that it was adorable – he was upset. He told us he felt like we were laughing at him when he was doing something to “take care of others” even if it was about taking care of dogs!

boy with dog on leash

I thought about all of the interactions we have with children where we scoff at their plans or laugh at their ideas. Where we say – one day, or use that “P-Word” potential.

What if we talked to adults like that? How awful would it feel if someone laughed at our idea and called us cute, then told us we had potential. The read between the lines would be that we had nothing to offer now.

If your child is obsessed with the ocean and wants you to stop using plastic bags – try it.

If they want to dry out seaweed to make seal food – give it a try. What’s there to lose?

If they want to start a campaign to get cats desexed because they read that kittens don’t always get homes at the SPCA – support them.

Think small – Could they create a poster that you then photocopy to go up at a pet store?

That could be a way of encouraging them, it’s an achievable task, and you never know – it might really work!

Some ideas they have won’t change the world, but what if some did? Now that’s potential. We have so much potential if we just listen to the children, learn from them, and follow their ideas – wherever they may take us.

And if you don’t change the world, I bet you’ll change their world. And isn’t that just as important?

Emily Writes is the editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Buy it here. Her second book Is it Bedtime Yet? is out now. Follow her on Facebook here.

Posted by Sonya McIntyre

Sonya went to Rata Street Kindergarten and Petone kindergarten. She gained her Bachelor of Education at Victoria University in Wellington and has worked as an educator and manager in home based care, community based and kindergarten services.


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