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How to raise kids who give back to the world

Optimism, not despair, is the way to inspire kids to help the future.

Teenagers at a climate protest in Krakow, Poland, on October 14, 2019
Teenagers at a climate protest in Krakow, Poland, on October 14, 2019.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

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 kids overseas, I gave them all my lunch money. I was the target audience for dozens of pitches about how I, as a child, could do good in the world — from fighting climate change to ending global hunger.

Now, as an adult with my own kids to raise, I have profoundly mixed feelings about how all these important moral messages were taught to me and how I see them imparted to teenagers today. I think we can do better when we talk to kids about how to do good in the world.

Here are some things I wish I’d been told, which would have been incredible conversations to have with my parents and which would have equipped me better to achieve real good in the world as an adult.

Be confused openly and out loud, but also treat confusion as something that can be solved

Too often, the messages I got from adults about how to do good in the world fell into one of two camps.

One camp was full of excessive, yet conflicting, certainty: obsessing over cutting out plastic bags in favor of cloth reusable bags, or telling me that I shouldn’t get cloth ones if I was going to lose them before I’d gotten at least 50 uses out of them. I was told never to use plastic water bottles because of the chemicals, or that the metal ones were even worse for the environment. I got simplified presentations of geopolitical situations like the now-infamous Kony 2012.

Obviously, this can be disorienting and ultimately disillusioning. If a situation is complex, and presented to you without complexity, then when you learn the full picture it’s easy to lose confidence even in the parts that really are simple.

The other camp (perhaps made up of disillusioned veterans of the first camp) tended to go too far in the other direction, insisting that nothing really mattered and it was impossible to know if any organization did any good. That’s where I heard that there was no point in giving money to homeless people as they’d just waste it on drugs, and no point in pushing for political change as no one in Washington was trustworthy, and no way of telling whether overseas charities made the world a better place for the recipients. Sometimes, people telling me those things wanted me to give up entirely. Sometimes they just wanted me to “choose with your heart!” rather than trying to figure out what worked.

Either way, this was alienating too. What I wanted to hear was that my questions were good questions and possible to answer. We could look up what people experiencing homelessness do with money (they don’t spend it all on drugs) and which international charities are best. We could research issues 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 being a producer of those things. It can be tremendously empowering to tell a young person, “I don’t know the answer, and it might be no one knows the answer, but let’s try to learn it.” Knowledge isn’t handed down from on high; it is produced, and kids deserve to see, and be part of, that process.

Don’t use your kids as a way to deflect your own guilt, despair, or frustration — and teach them to recognize when other adults do it

Some adult climate activists in particular relate to kids in a way that can be very damaging. Often, they’re frustrated 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, putting huge burdens on the shoulders of people who are just starting to figure out their own priorities.

Sometimes, kids get exaggerated messages about climate change, like that they will personally die young from climate change, which broadly isn’t true. When I see kids holding signs that say “Why should I study for a future I won’t have?”, I don’t feel inspired by their conviction; I feel frustrated that someone, probably someone grappling with their own guilt and anxiety about climate change, told children that there’s no future. This is not a good way to inspire them to fight for it or a fair way to enable them to set their own priorities.

Needless to say, not only is there a future, but studying is one of the best ways for a child to be positioned to tackle climate change. It’s seriously wronging kids to discourage them from the very paths that will let them make a difference in the world by telling them there’s no world to make a difference in.

We all have our moments of despair and hopelessness, but kids aren’t equipped to take those expressions of frustration with an appropriate grain of salt. Don’t put that on them.

Take your kids’ moral convictions seriously

Teenagers have deeply felt moral convictions. They may go vegan, become activists for a social cause, get passionately angry about issues, explore religion or deconverting from religion, demand to know why your family doesn’t give all its money away to charity.

I know this because as a teenager I became a vegetarian, became a committed effective altruist, got very worried about artificial intelligence, explored Jewish observance, came out as a lesbian, spent most of my savings trying to help 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 patiently waited out. I really am a lesbian, now married with a wonderful wife. We invite all our friends to our weekly Shabbat dinners. I have varied the exact details of my diet over the years, but I still avoid factory-farmed meat. I’m still an effective altruist; my wife and I donate 30 percent of our collective income to the best global health charities we can identify. If my parents had seen my radical life changes and decided to talk me out of them, or to assume I’d outgrow them, they would have missed out on connecting with me, their child who was trying to make sense of her moral priorities and personal identity in a confusing world.

You might worry if your child is changing rapidly and adopting lots of new priorities you don’t understand. And they might not stick with all their new ideas. But you want to nurture a relationship with your actual child, the person in front of you, not with some extrapolated future version of them.

That means valuing the compassion, curiosity, generosity, and conviction that has led your child down whatever paths they’re traveling, and it means genuinely listening to them and learning both alongside and from them. That seriousness and respect will mean the world to your kids — and help them to conquer the world.

This piece first appeared in Vox’s Extra Curricular newsletter. Sign up here!