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How do I manage my child's anxious desire to change the world? Add to ...

The question

My 11-year-old’s involvement with social issues has been creating an unhappy level of anxiety. How do I manage her (very desirable) concern for the world with my motherly instinct for her to feel happy and safe?

The answer

We’ve met thousands of parents who can relate to your question. One mom, Michelle Prowse in Newmarket, Ont., remembers her son James returning home after an especially thought-provoking day in Grade 3.

A visiting teacher had spoken to James’s class about the plight of children living in poverty in Uganda. James, a caring child, became instantly concerned about the issues – but he was deeply disappointed to find that his classmates didn’t share the same level of passion to help.

That Christmas, instead of giving a gift to his teacher, James made a donation to provide school supplies for children overseas. He drew up a certificate for his teacher about the gift he’d given in her honour, and, Ms. Prowse says, “He hasn’t stopped since.”

Although it sounds cliché, it’s true that the best cure for hopelessness is action. Kids feel injustice – as we adults probably still should – at its most basic level. Their anxiety comes from the raw, overwhelming sense of being powerless to fix it.

Even young children can understand most social issues at their essence, and they can act in simple and age-appropriate ways. The key, we’ve found, is to start small. If it’s local poverty, donate old toys and clothes to charities serving local families. If it’s environmental, do a park clean-up or start a family challenge to use less water and energy. If it’s international conflict, send cards to Canadian Forces troops overseas or organizations serving war-affected children.

Even something as delicate as domestic violence could involve making healthy snack kits for children in women’s shelters (that mom or dad drop off), as suggested by creative parenting expert Silvana Clark.It may be just as important to “stay small” – keeping goals achievable and expectations realistic – and to work with a group of friends or join an organization that shares their passion, to avoid the feeling of the world’s full weight on their shoulders. And make sure they’re involved in a broad range of activities, to avoid letting their identity become wrapped up in their issue. We were involved in rugby and swimming growing up, and James – now 12 – enjoys fencing and working toward his lifeguard certification when he’s not planning early-spring Kool-Aid stand fundraisers.

We’ve always believed in the power of fun to achieve a sense of perspective. Our favourite example is having a water fight with your teachers after a car-wash fundraiser, but even ordering pizza and taking a break to swim, play soccer or watch a movie after a group meeting are great ways to release the tension of working on serious issues.

In a society that often approaches social issues from a place of guilt and fear, it’s important to change the dialogue to hope and action. Celebrate the small victories in your child’s campaign with a party or a scrapbook. Replace (or complement) the posters of sports and pop stars on their walls with positive role models, heroes and quotes – think Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Terry Fox. Make sure they’ve heard of ordinary young Canadians who have made a difference in the world, like James Prowse.

We often hear that kids shouldn’t be exposed to social issues because it takes away the innocent carelessness of childhood. We (and thousands of our young friends who tackle the world’s problems and have great fun doing it) believe there’s plenty of time in childhood for both.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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