Every month, I take my second-grader to a nursing home to visit the residents. He and a group of friends play games, bounce balls and do puzzles. I’d love to say that he jumps at the chance, but it’s always an ask. He’s 8. Part of him wants to be helpful because, abstractly, he knows it’s the right thing to do and he’s a sweet kid; a bigger part of him would rather spend Sunday morning in his taco jammies with his Nintendo Switch.

On our way over, I always explain that the residents are lonely. Many don’t get visitors. Most of them love seeing the kids. Even if they don’t interact directly, they love watching them goof around with beach balls. I tell him how good it’ll make them feel to see them playing. And I think he understands, even if he wishes he could be loafing in front of the TV. Right now, I just want to get him into the habit of volunteering, of seeing a world bigger than his own every now and then.

In that spirit, I talked to families throughout the area about how they inspire activism in their children—not just on a holiday like MLK Day, but year-round. This year, the holiday is especially poignant since it coincides with Tu BiShvat, a day when children traditionally plant seeds. What better day to start to plant new, flourishing traditions?

Operate on Your Kids’ Level

“I think MLK Day is a very Jewish concept. Our work is never done. There’s a lot you can fix. It’s very related to tikkun olam,” says Naomi Greenfield, a mom of a kindergartner and third-grader. She has brought her kids to rallies and protests, including the Women’s March and March for Science. She lets them make their own signs with their own messages.

She also incorporates kid-friendly books into her repertoire.

“After the election, we doubled down and bought out the library’s social justice books,” she says, laughing. She likes the “I Am” biographical series by Brad Meltzer, which focuses on diverse characters ranging from Sonia Sotomayor to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.

“We try to be thoughtful about books that have diverse characters and stories from different perspectives, and taking them to protests are ways to honor MLK year-round,” she says.

They plan to attend an African drumming session at the John F. Kennedy Library (when it reopens). The family also canvasses door-to-door during election season, but she keeps it engaging for her kids by playing games, especially with her number-loving kindergartner, such as spotting the numbers on houses. During these activities, conversation flows organically.

“It’s a nice, intentional time with your kids to talk about what we care about and how it’s important,” she says.

Find Their Favorite Cause

Hadassah Margolis founded the Inspo: Expo Brookline Action Fair at Congregation Kehillath Israel in the wake of the fatal Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017. Not long after, she says, her then 7-year-old noticed that their synagogue had security cameras.

“She had learned about racism in school already. But I explained anti-Semitism to her and how people don’t want Jews to practice what we believe, and the security cameras are one way to feel safer, to let us practice what we believe. I was so upset I had to tell her this,” she recalls.

As Brookline residents began to debate how best to respond to  Charlottesville, Margolis was motivated to create the activism fair, held on MLK Day at KI, where King spoke in 1966.

“We don’t need someone speaking at us while we hold candles,” she remembers thinking. She wanted to act.
“When they go low, we go local,” she says.
The second annual “science fair”-style event, happening at 12 p.m. on Monday, unites activists who showcase their favorite projects, with ways to get involved. Her 9-year-old is passionate about cats and will represent Boston’s Forgotten Felines, which re-homes abandoned cats. She’ll also sell handmade clay cat figurines, with all profits going to the organization.
This year, the town of Brookline will co-sponsor the event as part of its official MLK Day commemoration. Margolis expects more than 70 booths, with kids as young as second grade taking part in hands-on activities ranging from filling backpacks with goods for impoverished families to writing birthday cards for Holocaust survivors.
For parents, she says, “Find something you yourself are passionate about. If you’re excited, it will rub off on your child. Don’t force it. Say, ‘Hey, this is something I love to do.’ If your face lights up, it’s contagious.”
She also encourages parents to pursue local activities, where impact can be seen firsthand.
“This event happens in our neighborhood. KI is a block away. These are our neighbors. It makes it real and concrete.”
Weave Activism Into Daily Life
When Jodie Parmer is at Trader Joe’s with her two kids, she often sees a homeless person looking for food. The family always buys snacks to dole out as they leave.
“I try to make [activism] part of our daily language,” she says.
“Judaism has helped frame this for us: It’s not about God specifically, but there’s an underlying notion that this is what God wants of us, that we’re here to make the world a better place. It helps to frame it that way,” she says, such as when her daughter donates a duplicate toy or clothes she’s outgrown.
Sometimes, though, it can get intense. Not long ago, Parmer took her young son to a rally involving family separation at the border. Later, he wondered if he’d get taken away, too, and she explained that he was safe as a U.S. citizen. While it’s important for her children to go to these events, she says, she also tries to keep things light enough; her son enjoys looking at police officers and dogs instead of grappling with such big questions. On MLK Day, they’ll attend a cookie-decorating charity event in Lexington.
In that vein, she tries to frame good deeds in age-appropriate language that her kids will understand, such as likening good or bad actions to a pillow filled with feathers.
“You can never collect them all back, so make sure what you put out into the world is good,” she says.
Make It Tangible
Mareshia Donald is black, and her husband is Jewish. For Hanukkah, they incorporated their diverse cultural heritage along with a nod to those seeking asylum at the border through food, with fried chicken, fried tacos and Central American salads. Her 7-year-old twins then used their Hanukkah charity collection to support asylum-seekers, and the family talked about Hanukkah as a rededication.
“I explained that we should rededicate ourselves to bettering the world and supporting people who better the world,” Donald says. “I explained how people looking for a better life for their families have done some dangerous stuff, and how hard would you have wanted your family to have a better life? Not everyone has what they have.”
Most of all, says Jon Levine, an executive committee member at Cambridge’s Kahal B’raira Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which will participate in Cambridge’s MLK Day of Service, it’s important to ask: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”