The popular story about accomplished child rights activist Craig Kielburger is that he was provoked to action by the story of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy murdered for speaking out against child labour.
While that shocking story was the catalyst for Kielburger’s Free the Children foundation, it was actually a much smaller, less publicized event a few months earlier that gave him the confidence to believe he could change the world.
Kielburger, 12 years old at the time, organized his friends to save the local library from closing. “One day there was a sign that said it was going to be closed and there was a meeting taking place,” he says. “I went to my parents all upset. My parents kind of looked at me and said, “Well, do something about it.”
Kielburger says parents often ask him how to ignite that same kind of social concern and passion in their children.
“A lot of people think there’s a giant catalyst spark; it has to be an article or one thing. In fact, it’s a lot of small things that can add up to finding a cause,” he says.
Kielburger says children can be inspired by a single event or image outside of themselves, such as famine in Africa, or they’re moved to action by something thrust upon them — usually negative — such as illness or the loss of a loved one.
Jake, 11, of Montreal is one of those kids. He was diagnosed with leukemia five years ago and spent 130 weeks receiving chemotherapy and other treatments at the hospital. Saddened by the number of children he saw who had nothing to distract them from the needles and surgeries, Jake told his mother, Nathalie, he wanted to raise money to buy toys, electronic games and movies for the hospital. As a result of a fun fair held in that year at a local park, they raised $18,000. Today, The Comfy Cozy Fund has raised more than half a million dollars thanks to community, media and corporate support.
“It taught me how I could give and help other kids — and how kids can make a difference in other kids’ lives,” says Jake.
For many children, their activist passions develop because their families are socially engaged. “When I was a kid and we would go downtown (in Toronto), we would pass people who were homeless and panhandling,” says Kielburger. “My mom would walk up to them and ask them their names when she was handing them a few coins,” he says. “I used to think she was doing it to be nice to these people, and I realized only later she was doing it so I would stop and hear that they had a name and to acknowledge their humanity.”
Kielburger says parents often believe they have to help their child find a cause. But he says they will find it on their own in the right environment. Hang a map on her bedroom wall and show her where news stories are happening. Keep a jar of loose change and donate it to charity once a month. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or give presents to causes, rather than each other, around the holidays. More than anything, he says, show them that you are passionate about something.
“If you want your child to volunteer, then volunteer yourself. If you want your child to have a cause, speak openly and passionately about your cause,” he says. But you also need to know when to get out of the way, according to Kielburger.
“When kids have their passion and they’re running with it, parents just need to give support,” he says, “whether it be by asking the questions or guiding the research or offering the pizza parties when their friends get together or acting as the chauffeur.”
Most importantly, Kielburger feels it’s important to be honest with children about the world around them. “The most damning thing is often the natural reaction of parents. You don’t want to expose your children to violence and poverty and suffering. You don’t want that for your child, so often parents will turn to the next page of the newspaper or turn the channel. Or if they see a homeless person, they’ll say “it’s okay.’ I’ve never understood that,” he says. “Kids don’t magically turn 18 and suddenly care. It’s recognizing that when you tell a young person to close their eyes, they can’t.”