Activist parents can be grouped into two broad categories. The first consists of those whose lives are totally dedicated to fighting for their cause, often political, and whose children often seem to take second place to this. It is not uncommon in television pictures of political marches, rallies and demonstrations to see very tiny children toddling along beside their parents or carried on their shoulders, wearing badges and waving placards.
Having activist parents of this type can have contrasting effects on the offspring, turning them into either ardent supporters or cynical opponents of the cause. The journalist Connie Schultz tells of the time she was helping her husband campaign for the US Senate, and was helped by a young woman called Wendy who at 31 was a seasoned campaigner, being the child of activist parents. Wendy’s childhood cat was named Sam after Sam Ervin. When she was six her parents took her out of school to attend the swearing-in ceremony for the State Governor. She took her report on the event to school the next day, and when she found her teacher was on strike, her parents took her to the picket line so she could present her report in person. Ms Schultz observes that Wendy’s parents’ activism ensured she was a dedicated and completely tireless campaigner to change the direction of the country.
On the other side, the famous British comedian Alexei Sayle tells how he grew up in Liverpool as the child of a railway worker and his wife who were active campaigners for the Communist Party. Whereas other children went on holidays to the seaside, his parents used their railway passes to spend every holiday in Eastern European communist countries. Other children got to see the movie Bambi which he really longed to see, but he was not allowed to, because Disney was a supporter of McCarthyism. Instead he was taken to see Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. Sayle nowadays is a cynical satirist of all political ideologies.
It is a controversial issue as to how far parents are justified in involving their children in their political activities, or indoctrinating them with their ideologies. Of course, from the parents’ viewpoint, these values are the right ones, so they would be failing in their duty if they failed to pass them on to their children. However, some people feel that it robs the children of the chance to choose what they believe, or of having a balanced viewpoint.
The other main category of activist parents encompasses those who campaign on behalf of their children. Huge numbers of campaigns come into this category. These range from the small one-person campaigns launched by a parent who is unhappy about something at his or her child’s school, to those that grow into nationwide organizations. One example of the latter is Stand For Children (SFC), headquartered in Portland, Oregon. It started as a group of parents in Portland wanting to fight for such issues as dental care for children from uninsured families, child abuse prevention programs, and funding for after-school activities. It has now grown into a national organization with a chapter in every state, though some members fear it has lost sight of its original principles and become too corporate.
One of the saddest groups of activist parents consists of those who have lost their own children and campaign to prevent other children suffering the same fate. One example is Candy Lightner, who in 1980 founded Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD), after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Another is the mother of Megan Kanka, who campaigned for Megan’s Law after her daughter was murdered by a known child sex offender. There are very many similar campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. Some critics claim that these campaigns are simply a way of trying to fill the huge hole in the mothers’ lives in a meaningful way, but many other parents are grateful for their efforts.
Whereas the activist parents in the first category can often be quite outgoing and vociferous people, those in the second category are sometimes rather shy and retiring. They find themselves pushed into a leadership role, or the role of a spokesperson, simply because they feel very strongly about something, and nobody else is going to take on the job. The children of seriously active parents often have mixed feelings about their experience, with some feeling that they have been deprived of part of their childhood. It would certainly be very sad if nobody cared enough about anything to campaign about it. However, child rearing must not be allowed to take a back seat.