Youth Justice


I often write in this space about a national or global challenge confronting our children and recommend how readers might support a policy or initiative to address it. In this week’s column, however, I’d like to talk about how each of us can do more to personally develop our own children. As you know, a lot of the things children need to shape them into healthy adults come from those who raise them—love, self-confidence, a set of values and a generous spirit. To do a better job at conveying these attributes, I want to encourage us all to invest more “face time” in our children.

Many parents are doing a good job of raising their children while balancing the demands of careers and maintaining a household. But too many children are spending too many hours in counter-productive pursuits, aimlessly watching television or playing video games. I recommend we rediscover how to spend more one-on-one time with the young people in our own families—something I’m afraid many of us have gotten away from.

First, I want to emphasize the basics. Read to your children—starting while they are still in diapers. Sit down to dinner as a family and talk. Get your children off the couch and go on a family outing. Pack a lunch and share the experience of a nature walk or a bike ride through a local park. A wide variety of family activities that can stimulate intellectual curiosity and personal engagement require little preparation or expense. Feeding times at the zoo are both entertaining and educational. Make children feel at home in museums, too. Show them what special places they are, with all their rooms promising the excitement of discovery—whether that means meteorites, carved dolls from Ghana, the teeth of prehistoric sharks or Impressionist paintings. Many museums offer free tours. And don’t forget the planetariums.

There is a lot you can do close to home too. Share your hobbies, personal interests and passions. Plant a garden together—flowers in the front yard, vegetables in the back. Help children appreciate the work that goes into growing something the family can eat or decorate their homes with. Plant a tree on their birthdays. It’s good for the environment and will give children a sense of continuity and connection with nature. Teach your children how to cook five simple meals. Learning to cook is empowering.

Have a family movie night with films that will fuel discussion. Pop some popcorn and rent films like “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Whale Rider,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored.” These are the kinds of films that are both excellent family entertainment and filled with valuable lessons about integrity, courage, humanity, service, striving for excellence and the will to overcome obstacles. Take your children to live performances and story hours at your local library. Plays and stories develop a child’s imagination and introduce her or him to great literature.

Transform your car into a magic carpet, one that conveys children to places where they will be surprised and enlightened—some of those places might be just down the street. Become tourists in your own town. Contact your local visitors’ center or chamber of commerce for the schedules of guided tours of historic homes in your city, like the home of Frederick Douglass here in Washington, D.C.

Some states are truly living history books. Virginia contains the homes of several U.S. presidents, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Your family can step back into the 18th century at Colonial Williamsburg, a restored village where re-enactors demonstrate printing, shoemaking and wig making as it was done in colonial times. Visit Jamestown, settled 400 years ago, where enslaved Africans were first introduced to the British colonies in America.

There are wonderful history lessons in the Selma to Montgomery National Voting Trail in Alabama. Trace the birth of American independence on Boston’s “Freedom Trail,” or go to Ellis Island in New York, the port of entry for millions of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sow the seeds of generosity by volunteering with your children. Make a project of baking cookies and take them to a nursing home—stay and visit for a while. Take your children shopping for an elderly neighbor or clean up their yard. Support a family food or clothing drive for the homeless. If your children are 16 or older, take them to build homes with your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate or join a Christmas in April group to help a needy family with home repairs.

These are just some of the many ways to help children be their better selves. And I’ll share a little secret—you’ll have the time of your life.