5 ways you can encourage your child to be an "upstander"

I have a dream.” It’s hard to not think of these four words whenever I think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a parent, I want my sons to dream big. I want them to think they can be and do anything. And, I don’t want anything to hold them back.

But, I don’t just want them to be dreamers. I want them to take action to help make their dreams a reality.

A few weeks ago, my six-year-old son had to write down 10 potential story ideas to use as writing prompts in his English class. It took him a little while to think of the first one. But, when I read what we wrote down, it blew me away.

He wanted to write about a world where no one is ever teased.

After discussing it a bit, I knew this was his dream as a first grade student. He wanted to be surrounded by others who wouldn’t tease him – or those around him.

And, I know the dream and the desire is real.

Just the other day, I asked him why he doesn’t wear his once much-beloved “Psy” socks to school anymore. He said it’s because he was teased the last time he wore them.

Of course, I was quick to say that I was sorry that happened, and that he shouldn’t do something just because he was afraid to get teased. Rather, he should wear his socks with pride, if that makes him happy. And, if anyone teases him about it, he should say that it’s not nice to tease people.

But, I know that’s easier said than done. He’s only six years old. But, even at this young age, I do feel that I can and should encourage him to stand up for himself and try to help others who may be teased, too.

Yes, I think we, as parents, can begin to help cultivate young “upstanders.” And, who knows, they may just be the next generation of social activists, working to make the world a better place for everyone.

Upstander 2

The definition of an “upstander”

On January 19, we will commemorate the life, the dreams and the actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Dr. King’s famous I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, in 1963, he spoke about his dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

He went on to say he has a dream that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And, what a dream that is for anyone – and especially parents.

But, I also want to call out another equally remarkable portion of Dr. King’s speech. In it, he also spoke about the reason why everyone had gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – “to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.”

For Dr. King, “Now” was the time “to make real the promises of democracy” and also to “make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

And, that to me is the winning one-two combination of an “upstander” – someone who has a dream and understands the urgency of the “Now.” Whether that’s in bigger ways for adults or smaller ways for young kids.

If you look up “upstander” in the Urban Dictionary, you’ll see that it’s defined as someone who stands up for his or her beliefs. And, it’s someone who does what they think is right, even if they’re alone.

The website also lists words related to “upstander.” Words like decent, noble, valuable and worthy.

But, nowhere does it say that it’s simple or easy. Or, even that it’s the popular thing to do.

It’s hard. It’s challenging. It can be unpopular.

But, can it be learned? I’d like to think so.

These days, when you search the term “upstander” online, you’ll most likely see it closely tied to the issue of bullying. But, for this parent, I think the important attributes of an “upstander” can apply to anyone and any issue – even a young child being teased about his socks.

Here are 5 ways you can encourage your child to be an “upstander”:

1. Share inspiring stories of others who’ve made a difference in their community and the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday is the ideal day to share his inspiring story – as well as other Civil Rights leaders.

Leanna of All Done Monkey suggests reading “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” a picture book that tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and segregation, emphasizing Dr. King’s “use of big words rather than fists to solve problems and fight injustice.”

Julie of Creekside Learning also shares a list of books about Dr. King that are broken out by age group.

On Pragmatic Mom, you can find a list of “Great Biographies for Kids” from Paula Yoo. Her list includes “children’s picture book biographies about a wide range of characters, from the man who created the potato chip to a World War II hero to an Olympic Gold Medalist who overcame a physical disability to musicians, artists, and other unique heroes.”

On What Do We Do All Day, you can read through a list of picture books to “inspire kids to change the world.”

Over at A Book Long Enough, you can find a list of kids books about “regular people who dared to stand up.”

Everyday heroes are all around us, too. I bet you know other people in your community – of all ages – who’ve taken a stand and made a difference in their own ways. Maybe it’s a child who volunteered to shave their head to benefit children fighting cancer. Maybe it’s a family that collected donations for families in need. Or, maybe it’s another parent who volunteers for the local fire department.

Together, all of these stories can spur our children to identify ways they can be an “upstander,” be inspired to follow similar paths, and feel empowered to take action, too.

2. Discuss situations when your child can stand up for himself/herself or others. At the beginning of the school year, there was a fantastic article on “25 ways to ask your kids ‘so how was school today?’ without asking them ‘so how was school today?’” that made its way across the “interwebs.” The article, written by Liz Evans of Simple Simon and Company, includes probing questions that help get children talking like:

“What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?)”

“How did you help somebody today? How did somebody help you today?”

“If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?”

I appreciate these questions because they help go beyond just the school day and get to the emotions felt within your child’s school environment.

I would just want to add a few other questions to list that would further encourage children to open up about instances in their day when someone – or themselves – could have benefited from another person standing up for them to make sure they were treated right, felt comfortable, or were included. These questions can include:

“Was there a time you wished you had said something differently to a friend or adult today? What would you have said?”

“Describe your idea of the ‘best day ever at school.'”

“Did you or someone else do something that made someone sad or upset today? What should you have done to prevent that from happening? (Did you or someone else do something that made someone happy today?)”

“How many times did you ask your classmates how they’re doing today?”

“If you could go back in time, what would have done differently today? What would you have wanted someone else to do differently today?”

Each of the discussions that may stem from the answers to these questions can help our children understand when they can and should take action for the benefit of themselves, others around them and/or their community.

In our family, we’ve talked about the appropriate responses to use when someone teases you – or you see a friend being teased. We’ve also talked about how to be welcoming of new kids in their class or in a program. And, we’ve talked about how to respect each other – even when tempers run high. My hope is that these discussions will help led to natural, organic actions they can take to help themselves and others.

3. Encourage your child to use his/her voice to report issues or problems. Recently, I was reminded of the importance of encouraging children to use their voices to “report” an incident, problem or wrongdoing to an adult. My reminder came in the form of eloquent remarks given by the shihan (or senior teacher) at the karate dojo where my younger son takes classes.

One of the key takeaways for me was that children should be empowered to report a problem vs. told that they should “stop tattling” or “work it out on their own.”

This really resonated with me because I want my sons to “report” wrongdoings so that wrong behaviors can be stopped. And, I want them to know they can use their voice to stop something, make a change, or get help.

Together, as parents, we can try to no longer use the world “tattle.” And, instead, encourage our children to “report” issues or problems whenever they arise.

I’ve started doing it, and I now thank my sons for coming me to “report” a conflict so we can solve it together and discuss positive solutions to help prevent it from happening again.

4. Celebrate your child’s actions and his/her bravery when acting like a young leader. Being an “upstander” (or at least starting to head down that path) isn’t easy. As noted in a recent Slate.com article, a study from Harvard, based on in-depth interviews with 23 middle school students, showed that respondents supported the idea of being an “upstander” rather than a passive bystander. But, “half of them acknowledged that in practice they often laugh when they see others victimizing a peer in school.”

While kids want to help, and know that they should do so, they don’t always step in and say or do something. For that reason, we should celebrate any action – big or small – our children take to stand up for what’s right or when they come to another child’s or person’s assistance. We could recognize those times they sat near a new friend, used their voice to stop a friend’s unwanted actions, or modeled good behavior for others.

On the flip side, we also shouldn’t push them too hard either so that they feel under too much pressure to take any action.

By providing them with positive encouragement, we can build their confidence in themselves and their ability to be “upstanders” – one day at a time.

5. Be a good role model for your child by being an “upstander.” Our words mean a lot to encouraging and shaping our children’s behaviors, but our actions say just as much. By modeling “upstander” behaviors, we can positively impact our children’s ability to follow similar paths.

And, as in the case of our children, it doesn’t have to be a great feat. Little actions still mean a lot – especially to our young children.

For example, a few weeks ago, I learned about a questionable poster that was hanging in my sons’ school. It was just a poster that a student had probably drawn years ago as part of a class project. But, to me and another set of parents, we thought that it could be deemed as being culturally insensitive. So, I said something to the school administration, and they took it down.

Later, I spoke with my sons about what had happened so they could see how I took a step as an “upstander” within our school community. I wanted to set an example they could not only follow, but would want to follow as well.

I want them to know that I have their back no matter what, I’m here to coach them on how to reach and achieve their dreams, and I’ll be their biggest advocate and cheerleader forever and always.

What is your child’s dream for the world? Has he/she ever spoken up to help realize that dream? What have you done to encourage your child to be an “upstander?” What “upstander” behaviors do you model for your child? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

5 ways to be an up stander

This post is part of the Martin Luther King Day for Kids Series from Multicultural Kid Blogs. Come learn with other parents from around the world share resources to teach kids about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement and community service. Be sure to follow #MKBonMLK to find out even more.


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