Modeling Our Responses to Tragedies and Injustices

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Tragic events and injustices are happening in our world all the time. Right now, news feeds are informing us of the horrific shooting in Michigan, the devastating situation in Afghanistan, a new COVID strain, and so many other hard issues.,

A sense of social justice is in all of us, and of course, this includes our kids. When they were little, think how often they would say, “That’s not fair! ” As they get older, their scope of concern for others inevitably widens. 

I often hear from young people how stressed they feel when they learn of tragedies and injustices but feel like they can’t do anything to help.

The truth is there are ways they can help — ways we can all help — whether we are talking about responding to one-time events or to long-standing issues. 

Today I give ideas to spark conversations about how we, as influential adults in kids’ lives, have responded to injustices and tragedies throughout our lives (tiny and big) to strengthen young people’s mindsets that there are always things that can be done. Specifically, I focus on advocacy, volunteering, and donating.  

Our culture celebrates wealth far more than generosity. Let’s make a counter move. Let’s swap out a bit of screen time where our youth get flooded with ads to buy, buy, buy, and replace it with loving conversations about how we adults have worked to bring light to dark situations and how our kids can do things to help others right now. Small acts matter big time.


First, it is key that our kids know that taking the time to become more knowledgeable about issues is a type of advocacy because it allows us to be able to educate other people on the issues. 

But kids need to understand that as humans, we have to be mindful about what we decide to learn about. We can become obsessed with learning the details of tragedies, but does this really help us do advocacy? For example, how helpful will it be to read more and more details about the shooter and his family? 

Often, just like boundaries, we don’t know until we have crossed the line. We look back and think, “Gosh, I have gotten so into this story, and it has left me feeling raw, spooked, hopeless, and mad, and I don’t know what to do with all of this.”  

I work hard to analyze early on the costs and benefits of ingesting a lot of personal details of a story. My family sometimes teases me a bit for not knowing details of news stories, but that said, they know that I do that in order to protect my emotions and energy so I can put it towards acts of positive change. Will my modeling rub off on them? I hope so. 

Rather than being pulled in the specific of personal stories, advocacy really benefits from digging into the factors that contribute to specific incidences. So let’s take, for example, the horrific shooting tragedy in Michigan, where there are many policy issues at play that are ripe for understanding.  For instance, far less than half of U.S. states have safe storage or gun lock requirements. This is an area a family might get interested in and decide to do an action such as write letters to congress about establishing better policies. 

Discuss your advocacy experiences

Tell your kids about any topics you spent time learning about as a child, college student, or young adult. Did you go to any marches around Take Back The Night? South Africa Apartheid? Were there causes you wrote letters to congresspeople? Did you canvas for an environmental cause? Did you knock on doors to get out the vote? Did you work at food pantries?


Volunteering our time and attention can come in so many forms, and our kids will benefit from knowing how we have done this in our lives. There’s volunteering in person, such as helping rebuild homes after natural disasters or distributing food and blankets to those who lack shelter in our cities and towns. There’s volunteering from home, such as writing letters to school board members on a critical issue. Some of you concerned about screen time issues have volunteered to bring the Screenagers films and online discussions to your communities.  

Discuss your experiences of Volunteering

What are some ways you have volunteered while growing up and throughout your life? Be sure to talk about how it was or was not meaningful to you and how you dealt with that. For example, what if you were bagging food for the homeless and 30 other people were volunteering, but you felt they needed just five people for the work. 

Personally, I have incredible memories of volunteering in a free clinic for two years in Washington D.C. after college. One thing I did there was to establish  “Wellness Clinics” where all these wonderful elderly people (mainly women) who had diabetes would come, and we would talk about nutrition, eat a healthy meal, and dance around for exercise. It was a lot of fun. I am sure it was I who got the most out of the experience.  

Donating funds

For many years I have been keenly aware of how little people talk with each other about specifics around donating and whether they even do it? If so, do they allot a certain percentage of their income? Who do they donate to? 

Money and donating are highly charged and emotional topics. There are many reasons for this,  including the very large differences in income and savings that people have. 

The point is kids get very little exposure to discussions around donating money, and often this is only in their homes which means, it is key we have ongoing discussions about it. 

Discuss your experiences in making donations

Discuss the spoken or unspoken beliefs around donating money in your home when you were growing up? How has that impacted you as an adult? Now, as an adult, what influences your decisions to make any donations? 

Having done mental health advocacy for 15 years, I have long made contributions to mental health organizations.  Also, I have a policy that I always give some of my donations to friends who ask for contributions. I personally know how asking for donations is a really vulnerable act, and how donations of any size can mean a lot to the person asking. 

This is the time of year when many people donate. Are your kids aware of the tax exemptions that occur when making donations to 5013c organizations? 

Questions to get the conversation started:

  1. What experiences as an adult around advocacy can you share with youth in your life? 
  2. What experiences as an adult around volunteering can you share with youth in your life?  
  3. What experiences as an adult around making donations can you share with youth in your life? 
  4. What are some reasons why asking others about their donating choices is pretty taboo?
  5. What can be done together this month to make a difference, no matter how small, to any hard situation happening in our world right now?