It’s Only Right: Writing about Social Responsibility for Children

by Christine Venzon

My introduction to social action came in Sister Patricia’s second-grade class, through a practice that Catholics of a certain age will recognize as “saving pagan babies.” Every month, my classmates and I sent money we had saved to “the missions,” to be used to adopt an orphan child in a Third World country: a baby boy one month, a girl the next. We suggested names for the child (always saints names—no Garys or Gingers) and voted for our favorite. 

Deceptive? A little. I won’t find a Katherine Marie or Christopher Michael, adopted in 1972, living in Tanzania. The money actually went to support schools and other programs. But today, after 15-plus years of writing for high school textbooks and children’s magazines, I bow to the wisdom of that inspired charade. It used effective techniques to help us come to terms with issues of poverty, injustice, and other evils of the world.

These days, the Internet and 24-hour news networks bring these issues into the living room. Parents and educators are looking for reasoned voices to guide children in making sense of all the goings-on. That’s where writers come in. Whether our medium is fiction or nonfiction, making sense of things is what we aspire to. And if you can do it for kids, you might even nudge the problem toward a solution. 

1. Make numbers manageable. 

Big problems tend to include big figures. Fortunately kids love numbers, but presented in graspable form. While living in Louisiana, I learned that the state loses about 30 square miles of wetlands every year. Writing for my nine-year-old neighbor, I might translate that as a football field of wetlands every half-hour. Better yet, ten to twelve McDonald’s restaurants. 

Incidentally, regarding sources of information, editors of children’s magazines are as exacting as any other. Maybe all the experts interviewed on all the news shows said that human activity has degraded the wetlands. You need to site an expert—say, Charles Villarrubia, from the April 4, 2006 broadcast of Newshour. Better of course, to contact Mr. Villarubbia himself for fresh quotes. 

2. Use positive spin. 

Kids have a low tolerance for ugliness, and a self-oriented skew on life. Back in second grade, pictures of starving children would have inspired nightmares (“What if that happens to me?”), not compassion. On the other hand, the idea of adopting a baby, giving her food and clothes and a home, was safe and comforting. It hit us where we lived without threatening our sense of security.  

So if you want to tell children about the problems of pollution, describe the benefits and beauty of a clean environment—clean air to breathe while they play with friends, otters frolicking in a clean ocean—versus rising asthma rates and oil-coated seagulls washed up on the shore. 

Of course, that means some areas are off limits for now. There’s no upside to evils like child prostitution or children soldiers.  

3.  Put them to work. 

Kids, God bless ‘em, love to help. Whatever money we raised in Sister Patricia’s class couldn’t have been much, but it was something we could do. And it made a difference.

That message is essential for effective writing on social responsibility. Kids need to know what they can do. Keep ideas reasonable, but don’t underestimate the power of little people, especially in large numbers. Think of Alexandra Scott, who turned her own battle with cancer into a crusade to help all children with the disease, and raised over $1 million dollars through Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation before dying at age eight. Today, a legion of youngsters has pushed that figure to $25 million and counting. Why can’t a 12-year-old start a letter-writing campaign to ban cluster bombs? Why can’t a Scout troop ask the county board for better conditions at the state-run nursing home they visit?

4. Unite and conquer. 

I am the social responsibility fairy (or gremlin) of the family. When people leave the living room to use the bathroom and find the lights turned off when they get back—I’ve been there. Stale bread recycled in casseroles and aging apples salvaged as applesauce? My doing, too. I’m an adult, so I get away with it. 

But a preteen who insists the family buy fair trade coffee and wear kaftans woven by a women’s cooperative in Bangladesh is going to face frustration to say the least. Call this a flipside to the above: Choose a slant and suggest activities that are likely to meet with approval, or at least nonresistance. Think family fun, bonding, cooperation. Recycling, collecting for a food drive, giving outgrown clothes to a homeless shelter—all are fairly safe ground. 

5. Watch where you point that finger. 

When problems arise, it’s usually helpful to find the root causes. For writers who have a particular political agenda (I prefer the term social vision) it can also be a challenge to avoid implicating fat, juicy targets: the government, the media, big business.  

Simplistically placing blame like this is, first of all, useless. Until the age of about 12, children can’t understand long histories of cause and effect that create social problems. (Some adults, myself included, get lost there too.) It’s also unfair; painting government or business as evil ignores the real good that it does. Kids start to see through the blanket statements to the writer’s own bias. The message loses credibility. 

Broad-brush condemnations also foster an us-against-them mentality, not to mention an annoying self-righteousness, that blinds people to finding workable solutions. So maybe the big auto makers are partly to blame for our addiction to gas-guzzling SUVs. They’re trying to make hybrids—give ‘em a little credit. And it’s not like they hid the Ford Focuses when shoppers came to the lot.

Finally, inevitably, the target of blame is going to be right in the child’s neighborhood. Mom is as likely to drive an Explorer as a Prius. The result is a kid in conflict and an irritated parent—and possibly, a cancelled subscription, an alarmed editor, and an unsold story. 

The moral of the story is an old one: know your audience. And treat it with care.

Christine VenzonComment