How Growing Your Child’s Sense of Justice Can Change the World


I don’t normally stray from topics of writing here because I know that is why you visit this blog. But I also know that we have a lot of parents in this community and that our children—all our children— will need to figure out the solutions to the problems that are looming ever larger on this fragile planet of ours.

Because, like in the first two lines of that Whitney Houston song:

I believe that children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way

So when the smart and accomplished Christine Koh, author, blogger, and digital marketer, invited me to write a blog post about the United Nations Foundation’s Global Goals, I knew I had to do it.

In a nutshell, the 17 goals are a roadmap for ridding the world of extreme poverty, ensuring an equal education for girls and boys, and protecting our environment for future generations.

Of all the goals in this ambitious campaign, number 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions,  is truly one of my life passions. It reads:

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.  

Robert F. Kennedy summed it up well way back in the 60s:

“Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see a law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.”

If there is one thing we can say about kids, it is that they recognize “fair” when they see it. And in the absence of it, they are vocal.

Just give one of your kids a teaspoon more ice cream than the other one. I can guarantee. You will not hear the end of it. It is one of the endearing—and sometimes annoying—traits of children.

What happens when 20 kids create their own city?

In my 17 years of teaching, I thought I had seen it all—until I started teaching classes of gifted students. I learned early on that their sense of justice was particularly fierce. They recognized even the slightest wrongs, sometimes before I did. And they were determined to  make the guilty pay up, if it was humanly possible.

They were only ten-year-olds, but they were on high alert. You might say they were the ‘fairness police.’

In this program, I worked with a team to  create the curriculum—all the lessons, all the projects. We were given the freedom to approach subject areas like social studies in less traditional ways.

I wanted to know what 20 kids with a keen sense of justice would do if I threw them all together in a simulated city, complete with socio-economic inequities.

They could not choose another role or lot in life, but they were given the freedom to figure out how to better their situations within the confines of their assigned roles and with the requirement that they use peaceful means.

I knew that in order for kids to grasp such a weighty issue as social justice, I needed to bring it down to their level. They needed to first feel empathy (what was it like to walk in someone else’s shoes?). There needed to education (what things prevent people from being safe, healthy and happy?). And, finally empowerment (what exactly could they do about the problem?).

I call them the 3 E’s.

Empathy But thats not fair

Empathy: ‘But that’s not fair!’

Kids drew their identities from a glass jar. The pieces of paper told them their name, their age, their ethnicity, their job title and income, what part of the city they lived in, and other details. Some drew positions like city council member, with residences in a gated community. Others became disadvantaged, low-income workers. Someone else pulled the identity of landlord for the tenement housing. Another kid was the mayor. Another one, a police officer. And so on.

Reactions were immediate and they held nothing back.

‘That’s not fair! How come Josh gets to be the mayor?” And, “I have to live in this shack and I don’t even have a car?”

As life in the city unfolded and situations chosen randomly by the teacher (the water in the tenement houses was shut off because of leaky pipes that were in disrepair, or someone was burglarized, or the school district decided to close the school closest to the low-income apartments), students got a good taste of what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

At the end of the day, we gathered together to talk about how we felt about what happened. In our talks, emotions often ran high as the frustrations were shared.


Education: ‘Do some people really have to live like this?’

These were kids who, for the most part, lived in nice houses, always had enough food to eat and at least one parent, often two, who had the means to support their physical and emotional needs

As the simulated city experience continued,and students settled into their roles, they began to see how some people have the cards stacked against them and how sometimes institutions like local government, depending on who is in charge, can either improve things or make them worse.


Empowerment: ‘What can I do about this?’

This was the critical piece. Feeling the impact of social injustices, and learning more about why they exist were important first steps. But beginning to figure out what could be done about it, the speaking out part, was the only way they could realize that they had the power to make a difference.

When the conversations with their landlord went nowhere, the tenement dwellers drafted a petition to present to the city council. When the school board proposed closing the school and parents in the tenement housing, who had no cars, found out that they would have to take three bus transfers and spend 45 minutes if they wanted to visit their child’s new school, they got together and decided to tell the school board about their concerns.

They learned to take action.

‘But I’m not a teacher,’ you say

Well, no, maybe not in a technical sense. But you teach, every day. I would go so far as to say that you are even more important because you are your kid’s  first teacher. You lay the foundation for everything that follows. And you can build on the work that is done in the classroom to give your child a wider, more inclusive worldview. Here are some ideas for reinforcing the 3 E’s:


The development of empathy in children will help them understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Because without empathy, they don’t know what injustice feels like and they aren’t as interested in the outcome. Some ideas for parents:

Encourage your child to identify and talk about her own feelings.

Read books together that include empathy as a theme and talk about why the characters did what they did. Suggestions for the 3- to 8-year-old crowd: Bully, a simple animal tale of bullying; The Invisible Boy, a story about reaching out to a left-out kid; Charlotte’s Web, the classic tale about what it means to be a good friend.

Hold family meetings in which your kids are challenged to listen to and respect their siblings’ perspectives, even if—especially if— they are different from their own.

Model compassion and empathy because your children are watching. When you see an injustice, speak out about it and explain why it’s a problem.

When your child comes home from school and complains about a conflict with another student, ask how she felt about it and how the other student might have felt.

Consider adopting a rescue animal for your child to care for. Sympathy and compassion for the helpless is one of the best ways to build empathy.


empathy and education


The learning part will help kids understand the problems.

Read to them (or buy books for them to read). Aim for a mix of ethnic and social-economic diversity. Some suggestions: Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry, one black family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride and independence in the face of social injustice;  Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Wordsthe true story of a young Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban because she advocated education for girls; My World, Your World, a message of diversity and dignity.

Model social justice for your children.

Use the times your child notices differences in public to engage in conversations about them. Listen to her and answer her questions honestly and openly.

Watch movies with your child. If they are old enough, watch a film like The Grapes of Wrath together and talk about some of the inequities they saw.

Talk about some of the examples of social injustice around the world that you read about or see on the news.


Empowerment is a little more challenging, but it is also the most rewarding. If children just recognize problems, they will feel helpless. But if they are encouraged to do something about them, they are empowered. What a world that would be, if our future citizens felt like they could be part of the solution.

Some ideas for parents:

Involve your child in family decisions about donating to charities that help needy children and families.

Do in-person volunteering as a family if you can.

Model this for your kids by taking a stand yourself on something you feel strongly about, so they recognize the importance of it.

Talk to your child about why you choose not to buy a particular brand or product, for instance a clothing company with factories that use child labor.

Again, reading about normal people who have gone on to speak out about injustice will give your child role models to emulate.

Offer praise when your child shows a concern for social justice.

Take your child with you when you go to vote. If it’s an issue they can grasp, explain why you are voting the way you are.

If you’d like to learn more about helping your child understand the global goals for ending injustice and poverty, you can download this Parent Guide to the Global Goals.

I would be so grateful if you would spread the word about kids and the Global Goals. Sharing this post is easy. Just click on the Facebook or Twitter button at the top.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll be back with a writer-centric post next week!

Make sure you don’t miss a post.


  1. Claudia October 23, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    What an inspiring and compelling post Judy. I love the simulated city project that you developed for your 10 year olds as a teacher…what a great vehicle for incorporating those very important three E’s….empathy, education and empowerment. These are lessons that are so important and should be part of a child’s every day experience so that, moving forward, a sense of social justice will be inherent in each child’s way of thinking. Thank you Judy for sharing a most thought provoking post!


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 23, 2015 at 2:07 pm #


      Thanks for reading! No doubt some of this has fresh applications now that you are a grandmother. It is so exciting working with kids v]because their minds and hearts are little sponges. And they notice so much.

      Glad this post connected with you. Have a wonderful weekend. It is quiet around here. Just me and our rescue cat Sir Rochester. (Bob is speaking at WordCamp Seattle.)


  2. gwendolyn lawrence alley October 26, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    We are all teachers. We are all responsible to teach the 3 Es. Thanks for this reminder.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 26, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

      Absolutely, Gwendolyn. We ARE all teachers. And parents, because they are their kids’ first teachers, play an especially important role. In fact, learning that takes place in the home may be even more important than the work that is done in classrooms. Because it lays the foundation for everything that follows.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment here. And thanks, too, for the tweet. Much appreciated.


  3. Beth Buelow October 27, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    Judy, this is beautifully done. How lucky those kids were to have you as a teacher! And how fortunate we are now that you’ve shared this story and provided tools for action. Your simulated city reminds me of an exercise my husband did when he was part of a leadership program in Michigan (they had eliminated the exercise by the time I went through the program, which was a disappointment). It was called SIMSOC, for “Simulated Society.” He said it was really powerful, and I think it shows how we can be any age and still learn a tremendous amount from walking in another person’s shoes.

    Thanks for the reminders to pay attention and engage with each other and our world.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 28, 2015 at 1:14 pm #


      Thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment! I know that you are up top your ears with book launch craziness.

      Wow, I hadn’t heard of simulations like this being used in adult leadership programs. That is very cool.

      My students were so into it that they BECAME who their assigned person/citizen was. In the beginning in setting up the city, they decorated the classroom with props. I can still see in my mind the clotheslines the tenement dwellers strung up with pieces of clothing hanging on the line (their profiles told them that they had no washing machines/dryers).

      It was very interesting to watch them figure things out and find solutions when I pulled random “events” from the hat and they had to decide what to do. Yikes. Those “kids” are in their early 30s now! 🙂


  4. Shelly Kramer November 5, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

    Halfway through this magnificent post I was already thinking about who I should share it with. I love every part of what you have to say here and your ideas and suggestions are magnificent. Some of this we already do in our house, some of it we will start doing.

    And as an aside, I’ll bet your community doesn’t mind one bit when you write about things other than writing — sometimes we all need a little something different to make us think. This did just that.

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful job.


    • Judy Lee Dunn November 6, 2015 at 7:30 am #


      Thank you for visiting—and for the kind words.

      It’s a heavy topic for sure—unless we can bring it down to a kid’s level and ability to grasp. The beauty and charm of children at that age is that they are still literal thinkers and they learn by doing. If we can capture that, we can do a lot with them.

      I have no doubt that you are already doing some of this stuff. I don’t see how parents do it these days, as their incredibly growing number of work hours infringe on their down/family time.


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