Teaching Kids to Make a Difference in the World


Like most moms, I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching my kids to make a difference in the world. Such an aspiration inevitably gives my children plenty of opportunity to accuse me of boring them, lecturing them and just being an all-around “Debbie Downer.”

This is all made harder by my job. I am a filmmaker, and I produce films that strive to lift up the voices of some of the most brave and challenged women in the world: women in conflict zones.

Returning home from such places, I often find it difficult to adjust to daily life in New York. In Bosnia, Sudan, and Congo, I see many children—and mothers—who are only hours away from death, starvation and disease. Back home, I tackle different concerns—about body image, grades and Facebook. I sometimes struggle to reconcile the two worlds. How do I teach my kids to keep a sense of perspective, humor and humility about their own daily trials, while also nurturing their compassion and curiosity for the places and people I see in my work?

Lately, it seems that it’s my filmmaking itself that’s helping me to figure this out.

Instead of bringing my kids to all the places I go, I now take them there through journalism and film. At times, some content may be too intense for the youngest of my four kids. But more often, I find that all of my children—from my two college-age daughters to my 15- and 11-year old sons—can tolerate more in terms of “bad news” than I had thought possible. In giving them credit for being stronger than I thought they were, I find they rise to the task of digesting and understanding difficult news coverage, rather than retreat from it.

I’m not saying that I force feed my kids a steady diet of rape and pillage, mind you. That’s no better for us than it is for our kids. But I have learned that we can teach our children not to “look away” from stories of hardship, conflict and human suffering.  Even if I won’t take my youngest with me to the Balkans or Liberia, I can make time to talk him through the stories he hears in the news.

I can’t pretend to have nailed down the secret to raising engaged, concerned, empathetic kids. But as I watch my own children make their way to adulthood, I do see them embracing opportunities to learn about—and talk about—even the toughest current events. Best of all, I see them becoming people who see themselves as part of the solution for a world that is all too often torn apart by war, poverty, and suffering.

It’s about the best outcome a mom could hope for.


Abigail E. Disney filmmaker


Abigail E. Disney is a filmmaker, philanthropist, and scholar. Her longtime passion for women’s issues and peace-building culminated in her first film, the powerful feature documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Fork Films, 2008), about the women of Liberia who brought peace to their broken nation after decades of destructive civil war.

Her current project, the groundbreaking mini-series Women, War & Peace, documents the unreported role of women in the peace process in Colombia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Liberia.

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