Spring 1984, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 34-46.

Kathleen and James McGinnis:
      Parenting for Peace and Justice

Family life contains an incredible number of opportunities to help children grow up with an ever greater awareness of others and a desire for universal social justice.

James and Kathleen McGinnis are parents of three children, ages twelve, ten, and eight. They are founders of the Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis, Missouri, and national coordinators of the Parenting for Peace and Justice Network.

LET justice flow" (Amos 5:24). "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice" (Matt. 5:6). The message of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets calls us parents as well as others to find ways of teaching and living justice in our homes and in our world.

We take this message seriously for several reasons. We experience it as a call from Jesus, and thus we look for ways of integrating social action with prayer and the liturgical year. We have been inspired by other families and individuals who give themselves for the gospel, people who support as well as challenge us and who break open our imaginations to possible ways of working for justice. In a community of faith we find the courage we need to respond to Jesus' call. Further, we have been touched by the victims of injustice, whose persons and suffering have gotten inside of us and given us a deep sense of urgency.

But beyond these reasons, we take the message and call seriously because we find we are enriched as a family. By working together in the world, as a family, we parents are growing and learning right along with our children. The time together as a family that is necessary to explain, choose, plan, and pray over family social actions fosters family community. Sometimes we discover new dimensions of one another's person and appreciate one another more in the process. We deepen our sense of family identity, significance, and pride by participating together in the church's social mission. There are numerous possibilities for families. The following examples of teaching justice by living and doing justice are organized around what we identify as the four components of justice.(1) The second half of this article will focus on peacemaking possibilities for families.


Justice entitles every person to the basic economic necessities of life, for God created the earth's resources for the development of all persons. God's special love for the economically poor, so evident in the Scriptures, can become part of family action in a variety of ways. Lent is a particularly appropriate time for such action. We are called to respond, as Simon and Veronica did, to Jesus as he suffers in the world today.

      1. Lenten sacrificing and sharing. Building on the theme and practice of Operation Rice Bowl, a family can place a bowl, perhaps decorated by the children, on their dinner table for the monies saved by eating more sparingly during Lent. Recently we began bringing to our family meeting the requests for donations which we get. Here the children decide with us to whom we should donate, why, and how much. Their awareness is being stretched and they are learning with us how to balance direct service and social change.

      2. "Stations in the City." Together with other families, we have been spending an hour on Good Friday or Holy Saturday visiting places and people in our community where Jesus is suffering today. Places are chosen that the children will understand and where we can respond. For us, these have included the jail (where we brought a letter we wrote together to one of the prisoners), the Catholic Worker houses (where we brought Easter eggs), a children's hospital (where we brought children's books for one of the waiting rooms), and the home of an elderly man in our parish who lives alone. It is important for us to integrate our faith with our social concerns. We want our children to see the two together, that social action is what we do precisely because we are followers of Jesus.

      3. The Nestle boycott. People are malnourished for a variety of reasons. One reason many children, especially but not exclusively in the Third World, are malnourished is because of the aggressive marketing practices of the infant formula corporations. Poor women in the Third World, who do not have clean water, fuel to sterilize, and money to afford serving the formula at the proper strength, are nevertheless being urged to be modern and buy an artificial substitute for their own mother's milk. Despite repeated challenges from the World Health Organization and others, few corporate practices have been changed. Thus, an international boycott has been organized against the largest of these corporations -- Nestle. Our elementary-aged children have come to understand some of this whole issue and have joined us in our family boycott efforts. Occasionally taking one or more of the children grocery shopping has provided opportunities for sharing our justice concerns and involving the children in them. Then there is the possibility of asking one's school or church to participate in the boycott.


Every person, people, and culture have a right in justice to have their uniqueness recognized, affirmed, and called forth. The fundamental dignity of each person is rooted in our being created in the image of God. To do justice, then, means working with people, rather than doing for people; that is, helping them to help themselves. Again, possibilities are extensive for families.

      1. "Caring for" older people. Older members of our families as well as older people in nursing homes need more than "to be cared for." More precisely, they need to be cared for in such a way that they get a greater sense of their giftedness, their worth, and their having something to share with others. Providing our children with opportunities to discover the richness of their grandparents' skills, knowledge, and experience is one step. Encouraging children (and teachers and schools that organize service opportunities and programs) to visit regularly an older person in a nursing home, become friends, draw out from that person his or her interests and talents, and learn from that person, as well as assist that person, may be the best "help" children and adults can provide.

      2. Reciprocal relationships. What the preceding paragraph means is that justice relationships are mutual, or reciprocal, relationships. All parties share. Taking our children to the Catholic Worker house provides an opportunity for them to relate to the children at the house as equals, as people to play with. It is a natural and mutual relationship. If an economically better-off family wants to help an economically poor family, they should "pair" in such a way that each gives to the other and a longer-term relationship develops. This means more than Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets. It means worshiping together in each other's churches and sharing faith. It means doing things together apart from the two homes, on neutral turf, as it were, where both feel comfortable and experiences are shared -- like a trip to the zoo or a picnic.

      3. Being enriched by people of color. Some conscious efforts are required to break down concretely the stereotype that all people of color ("minority" people) are needy and should be "helped" by white families. There are simple steps like making sure that the visuals in our homes reflect the diversity of peoples in the family of God. The magazines and children's books in the house, for example, should not represent people of color as only janitors, cooks, and maids. Children need to experience these people as teachers, doctors and dentists, leaders in liturgical celebrations, and so forth. This means consciously searching out such people and situations for our children. Finding these people is more easily done in an integrated neighborhood; but it is possible no matter where we live, if we are willing to ask a pediatrician, for instance, to refer us to a black specialist should a child need one. If we are willing to "multiculturalize" our living environment, we may be able to overcome the stereotypic mind-set so prevalent in white America. This is part of teaching and doing justice with children.


Paralleling the economic and cultural rights of persons and whole peoples are our civil or political rights. Each person and people has the right to shape their own destiny, to exercise some control over the political, economic, and social forces shaping their lives. All persons have the right to share in the decisions that affect their lives. What can families do?

      1. Family meetings. One concrete way of doing justice at home is to involve the children in family decision making. Regular family meetings have been a good experience for us and many other families. We not only deal with behavior problems (how the children need to change), but with the children's concerns (bedtime, allowances, friends' staying over) and with family activities and decisions. In this latter category fall things like "family service" (we decide together how we will help others), "family fun" (a weekly family fun event), purchases of large items (new versus used bikes, trumpet lessons, vacations, a new or second TV). Children, especially as they get older, need to experience justice (their rights of dignity and participation) with us and be taken seriously. They need also to learn problem-solving skills and how to find joyful alternatives to many costly items in our society. The family meeting provides an excellent forum and format for these needs to be fulfilled.

      2. Recognizing the importance of empowerment. If dignity and participation imply an emphasis on self-help approaches to overcoming poverty, then children need to experience this. Decisions about family donations provide a teachable moment for emphasizing our support of self-help and social change efforts. Involving our children in buying the handicrafts of the poor (through resources like jubilee Crafts)(2) and the produce of small farmers (through farmers' markets) enabling them to participate in empowerment efforts.


Justice is about duties as well as rights. As Pope Paul VI put it in his encyclical On the Development of Peoples: "We have inherited from past generations, and we have benefitted from the work of our contemporaries: for this reason we have obligations towards all, and we cannot refuse to interest ourselves in those who will come after us to enlarge the human family. The reality of human solidarity, which is a benefit for us, also imposes a duty" (no. 17). Families teach interdependence and solidarity by living it.

      1. Use and care of public resources. Children learn the reality of human solidarity in simple ways. Using the public library as the source of books and records, rather than large personal collections, helps us resist materialism. We learn that we do not have to own things in order to enjoy them. Most importantly, we learn to care for them, not because our names are on them but because others need them too. This is the environmental ethic -- care for the earth's resources because of the needs of future generations in terms that children can understand.

      2. Interdependence with the earth. This same sense of solidarity with those "who will come after us" is nurtured in children and adults by enjoying and reverencing the earth. As Oglala Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear put it a century ago: "Lack of respect for growing living things soon leads to lack of respect for humans too." Thus we enjoy and recommend involving the children in gardening, camping, hiking, recycling efforts, and simple quiet moments absorbing the beauty of God's creation.

      3. Global "pairing." To help children and adults appreciate our interdependence as a human family, we suggest pairing as a family, group of families, or as a parish with a family, group of families, a parish or a mission in the Third World. The exchange of support through correspondence is an important benefit. The United States family or group can be a channel of information about the struggles of their Third World counterpart. We are challenged by such struggles to do our part for justice. Providing material resources is perhaps the least important dimension of such a relationship, though it is sometimes a real good. Several specific pairing possibilities are available through us at the Institute for Peace and Justice.

Part of the call to interdependence and solidarity is the call to work for world peace. This call to be peacemakers is receiving special attention at this time because of the United States Catholic bishops' pastoral letter on peace and war.


"Since war, especially the threat of nuclear war, is one of the central problems of our day, how we seek to solve it could determine the mode, and even the possibility, of life on earth. God made human beings stewards of the earth; we cannot escape this responsibility."(3) After issuing this challenge, the United States Catholic bishops address specific groups of people in their pastoral letter on peace and war. To parents they write:

Your role, in our eyes, is unsurpassed by any other; the foundation of society is the family. We are conscious of the continuing sacrifices you make in efforts to nurture the full human and spiritual growth of your children. Children hear the gospel message first from your lips. Parents who consciously discuss issues of justice in the home and who strive to help children solve conflicts through non-violent methods enable their children to grow up as peacemakers. We pledge our continuing pastoral support in the common objective we share of building a peaceful world for the future of children everywhere. (no. 306)
What does this call mean for a family with younger children? As one parent wrote recently:
My main questions are how much should we involve them? How much should we tell them? How will they handle it? Yesterday my two-and-a-half-year-old Klaas suddenly hit the floor spread-eagled on his stomach and announced, "When the bombs come and the buildings crash down, you have to go like this." He and Janna have been fascinated and moved by the pictures of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon they have seen in the newspaper. I've answered their questions concretely, with the information they have asked for. I've tried to keep the answers to why questions short, simple and honest but that's hard. I find myself avoiding any response to their own situation. I can't bring myself to agree with them that if the bombs came here papa would fix the house again. Nor can I say they will never come here. Instead I said, "That man (in the picture) couldn't build his house up again but he and the mama found a new place for the children."
More and more parents are saying the same thing to us. One of the most sensible reflections on this whole question of exposing children to the realities of nuclear war was sent to us recently by Bill Drake of Weimar, California:
Both in educating our children on nuclear issues and in helping them deal with their fears, we must keep in mind their needs and their stages of development. We must try to help our children develop an inner strength before exposing them to harsh adult realities that would weaken them and lessen their ability to face and deal with these realities at a later time.

It is better to introduce intense material a little late than a little early, as far as the possible consequences for the child .... We must be careful that "nuclear education material does not become nuclear nightmare material." For the young child, the focus should be on caring for people and the world, and on "peacemaking," as exemplified by the child's environment and its adults.

Nuclear education must be balanced with having first taught respect for life. Caring for the earth and its people should be shown in many ways besides anti-nuclear work. Otherwise, the imbalanced focus would likely come more from a fear of death than from a desire to preserve life.

Perhaps the best way of helping children deal with their fears and a growing sense of pessimism about the future is to generate hope through concrete involvement in working for peace. Children need to see their parents as well as other young people and adults working for peace. We should not counter the growing pessimism by telling them that nuclear war will never happen or that, if it happens, it will not be so bad as people are saying. No, real hope must be based on an experiential awareness that more and more people are working to prevent nuclear war from happening.

But such involvement should not consist of children's watching their parents and others working for peace. The whole family can be an agent for world peace, especially when families come together with other families. Many activities and actions are possible. Family letter writing is one possibility. We can be good stewards of the gift of our citizenship and exercise it by writing our legislators. There are other creative possibilities. For instance, we can have a family letter-writing night, with a treat at the end; or we can invite several other families to join us for such an evening, perhaps with a potluck supper (parents and children alike need the support of others). If we can connect this event with an appropriate celebration of our faith, like Holy Week, so much the better. We can consider saving money during this time -- by fasting, skipping snacks, practicing energy-saving activities, having more home-based recreation rather than outings costing money-- and discussing with our children the sharing of these savings, giving some directly to the poor who are the first victims of the arms race. Part of the savings might also go to one or more groups working actively for peace, like the Nuclear Freeze Campaign.(4)

Each year during Lent and extending through tax day, April 15, or the federal budget process (May-June), adults and children around the United States have been wearing a public symbol of concern -- a piece of purple ribbon. The purple ribbon symbolizes our solidarity with the victims of the arms race and of U.S. policy in Central America. We can discuss with our children the possibility of a small purple ribbon on a front door or window in our home. Other symbols include buttons and bumper stickers. The point is not which symbol but a willingness to "go public' with our concerns and thereby invite others to join us.

Another way of going public is by participating as a family in public demonstrations, prayer vigils, and marches. But our experience as a family in many such actions has brought us to several cautions. First, we should avoid using children in peace demonstrations, for example, bussing them in to carry adult-made signs. We can invite our children to such activities, but we need to be sensitive to where they are and give them the freedom to say no. Further, we need to help them articulate what the event means for them. Taking some time far enough in advance of the event to explain its purpose, to give our children a chance to react and then think about it for a while, is essential. Then, if they decide to join us, we need to help them, for instance, make a sign that says what they want to say. Secondly, being sensitive to our children's need for peer support and affirmation may also lead us to encourage them to invite a friend to join us, or we might invite one or more other families to do so.

Another family action that involves both pictures and letter writing has been organized by Elizabeth Colapietro of Winona, Minnesota. She urges us to send a photo of our own children, or other children who are special to us, to the president and our Congresspersons with the basic message that "no child is an 'acceptable loss.' " As she describes it:

We fervently want our children and grandchildren to grow up. Yet we have a government which can dismiss the destruction of millions of men, women, and children in a nuclear war as an "acceptable loss." These government officials are not hearing the message of the people. Let us today force our politicians to truly face the consequences of nuclear war. Let us inundate them with the faces of a generation whom we refuse to let our leaders destroy.

There are a wide variety of activities that adults can encourage for their children. Several communities have organized essay contests or "Art Peace" efforts. In this latter example, children are encouraged to express artistically their desire for peace. These drawings and paintings are collected and displayed in various public places. One such effort focused on the need and desire for the bilateral "nuclear freeze."(5)

Stories are an important source of inspiration for adults as well as children. The Parenting for Peace and Justice Network (see below) has an annotated bibliography of stories of peacemakers, both real and fictitious. Such stories offer our children models of peacemaking and sometimes strategies for their own conflict situations. Stories of people of different races and cultures lessen our children's fears of differences and promote a positive appreciation of different peoples. This, too, promotes peace and peaceful attitudes. For stories, one of the best books available is Cornelia Lehn's Peace Be with You.(6) This is a collection of stories about peacemakers over a number of centuries. There is humor and sadness, global aspects and next-door-neighbor-type vignettes, stories about young people and tales about the elderly, happy and sad endings. Each story is short enough to capture the attention of young children, but written maturely enough for an older person to appreciate.


Whether we are working with younger children or older children, one of our greatest challenges as adults is to promote conscientious decision making, helping young people (begin to) make thoughtful, courageous decisions in the face of peer pressure and conformity that discourage such decisions on issues like peace. There are at least four things that we adults should be doing in this regard.

      1. Help young people develop a healthy self-concept. No one takes a stand, "goes public," unless they feel good about themselves. The affirmation and leadership opportunities we provide for young people are vital. In Gandhian schools in India, there are thirty minutes every day of public performance (dance, song, poetry, and the like) as a way of encouraging young people to stand up in front of others, to overcome their self-consciousness, and to become public persons.

      2. Present alternatives and help young people learn to evaluate. They need to learn to think for themselves, to see alternatives, to develop criteria for evaluating alternatives, and to apply such criteria. They need to think through their positions to identify the basic reasons for their positions and be able to articulate these reasons.

      3. Help young people perceive the myths around them. Often people are locked into certain opinions and ways of acting because of the power of the myths and manipulation around them. Because of the strength of prevailing cultural norms and attitudes, it becomes difficult to choose an alternative path. Thus, with teenagers and the issues of war, peace, and military service, we suggest showing the filmstrip Every Heart Beats True: Christian Perspectives on Military Service (7) as a way of pointing out the strength of prevailing attitudes toward military service and introducing at least the possibility of an alternative before making a decision.

      4. Educate the heart as well as the head. This can involve many things. We can provide opportunities for young people to be touched by the lives of people working for change, for example, through biographies or through direct contact (invite someone for dinner, attend a talk or meeting together). For fourth through seventh grade readers, the story of Sadako Sasaki, the eleven-year-old victim of the bombing of Hiroshima who spent her final years making paper cranes as a wish and prayer for peace, is a moving call to follow her lead.(8) Similarly, we can provide opportunities for young people to be touched by the lives and struggles of the victims of injustice. There is an urgency about injustice that we do not generally experience unless we personally encounter its victims. Further, we can provide opportunities for young people to be together with other young people around such experiences or issues. Community -- the support as well as challenge of one's peers -- is critical in nurturing anyone's commitment. Finally, experiencing the call to conscientious decision making as a call from Jesus can make a tremendous difference. Fostering a personal relationship with Jesus, especially through prayer and prayerful reflection on the prophets as well as on the New Testament, is essential to promoting a sense that Jesus walks with me.

Finally, the absolutely essential ingredient in making conscientious decisions and in working for peace is prayer. The bishops reflect on its importance in their pastoral letter on peace and war:

It is in prayer that we encounter Jesus who is our peace and learn from him the way to peace .... The Lord's promise is that he is in our midst when we gather in prayer. Strengthened by this conviction, we beseech the risen Christ to fill the world with his peace. We call upon Mary, the first disciple and the Queen of Peace, to intercede for us .... As believers, we understand peace as a gift of God. This belief prompts us to pray constantly, personally and communally, particularly through the reading of scripture and devotion to the rosary, especially in the family. Through these means and others, we seek wisdom to begin the search for peace and the courage to sustain us as instruments of Christ's peace in the world. (nos. 290, 292, 293)


The Parenting for Peace and Justice Network (Institute for Peace and Justice, address in note 1) offers families and family-life leaders the possibility of workshops, programs, and family support groups on parenting for peace and justice through a network of local leaders and teams in some sixty U.S. cities. It also provides a wide variety of written and audio-visual resources, including the books Parenting for Peace and Justice by James and Kathleen McGinnis (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1981), Christian Parenting for Peace and Justice Program Guide (Discipleship Resources, 1981), Peacemaking: Family Activities for Peace and Justice by Jacqueline Haessly (New York: Paulist, 1980), and the filmstrip Families in Search of Shalom. Also available is a quarterly newsletter for parents and special leader resources.

Michael True's Homemade Social Justice (Chicago: Fides/Claretian Press, 1982) is another "parent to parent" book offering ways in which families can be agents for peace and justice. Still other resources are noted in the text and footnotes of this article.

  1. Drawn from Catholic social documents, these four components are spelled out in detail in James McGinnis's Bread and Justice: Toward a New International Economic Order and in his Those Who Hunger program, both published by Paulist Press, 1979, and available from the Institute for Peace and Justice, 4144 Lindell Blvd., #400, St. Louis, Missouri 63108. The first half of this article is reprinted with permission from Salt, published by Claretian Publishing Company, 221 West Madison St., Chicago, Illinois 60606.
  2. Box 12236, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19144.
  3. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1983), no. 280. Henceforth references to this work will cite the paragraph number in the text of the article.
  4. National Office: 4144 Lindell Blvd., #400, St. Louis, Missouri 63108.
  5. Write to the Institute for Peace and Justice (address in note 1) for details; they are adaptable to various situations.
  6. (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1980).
  7. Twenty minutes, 140 frames, from the Packard Manse Media Project, Box 150, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072.
  8. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Fellowship of Reconciliation, P.O. Box 271, Nyack, New York 10960).