09/18/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 11/19/2012 05:12 EST

Don't Expect Kids to Change the World Without Role Models


We meet capable, smart, educated and motivated parents all of the time. More often than not, they ask us how their children can make a difference in this world. How can their kid fight bullying, poverty, hunger, or maybe just add some oomph to their university application?

We're happy to offer advice. But sometimes we turn the tables, and ask: "What are you, as parents and role models, doing to make a difference?"

Sometimes, they boast that they're on the local city council or they volunteer at a women's shelter or explain that they'd like to give back to their community more, if only they had time. Often, however, they fall silent and stare at their feet.

We've all heard the complaints about today's "apathetic" youth, but it's the adults who seem reluctant to step up. The dismay that comes from these encounters was driven home recently by the results of a survey that found only 17 per cent of Canadian adults polled believe their generation has the greatest opportunity to help others and the world.

What's more, even their children don't put much faith in their parents. Only two out of 10 teenagers surveyed believe their parents' generation can make a difference.

Maybe teens imagine that the over-40 set is old enough to retire from social responsibility. Maybe teens figure that anyone born outside of the digital age will never manage to navigate through the online channels. Either way, that's not exactly a huge vote of confidence.

But it's not just a case of teenagers with Superman complexes, imagining they'll fix everything once they're in charge. Parents also want their kids to be superheroes.

Almost half of parents surveyed think it's young people -- their children -- who must fix the world's problems. Most young people agree. Fifty-seven percent of 17-year-olds, more than any other group polled, believe their generation has the greatest opportunity to help others, and the world.

Canada's Youth: The 2012 Power to Change Survey, was conducted by pollster Angus Reid in August, and posed questions to 2,400 Canadians, including parents and youth aged 13 to 17. The survey was commissioned by Free The Children, along with RBC and TELUS, who are the National Co-Title Sponsors of We Day, the largest youth empowerment event of its kind, with more than 100,000 youth participating in events across Canada. The two companies sponsored the survey because they wanted to understand the philanthropic interests of their growing youth market.

These survey findings cause a mixed reaction for us. As founders of a youth empowerment organization, of course we're delighted that so many people put faith in the young to take on the world's problems. We do, too.

But we can't help but feel that adults are passing the buck.

How can people in their 40s and 50s -- in the prime of their careers, with connections, influence and cash -- be so quick to wash their hands of the world's many messes, such as inequality, global warming, homelessness, and the injustices experienced by aboriginals? They don't realize the power they hold. There is solid evidence that when parents -- as well as teachers and mentors -- show their helping side, children internalize and adopt these behaviours.

A recent survey of 1,000 Americans, aged 15 to 25, revealed that by donating their own time and resources to the community, parents nurture the importance of service and inspire life-long volunteerism in their children. Another study in Holland found that children are mostly likely to volunteer if their parents give time to the community.

If we don't want our teens to text while driving, we shouldn't be caught doing so ourselves. And inversely, if we want our kids to make change, they should witness us fighting city hall, building a school or even casting a ballot. If we don't set an example, we are naïve to think children will forge their own paths.

That said, studies also show that those who volunteer as teenagers are more likely to volunteer as adults. So even if parents are sitting on their hands, it's still possible to light the spark in their children by exposing them to volunteer opportunities. But don't assume that your interests will be their interests.

The RBC/TELUS survey also showed that young people and their parents don't care about the same local issues. Youth polled feel most passionate about bullying (25 per cent), followed by the environment (21 per cent). On the other hand, adults feel most passionate about health related issues (30 per cent), and poverty/homelessness (18 per cent).

We know parents want the best for their kids, and probably the best outcome for this world. We're hoping the sobering results of this survey will inspire them to look at the issues they care about and take steps to make a difference. Their children are watching.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit