Michael Cook, 46, was never a political guy.
As a young adult, he pretty much ignored all politics except for voting in presidential elections every four years. But his interest began to shift when he became a father 14 years ago.
His transformation from casual, apolitical observer to outspoken activist has been informed by the intersection of life changes, such as fatherhood, and the larger societal changes of the past few years.
With young kids to think about, “I started paying more attention to the world,” he said. Initially, he kept it low-key. When he noticed bizarre political posts on his social media feeds, he began looking into the sources. He started researching what was fueling phenomena like disinformation and the anti-vaccination movement. And he started talking to his kids, now 12 and 14, hoping to foster their critical thinking and empathy about what was happening in the news.
“He’s one of those ‘cool fathers,’” his 14-year-old son, Owen, explained.
He said his dad has taught him that everyone has their own political opinions. “You should respect them, but you don’t have to agree with them,” he said.
Cook, a software developer in the St. Louis area, says he wants his children to form their own opinions, even if they disagree with him, and to be able to evaluate sources and think critically.
He participated in his first political protest with his children in 2020 -- the summer when George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
His 12-year-old daughter, Lily, said she remembers the massive crowd of people protesting the killing.
“It felt reassuring that all those people were on the same side,” she said.
“We had never done that before,” said Cook of attending the protest. But he and his wife wanted their children to understand the importance of the moment and cause. “That inspired us to get out and show our kids: You have to fight for the world to be the way you want it to be.”
Giving children ways to think about the world and how to engage in it are among the most important things parents teach their kids. For Cook, the country’s changing political discourse and events of the past six years have galvanized him in a way he couldn’t have imagined prior to becoming a father.
“I feel our democracy has eroded a lot. I want our kids to live in a world with democracy and facts and provable truths,” he said. It hit close to home for him when national political rhetoric began to encroach into local school boards. The attempts to ban books and limit what teachers can say or teach motivated him to become even more involved.
“That impacts my kids directly,” he said.
He has joined several politically oriented groups on Facebook, knows people who are running for local political offices and has even attended a fundraiser. But the change in his activism has come at some personal costs. There are some acquaintances who cut him off once he began challenging their misinformation and racist posts on social media. He has confronted his mother when she’s shared outrageous conspiracy theories. That’s prompted some discussion with their children about why some people are drawn to such views.
He’s considering taking his children to a larger protest in Washington, D.C., in the future.
“I’m trying to inspire them to pay attention, be aware and understand what’s going on,” he said.
His efforts may be taking root -- even during the preteen and teenage years. I asked Lily about the most important lesson she’s learned from her father so far.
“Stand up for what you believe in -- that’s the big one,” she said.
That’s quite a gift.