Olivia Wilde on parenting with purpose

At a recent panel at the United Nations, the actor, director/producer and activist weighs in on key global issues newly amplified by the latest Thomas & Friends series

For mother-of-two Olivia Wilde, storytelling is more than just a casual activity.

Her passion for stories, she says, not only inspired her career choice as an actor, but also serves as a powerful teaching tool for her own children.

Those were just a few candid thoughts that Wilde shared with a group of journalists at a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the show Thomas & Friends and the United Nations, collaborators on the newly refreshed TV series. The conversation focused on how to inspire the next generation of global citizens, the key objective of the program—and a common purpose shared by both Mattel and the U.N.

In fact, the latest season of Thomas & Friends will introduce children to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through episodes and other short-form content. The relaunch promotes the importance of gender equality, access to education and sustainability, among other themes, to spur meaningful conversations between children and parents.

“As a mother, I think about the power of storytelling quite a lot,” said Wilde. “If I can read them stories that encourage them to think about social responsibility at a really young age, it will change the way they process the massive cultural influences that are coming at them for the rest of their lives.”

I try to teach them about the world, that they are global citizens. Kids won’t know about the developing world unless you tell them, so you have to find ways to teach them.

– Olivia Wilde

Wilde believes that it’s critical to promote meaningful content early.

“You see how quickly its necessary,” she said. “How quickly things like gender equality come up, how my four-year-old son thinks about gender norms and masculinity. And I know it’s not coming from me, from the parent, but from culture. That means I have the responsibility to tell them stories that counteract it, and the earlier we start the more effective it will be.”

Wilde credits her parents for teaching her and her siblings to be global citizens at a young age. Her mother and father were both investigative journalists, and emphasized values like sustainability, responsibility and human rights. This affected how she and her siblings move through the world, she said. Now a parent herself, she’s trying to teach her kids in the same way. We approach day to day activities with a kind of mindfulness,” she said. “I try to teach them about the world, that they are global citizens. Kids won’t know about the developing world unless you tell them, so you have to find ways to teach them. Purposeful content can do that.”

Richard Dickson, President and Chief Operating Officer of Mattel, sees the more culturally relevant Thomas & Friends as a natural way to inspire younger audiences.

“Infusing Thomas & Friends with the context of the Global Goals is an incredible way to teach and empower the next generation of critical thinkers,” said Dickson. “It lets them imagine the world and their impact in a more purposeful, powerful way.”

Wilde hopes to use her platform to encourage other parents to think about play and the stories they choose to expose to their young children. But she acknowledges that that choice isn’t always easy. With all of the messages being served up in the world, she said, parents have to find a way to make the decision to embrace content that’s more positive.

“It’s tremendously hard,” she added. “Parenting is so difficult, especially when you’re working. But I find time for reading and sharing positive content with them because I can see the difference it’s making in the way they think.”

“So by reading stories about trains who feel no difference between their gender, who feel a responsibility to the environment, who are excited about education—these are values that if instilled at an early age, they can make a difference.”

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