Charlize Theron Gets Candid About Motherhood and Finding Joy in Her ‘Two Nuggets’ When It ‘Gets Hard’ (Exclusive)

Charlize Theron Town & Country Philanthropy Summit at Hearst Tower NYC, Hearst Tower, NYC, Manhattan, New York, United States - 02 Nov 2023

Charlize Theron is seeing the world differently through her children’s eyes.

The Oscar-winning actress opened up about how her children inspire her to learn about new subjects, like that of Ancient Egypt, at Town & Country’s 10th Annual Philanthropy Summit last Thursday, where she was honored alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“‘Mom, they discovered!’” Theron tells PEOPLE of her children’s reactions while reading National Geographic. “Now, we know the history of the Sphinx. I never thought I would want to know what’s going on with the Sphinx, and now I do.”

Charlize Theron and her daughters

Theron — who is a mother to daughters Jackson, 11, and August, 7 — is certainly no stranger to interacting with youth. Ever since the 48-year-old actress created the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project in 2007 to support African youth in the fight against HIV and AIDS, the philanthropist has always viewed the world through a double lens.

However, the version is “different” when it comes to her own children, where being with them every day has allowed the Mad Max: Fury Road star to observe the way they comprehend on a nuanced level.

“In the moment, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s funny,’ ” Theron says. “When you think about it, there’s actually real power in the innocence of what that is for them, and we lose that the older we get, so it’s great to have these two nuggets.”

Jackson and August Theron

Her parenting journey began in 2012 when she adopted Jackson into her budding family and grew three years later when she welcomed August. The South African native later revealed to PEOPLE in 2018 that she always knew adoption would be her pathway to motherhood due to her upbringing and early exposure to orphanages and children in need.

Much of her upbringing has also contributed to her philanthropic efforts in addressing her home country’s issues, like gender-based violence, unemployment and homicide.

Ensuring her children are informed and aware is important for the Hancock actress, but so is maintaining a balance in their exposure. Despite keeping them away from social media, she knows some topics might fall through the cracks.

Charlize Theron at Christian Dior Ready To Wear Spring 2024 held at the Jardin des Tuileries on September 26, 2023 in Paris, France

“I’ve always wanted to have an open conversation with my kids and I want them to feel like they can come and talk to me about anything,” the Golden Globe winner says of her mindset. “When they have brought up something that is inappropriate, I always think, ‘Don’t be stern. Just be cool because they’re bringing this to you. They feel safe enough to bring this to you,’ and I want to keep that going.”

The United Nations Messenger of Peace, who grew up in South Africa during Apartheid until she was 17 years old, was “raised by a mom who is a real baller” in a “small town.” Through all the ups and downs of parenthood, Theron said she has grown to appreciate her mother even more.

“When you’re actually in [parenthood] and you’re experiencing it, the evidence is right there,” Theron says. “You understand how you could have been so much better as a child.”

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While on stage in a panel, the Long Shot star also recalled how her mother protected the then 15-year-old when her father, whom she only knew “as an alcoholic,” fired a gun at both her and her mother.

Charlize Theron Town & Country Philanthropy Summit at Hearst Tower NYC, Hearst Tower, NYC, Manhattan, New York, United States - 02 Nov 2023

“My mom did what I think every mother would do in a situation where you have to choose whether it’s going to be you and your kid, or somebody else,” Theron said on stage. “I think a mother will do anything, and she put herself in real harm’s way to protect me.”

“I’m here because of her today, in so many ways,” she added.

These days, the producer still communicates with her mom on a daily basis in her native language of Afrikaans. Slowly, she’s observed how her children have listened in.

“My children are like, ‘I don’t know what you said, but I think I know what you said,’” Theron recalled with a laugh. “They’re slowly picking it up.”

Despite the proud mother’s busy schedule, her daughters are always “at the top” of her list.

“Everything about them comes first — what they need, who they are,” Theron said. “Outside of [work], I’m an Uber driver. I drive all my kids all day, all night, to all their activities. In the moment, I’m like, ‘I hope you guys remember this.’ They’re like, ‘Remember what?’ I’m like, ‘Exactly.’ ”

“[Being] a parent in general is a nice hard,” she continued. “When you’re in it, you’re like, ‘I’m never going to survive this.’ And then you get to the other side, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing. I can’t believe I did that.’”

Whenever she faces challenges in parenting and in her philanthropic work, she reminds herself of the “struggle and resilience” that she sees in South Africa’s young people, which comes from “understanding the darkness.”

Charlize Theron Hollywood Report Beauty Dinner 10 25 23

“When it gets hard, you have to just remember that you can survive this because some of these young people have survived so much,” Theron tells PEOPLE. “That’s the thing that drives me when it gets really dark and I just go, ‘Why are we doing this? Does this really matter?’”

The actress also shared how working alongside young people has changed her perspective on joy and hope in a way that she doesn’t see in other places.

“You just think to yourself, if they can have that fire in their belly living in these circumstances, then God damn it, we should have a tenth of that,” Theron said on stage. “It makes you realize that happiness and enjoying this precious life that we have takes very little.”

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