There are so many huge and heavy things happening in the world with COVID-19, the recent murder of George Floyd and the hundreds of years of the oppression of black and brown folks. White parents are being called to help their children process current events that are hard to understand and even harder to explain. Even if you’re not sure exactly what to say, say something. Children are aware and perceptive. They can feel the energy of their trusted adults. Adult silence teaches children that it’s not okay to ask for help when something is troubling them. That nervous and uncomfortable feeling in your heart is your conscience telling you to speak up and offer insight and perspective that children can’t yet find on their own.
Adult First, Child Second
Dismantling systems of oppression happen in the privacy of your own heart first. Helping children understand social issues like racism requires that you do your own research and heart work. Seek out anti-racist educators like Layla F. Saad, Rachel Cargle, Ericka Hart, and Rachel Ricketts. People of color who have lived experience, knowledge, wisdom, and have created resources to help others learn. Buy their books, sign up for their training and webinars, and support their work.
Share Your Calm
Children need to be calm and regulated before they are able to learn something new. Parents can create a safe space to talk about uncomfortable and tricky issues by staying calm and responsive and not reactionary. When your child says or does something that challenges you, come back to your calm, take a breath, and respond with intention. This is the classic idea we hear from flight attendants of “put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others”. Keeping composure while handling hard and challenging situations builds connection, resilience, and the ability for children to learn how to tackle challenges.
Ask and Listen
If your child has seen or heard the news or seen protesters around town, start there. Ask what they saw and what they think. If not, start with a statement like, “Something happened that wasn’t okay. Now there are protests happening all over the country. Do you know what a protest is?” Help them build a definition that they can understand.
Here are some of my own working definitions for young children:
Protest: When a group of people comes together to speak out about an action, a law or an idea that they feel is wrong, hurtful, or unjust.
Racism: When someone hurts the body, feelings, ideas, or work of another person because their skin is black or brown, they have certain facial features, hair, or because of their culture or where their family is from. Racism can also be about laws and rules that are made that only keep some people safe and not others.
Use Literature to Help
Literature is one of the best ways to unpack social issues with children. There are so many wonderfully written and illustrated children’s books that can help guide conversation and offer space for your child to think and ask questions. Some of my favorite books to help guide conversations about race and racism are these:
The Other Side by Jaqueline Woodson
Woodson has written many wonderful books that highlight the experiences of people of color and discuss issues of race and racism. “The Day You Begin” is another Jaqueline Woodson favorite.
Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard
For Babies and younger children, Skin Again by Bell Hooks (and her other board books) is a great place to start.
Tell the Truth
Children need you, to tell the truth. When children ask questions about racism, protesters, and violence, be open and honest. Statistics show that by Kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes held by adults, they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others (Kinzler, 2016). If children have information that they’ve heard from someone else that is not true or misinformation, clarify. When children ask questions that bring up your own biases, stay curious about why. Keep an open heart and sit with your discomfort when it comes up. If your child asks a question and you don’t know how to respond it’s okay to say something like, “This is important and I’m not sure what words to use. When I was young nobody helped me think about this. I’ll think about it and we can talk more about it later.” Maya Angelou once said, “Do your best, until you know better, and once you know better, do better.” The more we learn, the more curious and open we stay, the better equipped we are to guide children’s inquiring minds.
Be of Service
Talking with children about action you can take is the next step. Listen to your child’s ideas of how they think they can help. Make art. Talk to your family and friends about racism, bias, and discrimination. Involve children in the process, let them sell their artwork to family and friends to raise money to donate. Donate money to black-owned businesses, pay reparations, or donate to bail funds for protesters. Share your action items with friends and encourage them to join you.
I am not an anti-racist educator. I am a white woman, a Kindergarten teacher, and child development and behavior specialist. Centering the white experience is not what we need, use your privilege and your platform to amplify the voices and the work of people of color. Look to the people of color I have highlighted above and support their work. This is your journey. Nobody can do the work for you, but we are all in this together.
By Katie Kurtin (@katiekurtin)