discussing civil rights and slavery with children – how soon is too soon?

We've been having some hard discussion at our house over some things Jafta has been learning at school.  On Monday, he came home and told us about a book they read at school about the underground railroad.  I was a little caught off-guard.  Jafta also talked about slaves and masters, and recounted that slaves were whipped if they didn’t obey.  I don’t know if he gleaned this from the teacher or from another student, but he was very troubled by the idea, and it led to some long conversations.

The next day, he came home and told me that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot because he was black.

Jafta is seven years old. In some ways, he is very mature for his age.  He is very analytical and thinks quite deeply on things.  On the other hand, he’s also extremely sensitive and has a tendency to obsess over things.  He has always been inclined to the dramatic, and he is definitely an anxious kid.  Much like I was at his age. 

For the reasons above, I have not gone into great detail about our country’s shameful history towards African Americans. We talk quite frequently about tolerance and prejudice.  The kids’ bookshelf is full of books on the topic of positive racial identity and racial acceptance, but I have steered cleared from explaining the aspects of violence and oppression because I don’t believe that he is mature enough to process it.  This isn’t limited to racial issues – I haven’t talked to my kids about 9/11 or the holocaust or Columbine or any other number of historical events because I don’t think they are old enough to understand.  I don’t watch the news around them.  I glossed over the details of the earthquake in Haiti even though I was there.  I do recognize it is a privilege  that I can shield them from hardships, and that suffering is inevitable.  I don’t want them to live in that bubble of privilege forever, but I guess I’m not ready to burst it quite yet, if I don’t have to. I hope to be a family that talks very openly about world issues and social justice.  But not yet.  I don’t know if there i a magical age when kids are ready to have the veil of innocence lifted to expose the evil that is in the world, but I didn’t think it would be first grade.

Earlier in the year, I’d had the thought that I should send Jafta’s teacher a note, asking her to give me a heads up if she was going to be talking about civil rights or racism.  It was one of a million things I told myself I should do and then forgot to do – but the result is that he wasn’t prepared for these conversations.  I deeply regret the fact that Jafta learned about our country’s racist history from a teacher and not from me. 

It shocked me when he told me what he’d heard.  I was wondering what conversation surrounded the book. Did they talk about slavery? How did the teacher frame the oppression of black people? And more importantly, how did this make Jafta feel?

I really troubled at the idea of Jafta being the only black person in the room as these issues are discussed. I can’t imagine how self-conscious he must have felt. I wonder if his classmates were stealing glances at him . . . if they felt pity or confusion or even a new-found prejudice as they looked at him armed with the knowledge that whites and blacks have such a conflicted history.

When I asked how Jafta felt, this was his answer:

I feel like I’m hurting when she talks about it. Like it hurts.

This breaks my heart.

Last night Jafta expressed fear that slavery could happen again.  He worried that someone would shoot him for being black.  I did my best to assure him we live in a very different world today.  He took great comfort in being reminded that the president of our country is black, too. But I hated thinking of him fearing those things.

I think, for parents of black children, that it is a tricky balance between sowing prepardeness vs. paranoia.  I feel like preparing my kids to deal with prejudice will be one of my most important tasks.  And yet, at this stage, the information has led to more fear than empowerment.  I would have preferred the lessons to focus on the heroic aspects of MLK, leaving out the aspects of civil rights and slavery that blur into “human atrocity” territory. 

I actually really like Jafta’s teacher - but I do wonder if she's considered how this material feels for children of color. Knowing her personality I would imagine she is eager to teach about civil rights . . . she's quite liberal and  I could see her wanting to instill the importance of tolerance in the minds of her students at a young age in the hopes that they would become little change-agents.  Today I sent her the following note:

Dear Ms. S,

We've been having some tough discussions the last two nights as Jafta is processing what he's learning in school about civil rights.  We are very aware that Jafta is a sensitive and anxious kid - much more than most.  So I know that much of what he's hearing is then being processed and analyzed through that filter and his tendency to worry. Anyways, I wanted to give you the heads-up and maybe dialogue about what's coming up in the curriculum in terms of racial conflict so that we can be sure to be prepared, and to follow up at home and create a space where he can download the feelings it brings up.  I don't know if he's being vocal in class about his feelings, but the last few nights he's had a hard time sleeping due to concerns that slavery or segregation could happen again.  Obviously we are assuring him that's not the case but when his anxiety gets hold of an idea, it's hard for him to let go.  Knowing his anxious tendencies we've shied away from some of these historical discussions in the  hopes that with more maturity, it might be easier for him to process. Since it's coming up in school, I want to figure out what he's hearing and how we can better help him process.

I’ve not heard back yet, but I’m hoping I can strategize with her and be more proactive, especially since I’m guessing Black History Month may mean more discussion in class.

I don’t know the right answer – I just know that my mother instinct is that knowing about these hard facts will not benefit Jafta at this point in his life . . . that the hope of future empowerment does not outweigh the reality of current anxiety and confusion. I’m really disappointed he learned about it from someone else, but mostly disappointed that, as a seven-year-old, he learned about it at all.


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