On this day of celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, I thought I would share some resources for talking to kids about racism, including both the historical context of our country as well as the present-day issues of prejudice.
I am a firm believer that we should be talking to our kids about racial differences from a very young age. At a certain age, all kids are prone to leaving others out based on external factors. This can be gender, race, disability, etc. I think kids need help to overcome this natural tendency to seek out "sameness". I also think they need intentionality, especially when living in non-diverse areas. Kids do see color - and when parents ignore it, the lesson children learn is that diversity is something too scary to talk about.
I don’t know that there is a universal timeline that fits every child, because maturity levels vary. But below I’ve listed some suggested books for each stage that can help parents start the conversation. I really believe that children are never to young to start learning about racial difference and the importance of fighting prejudice.
Age 2+ – talk about physical differences, including race and gender, and the importance of accepting everyone
Age 2+ – talk about prejudice of all forms, maintaining an open forum for kids to report and discuss instances of prejudice
Age 4+ – introduce other cultures, including food, art, and role models, emphasizing acceptance and diversity
Grade 1+ – discuss civil rights in broad terms, introducing heroes
Grade 3-5+ – discuss specifics of Jim Crow, slavery, underground railroad, assassination of MLK, and other civil rights heroes, and other atrocities based on ethnicity (Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, etc)
Grade 7+ – discuss current global examples of ethnically-motived violence and oppression, issues of social justice, current circumstances of slavery, etc.
I really want to emphasize that the books I’ve listed above are not just suggestions for African American families or transracial families. I think all of us should be introducing these concepts to our kids. A recent study, outlined in the book NurtureShock discovered that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The rule is that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. It's kind of like the sex talk. If we never talk to our kids about sex, they are gonna have to figure it out on their own. Which will probably lead to some not-so-great influences filling in their gaps of knowledge.
Here are a few practical suggestions for developing an environment in which diversity is valued:
1. Take an inventory of your home's diversity. Are your toys sending a subtle message? Make it a point to buy dolls and action figures of every race. Watch how your kids react.
2. Be intentional in showing your children positive examples of other races in the media they watch. Some great examples are Go, Diego, Go!, Little Bill, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Dora the Explorer, and Cooking for Kids with Luis.
3. Take inventory of your own racial biases. Be careful with the language you use around your children. Avoid making stereotypical statements or racial jokes in front of your children. (or better yet, don't do it at all).
4. Look for opportunities to immerse your family in other cultures. Try to find situations where your family is the minority. This is a great stretching and empathy building opportunity for you and your kids. Try attending a minority church event or a cultural festival. Again, observe your child's reactions and open a dialogue about how that feels.
5. Read books that depict children from other races and countries. For an incredible list of multi-cultural children's books, check out Shades of Love at Shelfari.com.
6. Just observe. Watch how your children plays with children who are different, whether it be skin color, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process their feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding them to accept children with differences.
7. Talk to your children about racial prejudice. Ask them to recall any they have observed. Encourage them to be advocates against bullying towards children who are different.
7. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.
Today we will be reading Martin’s Big Words as a family, and then watching Scholastic’s Storybook Treasures: March On!... and More Stories About African American History. It’s a DVD that reads four stories about civil rights with photos from the book as well as photos from the era. I highly recommend it!