My husband and I met when we were visiting our families in Dallas for a holiday break. I was immediately drawn to him because of his kind smile. Now we’re a typical mid-thirties couple in pretty much every way—we go to sleep at 9 p.m., jump at the first chance for a date night together, and go through the daily struggle about what to make for dinner. But there’s one thing that sets us apart from most couples in our area: I’m white, and my husband is black.
Our son Alex is a kindhearted, happy, sensitive, loving, and curious 5-year-old. He has been very aware of his skin color since he was about 2 years old, which was surprising to me. Growing up as a white child in a small town, I wasn’t exposed to much diversity, so it wasn’t something I learned much about. People say kids don’t notice their differences when they’re little, but we know now that racial bias begins in babies as young as 6 months old. Over the years, it’s clear that Alex identifies with my husband when it comes to race. “I look like Daddy,” he says. “We have brown skin. You have white skin.”
Recently Alex came home from pre-k talking about Martin Luther King Jr. I was a little surprised because the focus of the curriculum has primarily been letters and numbers. No offense to the ABCs and the 123s, but I was pumped! Too often educators avoid talking about race and social justice because it can be tricky to know what is age-appropriate. Kids have an innate sense of fairness, and there are many approaches to deepening their sense of social justice.
Here are some tips for having open and honest conversations with young kids and celebrating the accomplishments and contributions of amazing African American change-makers all year long:
- Read age-appropriate picture books. While reading, ask your child questions like, “How would it make you feel if you weren’t allowed to do something because of the way you looked?” and “What impact does this have on our world today?”
- Whoever You Are by Mem Fox serves as a great introduction into your picture-book study. As you read this book, you’ll notice the themes of diversity and equality throughout the pages. If you read this before the other books on the list, you can refer back to this one with prompts like, “Remember in Whoever You Are, it said…?”
- The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of two girls who learn about the rules of segregation and try to work around them as they form a friendship. Despite their differences and the town’s rules, they find ways to spend time together.
- The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles focuses on Ruby Bridges’ experience as she overcame adversity by attending an all-white school. Kids will learn about her courage, hope, and faith as the story chronicles the realities of the inequalities Ruby experienced.
- Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly celebrates the inspiring true story of four black women who were talented mathematicians for NASA. They helped launch men into space during a time when being black and a woman were both limiting. They persisted and worked hard to make a difference for their country.
- This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt is a playful introduction to nine jazz greats that gives children the opportunity to learn about music while practicing counting. Filled with rhythm and rhyming, it also has vibrant illustrations to engage your young child.
- Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold features a young girl living in New York City in 1939. She dreams she is soaring above the city, observing the beauty and also noticing the signs of social injustice. This book is a great segue into talking about how we can combat social injustice. Ask questions like, “How can we include others when we are working or playing together?” and “How can we show that we care about each other?”
- Watch a movie with them. While some great movies are more appropriate for upper-elementary-aged kids, there are some options for younger kids, too.
- March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World includes narrations of four children’s books. These are great tools to teach about the civil rights movement and African American history.
- Garrett’s Gift is another movie that shares historical information that celebrates African Americans and their significant achievements and contributions.
- Listen to music by famous African Americans. One of our favorite music genres is Motown, and we love to have dance parties at our house in the evenings. The kids know the words to songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and “ABC” by the Jackson 5, and they love to look at my phone to see the album covers and pictures of the musicians. This is a great opportunity to show them who made the incredible music they know and share a little biographical information while you’re at it.
- Talk about famous inventors and scientists. You’re probably familiar with George Washington Carver, the scientist who created inventions using the peanut, but have you heard of Lewis Howard Latimer? He was involved with the invention of the telephone! Take some time to learn about some famous black inventors. Biography.com is a great place for you to gather information to start the conversation with your young child. Use this poster of African American visionaries to guide your conversations as well.
- Discuss examples of overcoming adversity. What if we approach the injustices that are inherent with Black History Month with another lens by looking at the courage associated with overcoming adversity? Perseverance and overcoming obstacles are lessons that can resonate with learners of all ages. When talking about these big themes, utilize picture books or stories that you know from the past. The following books discuss courage and overcoming adversity:
Kids deserve to know the truth about what has happened in the past in America. We can’t rewrite history, but we have an opportunity and responsibility to use injustices of the past to help our kids develop empathy and take action. My husband and I commit to continuing open and developmentally appropriate conversations on race and black history all year long rather than stopping at the end of February. We can use the stories of African Americans to teach all kids about empathy, overcoming adversity, civil responsibility, and the power of the human spirit.
By Caitlin Hardeman, former third through sixth grade teacher specializing in English Language Arts.