Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, June 19th is the day when the last remaining enslaved people in the Confederacy were notified about their freedom in Galveston, TX — two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
This celebration could be a great way to start talking to your child about race. And while you may want to shield your child from topics like racism, injustice, and police brutality, experts say ignoring these issues could negatively impact your child’s attitude about race.
“If we brush it under the carpet … the message we are giving to our children is racism doesn’t exist, races don’t exist,” Annette Nunez, a Denver-based psychotherapist, said in an interview with TODAY Parents. “Racism does exist … it’s really important to talk about it.”
Here’s how to get started.
Teach your child about Juneteenth.
Teaching your child about the importance of Juneteenth could be a great way to start conversations about race and inequality. The award-winning children’s book The Bell Rang can help explain to younger children the significance of freedom from slavery. The Bell Rang, recommended for children 4 to 8 years old, tells the story of a young enslaved girl who witnesses the heartbreak and hopefulness of her family and their plantation community when her brother escapes for freedom.
This Schoolhouse Rock-style animated short from the ABC show Black-ish touches on the darkness of slavery and offers an overview of Juneteenth in just two minutes.
Recognize and celebrate differences.
According to EmbraceRace.org, babies start noticing racial differences by 6 months of age, and by age 4, children can start to show signs of racial bias.
Let your child know that it’s OK to notice skin color. Use this as an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate cultural differences but be sure to point out things that people of different races have in common, too. The goal is to convey that we all look different, but we are all human. You want your child to know that we are all unique and that’s a good thing.
But watch out for statements that link race with value judgments. If your child makes an assumption about a person’s character based on their color, you must address this.
In an interview with National Geographic, Maggie Beneke, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, recommended that parents respond with open, non-judgmental questions.
“Simple questions like ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘What makes you say that?’ can help get the conversation started,” Benke said.
Explain to your child what stereotypes are and help your child think of examples that show stereotypes aren’t true.
Encourage your child to have cultural curiosity.
Children, just like adults, can unintentionally internalize racial bias.
“For instance, after viewing movies with mostly white princesses, a child might say something like, ‘I only like princesses who look like Elsa, and I don’t like Moana’s brown hair and skin,’” Benke explained to National Geographic.
You can help combat this by choosing books, movies, TV shows, and toys for your child that include people of different races and ethnicities. Also, visit museums with exhibits about different cultures and religions.
Don’t treat race as a taboo topic. Conversations about race should be ongoing. Make sure your child knows that she can come to you with questions on this matter.
Focus on fairness.
Several experts agree that one of the best ways to talk to children about racism is to focus on fairness, a concept that small children can easily understand.
Talk about racism as unfair and try to relate it to an experience your child has had. Maybe some students in his class at preschool got something that he didn’t. Use that to start explaining inequality and relate the idea to the protests.
Face and acknowledge your own bias.
You don’t have to pretend to have all of the answers. If you’re not sure about something your child asks, say so. Then, do the necessary research and address the question later.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture has a host of resources to help parents talk to their children about race. There you may find the answers you need.
You also don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Be willing to do the work to identify and overcome your own racial bias. By doing so you’re less likely to pass these preconceived notions on to your children.
Be honest with your child and share an example of bias that you once held and share how you worked through it.
The diversity of your friend group is important, too. Remember, when it comes to issues of race, what you do is just as important as what you say.
Use the power of stories.
Share stories of freedom fighters with your children. You could, for example, tell them about the Children’s Crusade or other civil rights marches of the 1960s. Better yet, if you have family members who have been involved in fights against injustice, share their stories with your child.
Also, books can be great tools to help children recognize and celebrate differences.
Here are some to consider:
Written by Ibram X. Kendi, professor, author, and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Antiracist Baby will empower children and adults alike to uproot racism in our society and ourselves. The book provides 9 steps for being actively antiracist, using language that will help you start these critical conversations with the earliest readers. Recommended for ages 2 – 3.
Brought to you by Sesame Street, this book teaches toddlers and adults that everyone is the same on the inside and that our differences are what make the world a special place. We’re Different, We’re the Same includes tips for teaching young readers about differences. Recommended for ages 3 – 7.
Little Leaders showcases 18 trailblazing Black women who took a stand and changed the world. Recommended for ages 3 and up.
This ABC board book carries a message of activism as it calls children to action while also teaching them a love for books. Recommended for ages 3 – 7.
For big kids
This story follows two families – one White, one Black – as they discuss the shooting of a Black man in their community. Something Happening in Our Town seeks to answer children’s questions about traumatic events and help them identify and counter racial injustice in their own lives. The book includes guidelines for discussing race and racism with children. Recommended for ages 4-8.
This powerful picture book by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o explores colorism and self-esteem while teaching children that true beauty comes from within. Recommended for ages 4-8.
Written to be an introduction for kids on the topic of race, this book gives a clear description of what racism is, how it makes people feel when they experience it, and how to spot it when it happens. Recommended for ages 5-9.