“Tell us about your first relative to come to the United States. Where did he or she come from?” A third grader had this question for homework the other day. His dad called me in a panic: “We haven’t told him about slavery yet–he’s too young. How is he supposed to answer this?”
After commiserating with the dad about the potential insensitivity of the question (how do adopted children answer? Do they take their adoptive parents ancestry as their own? What if they are of a different race?), I suggested he email the teacher for clarification, since she surely is not trying to traumatize kids or stress out their parents. But since then I’ve been thinking a lot about when and how to introduce slavery to children. I cannot recall the moment when I sat any of my three down to have “the conversation”. I don’t recall being stressed about it. Yet I felt the dad’s pain about not wanting to spring this horrific news on his little one. How best can parents handle this?
Having found some great resources and added some thoughts of my own, I have come up with 5 Things Parents Should Know when you are focused on talking with your kids on this tough and important topic.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Start Early: Parents and teachers can begin talking about the concept of slavery with kids as early as pre-kindergarten in a developmentally and age appropriate way, says Dr. Alicia Moore, Associate professor of Education at Southwestern University and co-editor of the Black History Bulletin. She explains further in “How Parents and Teachers Should Teach Children about Slavery” which can be found here. Amiyah Martin, creator of the fabulous “4HatsandFrugal” blog, suggests that if your child is old enough to understand “stranger danger” then they can understand the basic concept of being taken away, which is the core of a slavery discussion. You can read her thoughts on this here.
2. Be Honest, But Not Brutal: While you can’t sugarcoat the truth of our ancestry, a discussion of slavery with a youngster doesn’t have to be all somber and sorrowful. Dr. Beverly Tatum, an educator who has written extensively on this topic, suggests that we tell young children that our ancestors were brought to this country as slaves, but that the ugliness of slavery can be taught along “with a vision that change is possible”. She explains, “Where can we find this vision? We can look for it in our history…
The Africans who were brought here as slaves were not just passive victims. They found ways to resist their victimization. All whites were not bad, and some black resisters found white allies…All children need to find the hope in their history”. Talk to your child about the brave men and women who survived slavery, who learned to read and write against all odds. Read Tatum’s article “It’s Not So Black and White” here for more.
3. Use Books to Help Tell the Story: Fortunately there are good books for preschoolers that focus on slavery, and here are just a few suggestions. Look for “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky” by Faith Ringold and “Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family” by Delores Johnson. Ringold’s book combines fantasy and fact to tell the story of the Underground Railroad, while Johnson’s book presents a more straightforward narrative of a slave family that is ultimately broken up and sold. “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad” by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson tells the story of a slave who mails himself to freedom.
4. Understand the School’s Approach: Ask teachers when it will be a part of the curriculum and how it will be taught. The news has brought us horror stories of teachers crudely and inappropriately using “mock slave auctions” as a teaching tool for older students, and it is important to know what the teacher is planning and that they know you are interested. When the worried dad mentioned above contacted his son’s teacher, the teacher assured him that the subject would be taught at a developmentally appropriate level in the 3rd grade, and she welcomed any insights and ideas he could share in this process.
5. Keep the Conversation Going: Encourage your child to talk about his classroom discussions about slavery, including any discomfort or embarrassment he may be feeling, especially if there are white classmates in the discussion. Let him know that this is normal. Share your own feelings about this period in history. Make sure you have your facts and figures straight, especially when talking to older children who are likely to have lots of questions, and be ready and willing to look up answers together if needed. Be aware of your son’s limits–don’t try to share everything you know at once. Pay attention to his reaction and share accordingly. This is a long and continuing conversation.