“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ~ Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Our children are not born racist, but they are born into a racist system and very, very quickly learn and adapt to the power structures around them. A recent study shows that a majority of high school students lack a basic understanding of the role the institution of slavery played in shaping the United States. We can’t afford to get this wrong.

Teaching children about our history and beginning the work of undoing racism is our job as parents, caregivers, and educators no matter how uncomfortable it might be for us. To ignore this responsibility because it makes us squirm or because we want to “protect” the innocence of our children is to do them and our country a grave disservice.

Having words to frame our understanding of the world is a learning experience that extends throughout our lives. This clearly-articulated story and our vocabulary, along with the environment in which we experience the world, including those with whom we interact, informs how we perceive our world. Adults who believe that engaging in conversations with the youngest members of society about race and the institution of slavery is inappropriate miss the most important opportunity there is to help them learn about the violence and terrorism inherent in this system in a constructive and safe manner. Covering up our history also denies children the chance to celebrate the courage and fortitude of those who rose above our dehumanizing past, a lifelong lesson that equips them for the work of building a better tomorrow for future generations.

Bottom line? The earlier we begin real conversations the better.

Here are five steps you can take to begin talking to children about hard history:

  • Make sure you’re educated! Ibram X. Kendi’s (author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Anti-Racist) site and books are a great place to start. His new board book for toddlers called The Anti-Racist Baby comes out next week!
  • Register for our L’il Freedom Seekers story time – we’ll share hard history and themes of freedom with age-appropriate content.
  • Follow @theconsciouskid on Instagram for recommendations and discussion topics.
  • Visit Teaching Tolerance and the SPLC’s Teaching Hard History for excellent resources for educators and parents.
  • Ask school leadership how the curriculum teaches the history of enslavement in our country and hold them accountable for telling our children the truth.

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