With February being Black History Month, I’ve been thinking a lot about the best way to introduce Black history to kids, especially young ones. Last night, my kindergartner requested I read Henry’s Freedom Box at bedtime, which his dad had read to him for the first time the night before. “There’s a really sad part, Mommy,” he said, as we snuggled into his bed. He wouldn’t tell me any more than that because he didn’t want to spoil the story for me. As we started reading, he let me know the sad part was coming and then, as I read how Henry’s wife and children were separated from him and sold, he wiped his eyes. This is hard, hard stuff – especially for a sensitive six-year-old.
It’s critical we teach children Black history and go beyond the bits and pieces they’ll learn in school, but it is not an easy task. It takes great care with young kids, because as a parent one of our overarching goals is to make sure they see the world as a generally safe and good place. So how and when do we introduce topics like slavery and Civil Rights, which are significant parts (although not the only parts) of Black history?
This is new territory for our family, but between my husband and me, I think we’ve come up with a few solid guidelines for our family.
Let Their Education Evolve
First and foremost, it will be an on-going conversation that changes shape as our kids get older. It has to, if we are taking care to ensure the information we share is age-appropriate. When our boys were preschoolers, any talk about slavery or Civil Rights (which was minimal) was very general. We made sure they were exposed to as much diversity as possible and emphasized appreciating differences, but we shielded them from racism – past or present – as much as we could. As they move through elementary school, we slowly start to fill in the details, as we think is appropriate. Eventually, when they are teens, we’ll encourage them to learn and analyze history at a deeper level, and connect what has happened in the past to structures, politics, and relationships in the present.
A couple of weeks ago I shared a list of 29 children’s books for Black History Month – one for each day in February. While I’m eager to ensure our family library includes important stories, we won’t be reading them all at once. Every few weeks we’ll pick up a new story and read it…talk about it…process how it makes us feel. We have plenty of time for learning to happen and I want to be careful not to overwhelm my kids with information. While Black History Month reminds us how important it is to dig deeper into our country’s rich and complicated history, educating our children needs to be a year-round endeavor.
Strive for Balance
“I think we should avoid too many books about slavery,” my husband said, when I recounted Bee’s reaction to Henry’s Freedom Box. “We need to balance it out with more positive stuff.” We had only read that one book, plus a few pages of a book about the Underground Railroad, but I totally agreed. It is really important – especially given Bee’s young age and our goal of helping him feel positively about being Black – that we temper the upsetting stuff with more uplifting stories. I pulled out a few books with softer stories to place on his bedside table – books like Ron’s Big Mission and Salt in His Shoes and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, that focus less on racism and more on ingenuity and persistence and bravery. We’ll talk about the ugly stuff, but it shouldn’t dominate, especially when kids are young.
Screen Before You Read
Before reading a book or watching a film with the boys, it is really important we check it out ourselves. A lot of books marketed for young children include vivid and disturbing details. We ended up setting aside Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth and saving it for next year, and even then just for our older son, because some of the details are pretty harrowing. The book says it is for ages 6-9, but it isn’t one I would hand over to my 9-year-old. I often paraphrase when I read, which lets me share the general outline of a story but leave out certain details until they are older. I don’t want to sugarcoat history, but I do want to share it in age-appropriate terms.
Emphasize The Good Stuff
In each story, we look for the positive. We find bravery and creativity and compassion, and point those out to the kids. We find the helpers, of all colors, and make sure the boys pay attention to them. I want them to understand the bad parts of history, but come away with a sense of pride in how amazing and resilient their ancestors were, and recognition that there are always good people willing to fight for what is right. Whatever the race of your child, this is an opportunity to empower them, emphasizing that they can stand up when they see injustice and be a part of creating change.
Know Your Child
How each of the tips above applies depends on the child and the family. Some kids, like my youngest, are especially sensitive. Older kids, like my third grader, are ready for more information and can be encouraged to think critically about what they see and learn. Some kids are struggling to feel good in their brown skin, for whatever reason, so emphasizing stories that build pride will need to take priority over those that teach the uglier parts of history. Some parents feel its important to expose kids to the hard facts right off the bat and others, like ours, lean toward the protective side. We do what works for our family, our kids.
Do you have experience talking to your kids about Black history? I would love to hear what your experience has been and what tips you would add!