Broaching the topic of Civil Rights with kids can be daunting. How much to share, at what age, and where to start are all valid concerns. Largely, only a parent can make that decision for their child, but here are my thoughts.
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Assume they can handle some bad news.
Most kids know our world isn’t perfect and that sometimes people choose to do the wrong thing. Many schools already incorporate anti-bullying, stranger danger and body safety talks, so why do we still shy away from tough topics? We need to be an ally for our kids as they face a tough world.
Empower them to speak up.
It’s not hopeless! Our kiddos hold a lot of power in their fresh minds, bodies and spirits! They need to know it is ok, and even expected for them to speak out against mistreatment, even if the perpetrator is a friend or a leader.
Don’t wait for them to ask questions.
Instead, ask yourself how you’d like your child to respond to injustice. Will they be prepared without your guidance? Kids are so brave. Give them something whole and loving to stand for.
Underscore the conversation with the basics.
Mistreating someone is wrong. There is no basis for bending that concept. Gender, race, disability, religion or sexual orientation included.
Do not wait.
You don’t want their first, and certainly not their only, education on Civil Rights in America to be at school. Most likely in February. With presumably loads of gaps in the timeline.
Or after hearing a slur, not understanding what it means, but knowing it’s bad. This limits and confuses. We have to empower our kids.
How to Talk Civil Rights with Kids
We talk current events with our kids as much as possible. By presenting information to them at age appropriate levels, I like to think we’re creating independent thinkers, just leaders and big picture problem solvers.
I love hearing their thoughts and questions, but rarely do I find broaching adult topics with my children easy. As parents, it is our responsibility to grow thinkers and doers that thrive and encourage healthy growth all around them. There is no Easy Button.
What is Age Appropriate?
Review the news story or topic internally and then ask yourself these questions.
What can be learned from this? How could this have been prevented? What do I wish the “bad guy” in the story knew? Conversely, was there a way more people could have helped afterwards?
Use those gems, more than the details of the story, to guide your conversation.
CliffsNotes the event and omit the graphic details. Delve deep on the takeaways. You’re prepping them to evaluate and think for themselves, not win Jeopardy.
Making Connections: History and Current Events
This same approach should be taken when discussing historical events. How can any of us connect what’s happening now to what’s coming, if we don’t have a firm understanding of historical consequences?
As we prepared to take our 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to The Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL this summer, we began ramping up our discussions at home. We talked about how we don’t choose any of the details of our coming to existence; the circumstances of one’s birth should not result in automatic advantage or disadvantage, but unfortunately how that isn’t the case. We talked about how whenever we find ourselves at an advantage we must look out for those at a disadvantage.
At our house, Jesus is the example in these use-your-power-for-good conversations.
Even without practicing the Christian faith, his message makes for a solid life approach.
- Believe in something bigger than yourself.
- Love others.
- Kill the ego.
- Practice inclusion.
It’s just that for me, allowing him in fully is the only shot I have at checking those boxes when following his example no longer feels fun. Love is hard. Putting others first is hard. Inclusion can be hard, too.
The Memorial for Peace and Justice
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” – from Equal Justice Initiative
A lynching memorial. With elementary aged kids. On summer break.
No one explicitly told us we were crazy, but we did get genuine looks of concern. Similar to when I announced we’d be doing a 10-day sugar detox over this same summer. I admit, summer is a sacred time here in Florida, but it’s a long enough season to weather a few reality checks.
I have been wanting to do a Civil Rights Road Trip for some time, but let’s face it. That doesn’t really top anyone’s summer wish list. So when we decided to make an end of summer trip to see my sister’s family outside Atlanta, I saw an opportunity! We’d tack on a Civil Rights stop in Montgomery. Just one. No harm, no foul. I was in the safety zone where no one could accuse me of completely raining out their summer fun-time parade.
Though it wasn’t the full Civil Rights trip I originally wanted, this one stop was powerful.
We got out of the truck and pretty soon I had rallied everyone back in. The feeling at the Lynching Memorial is heavy. There’s a sense of responsibility that seeps over the walls and into the parking lot.
I gave the kids instructions as though we were entering a funeral. Questions are great, but speak quietly. Use your best manners. Absolutely no running.
It did feel like a funeral to me. Funeral of the limited, ignorance is bliss, chock full of holes, history lessons of my childhood, and adulthood. That feeling was not guilt. It was recognition and it was by design.
“The Memorial for Peace and Justice was conceived with the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.” – from Equal Justice Initiative
“…Publicly confronting the truth about our history is the first step towards recovery and reconciliation.” – from Equal Justice Initiative
“Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror.
The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 (steel) monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.” – from Equal Justice Initiative
Walking into a covered area, visitors stand on near equal-footing with the monuments, but moving along, the guided path slopes downward. Proceeding down the slope, the monuments remain suspended at the same height. This gives the visual of those memorialized, being hung in the air and in my heart, hopefully released to a place without pain or fear. The Memorial is indeed a sacred and reverent place.
In the end, I’m glad we did just this one memorial to start off with. Spreading out the visits over time will keep the conversation going and let all of us absorb more as we grow in understanding.
Resources for Talking Civil Rights with Kids
In preparing our kids for this stop in Montgomery, we utilized two books. I probably checked out a dozen before narrowing it down to these two. I cannot recommend them enough! Both age appropriate and powerful, these books depict a truthful timeline without guilt or shame, while also igniting fire for equality and the need for healthy questioning.
I plan to purchase these two, as well as others that look honestly at hardships African American and other minority groups have faced in our country. Having these books in our home library will help keep the conversation going. This is not a one and done lesson!
As I find other resources, I’ll be sure to share them on my social pages, as well as update the links!
What I’m Reading Now:
“I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness“, by Austin Channing Brown.
I first heard about Austin’s book when she visited Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love podcast. Just listening to that interview challenged me to evaluate where I can make changes. I knew I had to read this!
I’d love you to take a listen, too. I hope it will prompt you to get a copy, dive in for deeper understanding and figure out where you can make a difference in your home and community.
More from The Memorial of Peace and Justice