I am writing this piece to the parents and educators of white children, as a white person and an early childhood educator. It is crucial for us to recognize our own privilege(s), do our own learning (or unlearning), and use the power that comes with our privilege to move towards justice and equity for all people.
In light of most recent police murders of People of Color, including Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines and others, I found myself once again wondering “what will I do about it?” I got bogged down thinking about all that is wrong with the systems we have in place and how they work to privilege some and dehumanize many others. I am angry with those who are in power, who purposely profit from these systems of oppression. I wish other people were in charge, people who would break down the systems, pay reparations, and build socially just systems instead.
Then I realized that, as an early childhood educator, I have a direct impact on our future change makers, those who will one day be contributing to the systems of oppression, or working to break them down. I primarily work with two-year-olds - strong-willed people that are just starting to develop the skills, attitudes, and ideas that will follow them throughout their lives.
There are many ways to make a positive impact on a child’s life, to help them learn about race, gender, ability, and so forth. But something I find problematic is that most of the suggestions or interventions I see are to support children of color, and do not address white children. Of course, children of color need quality care and education (including free play!), and they need strong advocates to address these needs. But how can we change the attitudes of white people and the systems in place without also addressing the white children? How can we make sure white children grow up into socially just adults who will work to dismantle these systems of oppression instead of upholding them? Many white children grow up with lots of privilege and power, so how do we teach them to use it for the greater good?
This is true also of rape culture. Some try to stop rape from happening by telling girls to dress or act in certain ways. That might keep them safer in the moment, but to end the problem we need to teach people not to rape and we need to stop the bombardment of media messages that say it is okay to objectify women and girls. Similarly, we can tell Black children not to wear hoodies, play with toy guns or question authority, but what we really need to do to stop the violence is to educate people to value Black lives. It should not be a Black child’s, or adult’s, responsibility to end violence and racism. We must address the problem from it’s source.
So what/how should we teach white children?
Much of society and media teaches children that emotions are to be kept “in check,” hidden, and under control. White boys, in particular, are repeatedly given the message that the only acceptable emotion to express is anger. When people, especially children, hold in all of their emotions, they eventually explode into what can be violent acts of anger. We need to teach overtly and through example, that it is healthy to express a wide range of emotions. We need to support children in finding ways to safely express their emotions. Young children who are supported in expressing their emotions learn that it is okay to be sad or mad and they start to understand that others have their own emotions too. They are able to develop empathy for others. We need white children to grow up to be understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others and to become adults who express their emotions safely rather than through uncontrollable bursts of anger that can turn to violence.
Current trends in education focus on rote memorization and testing that values students who conform rather than those who think for themselves. This is the opposite of what we need for our children. We need them to learn how to think critically about all they encounter, build their own ideas based off of their experiences, and use their ideas to make the world into the place they want to live in. We need children who question the world around them and who will ask why our society operates the way it does. We especially need white children to grow up into white adults that will not blindly follow the systems in place, but instead analyze them and work to change them.
The best way to build critical thinkers and innovators in the early years is not by “teaching,” but by providing lots of time and space for children to initiate their own play and learning. They need to be encouraged to try out all of their ideas and to learn about who they are as a unique individuals. We need a society where everyone can contribute their own unique skills and opinions, not a bunch of people who can regurgitate the same information to pass a test. Do we want the next generation of police officers to follow directions blindly or act based on harmful stereotypes? No, we need them to be able to think for themselves and challenge their behaviors and assumptions. We can teach adults to do this, but it’s more important that we protect children’s natural ability to think critically instead of stifling it, as much of mainstream education does today.
Have challenging conversations
White families need to have conversations with their children about race and other ways in which humans are diverse. Children notice differences and if parents are silent, then children learn that differences are bad, scary or something to ignore. We need adults who can have challenging conversations, so we need to allow children to practice these conversations while they are still open and developing their ideas about the world. Make your home or classroom a safe place to have discussions about what children hear or see around them. As they grow into adults they will be more able to have challenging conversations in spaces where they can make a difference, such as in the workplace.
When engaging in challenging discussions with children don't “dumb things down” for kids by creating a false dichotomy. Don't say people with vaginas are girls or, strangers are dangerous, or Black culture is not valid, just because it seems like an easy answer for kids. None of these things are true and if you teach that they are then children will have more to “unlearn” as adults.
Apologize if you make a mistake
Parents and educators will not always handle challenging conversations or situations the way they would have liked to--it's okay to acknowledge this and let your children know that what they saw you do or heard you say wasn't the best way to handle the situation. Even if you didn't say anything. Maybe your children saw you try to deal with a racialized situation or conversation. Maybe they saw you change the topic or not say anything. You can let your kids know that you should have said something or acted in a more conscious or just manner. You can say “remember when we talked about______ yesterday. I didn't explain it very well. I'm sorry. This is what I meant to say.” Or “I'm sorry I didn't really answer your question about ______ I have thought about it and I have an answer now.” It's good for kids to know that everyone makes mistakes and that you can recover from a mistake and make the situation better.
Be honest about your own emotions
Children can feel when you are uncomfortable, stressed, sad or angry, even if you think you are hiding it from them. If you don't offer an explanation for your emotional state than they will likely feel uncomfortable, stressed and will release their anxiety through not so pleasant behavior. Instead of hiding your emotions, be honest. In addition to relieving children's stress and confusion, being honest is a great learning opportunity. It teaches them that it's okay to have big feelings and even adults feel upset sometimes. You can model positive ways to deal with emotions. For example, tell your children “I’m feeling ______ I am going to go on a walk to help my brain calm down.” Or “I'm feeling ______ because _______ happened. I am going to call my friend and talk with them about my feelings.”
It is up to us as educators and parents to introduce these ideas and to have these conversations with children when they are young, so that anti-bias thinking is the way they learn to analyze the world. As they grow up they hopefully will not have to unlearn racist attitudes and behaviors, but will instead have the knowledge they need to challenge systems of oppression. This way of thinking combined with the privileges that come with being a white person in our society will grant them power to make positive changes where they are needed. As white people it is our responsibility to use our privilege to educate other white people about racism and other forms of oppression.