Teaching Kids About Color

How to talk about race with your kids | Birds of a Thread

Today's guest post comes from one of my greatest mentors, Lisa Schreiber. She is a wise and humble leader who has taught me so much about life. You can read more about Lisa's journey in a previous collaborative post Two White Moms.

“I know why he is baking a chocolate cake, it’s because he has brown skin so he’s making a brown cake.” One of my children made this comment after we watched a baking show on television. Kids are constantly putting together pieces of their societal puzzle as part of their cognitive development; whether you intentionally teach them or whether they interpret information from their environment they are learners. In the wake of a divisive election, a visible rise in racial tension, the torn veil of systemic racism and the unfiltered emotion on social media, I decided to embark on a journey to listen to the stories of black Americans. I went first to my friends who I have loved and cared for for years, yet never discussed their blackness and how they feel living in a country that has oppressed them, overlooked them and subverted their place in history for decades. I listened, I asked questions and I lamented a history where I have had privilege and others have not simply because of the color of my skin. I’ve grown in compassion, empathy and grief and I knew all of this was not meant for myself alone. I decided to share my experience with my 4 young children ages 12-6 years.

How does a culturally white woman begin to teach white children about the experience of black Americans? Am I even allowed to be talking about this? Am I a racist for seeing color and teaching my kids to see color? Will my children feel sorry for black people and see them as just victims with sad stories? Is it worth the risk of opening their eyes and introducing them to a history of violence and hatred perpetrated by people who look just like them? If there is any hope in raising a generation of people to be compassionate, kind and to stand for justice then It’s time to begin the conversations.

Story Time

Now that all of my children can read ( a HUGE milestone for a family) we decided to change up bedtime read alouds to family reading. Instead of daddy reading stories to the kids we all sit down together after dinner, before the dishes are done, before we do one more thing that will surely lead to another thing; we sit down and read a few pages of a book together. I selected some books that tell stories of black Americans, books by black authors and books that tell about both triumph, hardship and injustice. We discuss how the people in the book may have felt, we discuss issues of justice and where the standard for right and wrong comes from. We discuss how they feel hearing these stories and what they would do if they saw/heard of injustice. We’ve read about Ruby Bridges, learned about the underground railroad, introduced ground breakers in medicine like Daniel Hale Williams. I hope to enrich the lives of my children by teaching them about history and about  people that are not found in their history books.We’ve only begun to scratch a very wide and deep surface of rich history that has been hidden, silenced and diminished. I continue to add to my book wish list and hope to add books featuring stories of and about people from various cultures over the years.

What are you Reading Mom?

You’ve heard that more is caught than taught? Well, with 4 kids and a job outside of the home I don’t necessarily get too much time to sit and read at length. I steal moments here and there and they ask me what I’m reading about. As a part of the journey to racial reconciliation I have been reading books that I wouldn’t necessarily allow my children to read and they honestly couldn’t comprehend them at their age. I read in the living room where they play, read and live life and I share what I am reading in a form of storytelling. I can edit the things I read and share what is appropriate for their age while still introducing hard things but with the comfort of a voice they feel safe with. As a teacher I am ALWAYS teaching. I look for opportunities to share, ask questions and engage my children. I might read something I find fascinating and look up from my page to begin a discussion like 

“Did you know that…”. I like my children and I like to hear what their thoughts are so I share my life with them. They get the chance to know me, my interests and my passions. My hope is that they will not only learn something but see me as a person and not just their mother. They might consider that I am passionate about more than laundry, dishes and their messy room.

Movie Night

Like many families we have a “family movie night” where we try to watch movies together that everyone can enjoy. Once again I’ve used something we already do to incorporate movies with people who don’t look like us to tell us stories that we don’t have ourselves. I began with an American Girl movie called “Melody”. We watched a story of a black family in the 1960’s navigating their way through Jim Crow laws and school segregation. My 11 year old son was especially resistant to the movie ( and not just because it was American Girl). After the movie I talked with him about why he didn’t like the movie and he began to cry and say how sad it was and he said he didn’t like what I was doing by introducing “all this sad stuff”. I immediately felt that maybe I had done the wrong thing. Had I said too much too soon, had I presented a wrong picture of black Americans to my kids, had I caused more harm than good?

As I tucked my son into bed and watched his sad face I began to cry too. I told him about how reading and learning about “all this sad stuff” makes me sad too. I told him that I wish it never happened and that not knowing about it doesn’t make it go away. I was tempted to get him out of bed and to watch something silly and mindless so that he can numb the sadness he felt. I told him how I wanted to take his hurt away. I also told him that I was not going to do any of those things because it’s actually good for him to feel what he was feeling. It’s ok to be sad and to hate wrong things in the world. It’s human to not want to face the hard things. My son was beginning his own journey of empathy and compassion and I was tempted to “rescue” him and stunt the process because there was pain and sadness.

What Now?

I expose my children to politics, religion and racism. We talk about right and wrong and what makes right and wrong. I ask them to think and to tell me why they think the way they do. As their parent I am the gatekeeper deciding what I let in and what I keep out for them. They are growing up and my influence and hold on them is diminishing with each passing day. My goal is to teach them to think for themselves and to pay attention to what is going on in the world and to challenge what is broken. I want them to know they have a voice and so do others. I want them to know their story isn’t the only story and to value all people. I’ve chosen to start with America and the history of the oppressed. There is much more material than I can cover and more unfolding each day;the election, the executive orders, the shootings, there is much to reveal in it’s time.

It all sounds so grand when I read it through but there is plenty of mess, plenty of fun, plenty of silly and plenty of right and wrong that goes on in my own home. These conversations happen around a dinner table, in the car, while we wait in line at Costco or at the dentist office or right before bed. It’s the small moments I try to redeem because life is made up of many more small moments than big ones.

You Might Also Like: Teaching Kids About HIV, Two White Moms on race, Black Man in a White World