As a parent, it is important to understand the role that books play in helping our children develop their understanding of self and their place within the social context. If books help us to understand ourselves better and the world around us, it is very important that our children can see themselves in the books they read. Too often, books do not represent the lives of the children reading them. This may because they don’t represent children of color or lack nontraditional families. Teaching children about racism and prejudice is one of the most difficult tasks. But it is one of the most important responsibilities we have as parents.
The recent decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to remove six books from publication that the family considered to “…portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong” has brought the discussion of racism in children’s books to the forefront once again. What is the next step for you as a parent? Do you throw out all the books that were important to you growing up? Is Cat in the Hat still allowed in the library? Or, do you use these books as a teaching tool to further your child’s understanding of the impact racism has throughout the fabric of our society. Use the following information to help inform your own response to this issue.
Discussing Racism and Prejudice When Reading With Your Child
Engaging your child about the books they are reading is a great way to improve their reading skills and critical thinking ability. Help your child to recognize problematic storytelling, challenge ideas presented to them, and make sense of what they are reading. It can help them transfer these same skills into understanding the world around them. Kids are bombarded with images and messages about race, prejudice, and whiteness at an early age. So it’s never too early to begin to help them better understand concepts about racism and prejudice by talking about the media they interact with.
Is There a Right Thing to Say?
There is no one right thing to say or one way to say it. It depends on the individual child, their age, and how they learn — but remember to keep in mind you are having a conversation with a child and not another adult. Use language and references your child can relate to. Chances are, any school-age child understands what it feels like to be excluded, either seeing it in the lunchroom or being a part of it on the playground.
Conversations with older children can include a discussion of how history changes and how a particular book fits into the history at the time the book was written. Have them consider how the time period impacted the story or how it would look differently today.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
When reading with your children, ask open-ended questions about the books they are reading. This will help them to develop their critical thinking skills. Questions such as “Why do you think this character acts differently to that character as opposed to this character?” or “Wow, that seems different than the way we interact with our family, why do you think they do this?” Help children understand that the exclusion of characters that represent diverse races is just as much an issue as verbal caricatures or pictures.
As a parent, it is important to help your child develop their own identity, to teach them to embrace social diversity and to make sure they understand the existence of injustice and be willing to help bring about change. Talk to children about incidents of overt racism in books, movies, TV, and the media to help them understand the reasons that what they are exposed to outside their home differs so much from what they are being taught at home.
Model the Behavior that Matches the Values You Teach Your Children
Having conversations regularly about inclusion, anti-discrimination and kindness help your child understand that these are important issues for your family. It may also make it easier to have the ones about racism and other forms of discrimination.
Click here to read what is the difference between prejudice and racism.