First in a three part blog series on social justice by Dr. Andrew Goff…because #OurKidsAreListening.
Last January, my six-year-old daughter Addi and I were driving home from the grocery store when I encountered a new phase of my life as a father. I was busy thinking about dinner with public radio quietly playing in the background. Suddenly, she asked, “Why would they want to build a wall? Will we still be able to see Vito (great grandfather in Juarez, Mexico)?”
Pause five seconds…boarder? Wait, what?…I didn’t turn off the radio when the news came on!…deep breath in… “That’s a very good question sweetie, let’s talk about that as soon as we get home.”
I spent the remaining five minutes with a flood of thoughts, questions and concerns rushing through my head. Immediately upon walking into the door of our home she asked me again.
This blog is the first of a three-part series calling for those who have or work with young children to Listen! Speak up! Engage! and Unite! Because #OurKidsAreListening. The writing is inspired by my experience as the father of a perceptually curious, precocious, inquisitive child who challenges my understanding of social (in)justice and (in)equity. This first blog discusses what unfolded that January day in the form of six recommendations for people preparing for a conversation on social (in)justice and (in)equity with a young child, or people who want confirmation that they are on the right track. The second blog presents the strategies Addi and I have used to talk about social (in)justice and (in)equity, and the strategies I have used to grow as an advocate. The final blog guides early childhood professionals who are aware of the messages of social (in)justice and (in)equity hiding in their classroom.
Recommendation one: Develop an understanding of identity
The scholars, professionals and advocates who discuss issues of social (in)justice and (in)equity in early childhood encourage participants to understand the complexities of their own identity. Most presenters would agree that people cannot begin to push against the powers that create injustice and inequity in the contexts of home, school, community, region and far beyond until they understand how their cultural, self and group identities define them as unique individuals. Participants are often challenged to recognize their implicit biases and recognize their role as a contributor to injustice and inequity. As insightful and transformative as those presentations can be, understanding one’s own identities and biases does not necessarily make it any easier to talk with a young child about social (in)justice and (in)equity. As an individual who has led those trainings, I decided to confidently give Addi’s question a shot.
Recommendation two: Focus initial conversations with children on self-identity
The conversation with Addi had to be about her, so I drew from my knowledge of who she is and what I believed she could use as a reference for normal. I began by talking with her about one of her favorite PBS cartoons from her earlier years, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. In one episode the characters sing a song, “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways we are the same.”
I introduced Addi to the term identity. We talked about our differences, specifically the personal likes and dislikes we have that make us different from other people we know. We drew pictures identifying her favorite colors, kung fu, her kindergarten class, her sister, etc. She created a picture of other family members and friends who she was close to and identified what made them different. After identifying several differences, we talked about how we know about those differences and how we feel about the differences.
Recommendation three: Talk about the joys of “different” (AKA diversity)
“In Daniel Tiger, he was introduced to Krissy (a girl who is another character’s cousin) who was physically different from anyone he had met before. How did Daniel feel?” I asked.
“Scared? …” she responded.
“But when Daniel Tiger began to play with her he realized that he and Krissy were similar in many other ways. Daniel built a relationship with her,” I added.
We continued talking about identity while I wrote down the word relationship. “A relationship begins when someone finds ways that they are similar to another. When Daniel created the relationship with Krissy, how did he feel?” I asked.
“Happy! They played together!” she declared. I nodded in agreement. “He discovered those differences made her special and unique, right? They were part of her identities. He also discovered how they both loved to play.”
She replied, “If everyone’s the same it would be boring.”
Recommendation four: Introduce accurate vocabulary…but keep it simple
I knew I had to introduce the terms prejudice and discrimination to get down to the issue of wall building. Again, it had to be about her. I transitioned for Daniel Tiger as the focus to Zootopia, a Disney movie. The lead character, Judy Hopps wants to be a police officer in the city of Zootopia. The plotline emphasizes characteristics of Judy that will lead to discrimination in a large city — a girl, small-statured, herbivore with a long lineage of carrot farming. Everyone tells Judy that she cannot do it.
I began, “Do you remember, in Zootopia, Judy’s family and friends make it clear to her that they believe she cannot be a police officer. Their beliefs were prejudices. Prejudices are beliefs people have about other’s identities and abilities. Due to the prejudices associated with her identities, she is discriminated against.”
I wrote down the words, and we talked about the effects of prejudice and the outcome of discrimination. “When Judy experiences prejudice and discrimination, how does she feel?” I asked. That question led to our daily reference to the book, Have you Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids. The story discusses the way our behaviors make others feel and how their behaviors make us feel. “When a person does things that make others feel good they are filling both their bucket and the bucket of the recipient.”
Responding to my question, Addi stated, “Judy had an empty bucket.”
Recommendation five: Highlight empathy
Using the Have you Filled a Bucket… we connected the feelings of discrimination to the feelings of being bullied and left out, or being told that you’re not welcome in the United States because of your identities. I pointed out, “The only way we can effectively overcome our prejudices and acts of discrimination is to create relationships. We need to get to know each other’s identities; learning from our differences and connecting through our similarities.”
“Like Daniel Tiger and Krissy,” she interrupted.
“And in Zootopia. When Judy Hops arrived in Zootopia, everyone told her she shouldn’t be there, but she proved to them that their prejudices against her and discrimination were incorrect. Once she built a relationship with Nick (the carnivorous fox who she had early profiled as a criminal), what happened?”
“She had someone who could tell everyone who discriminated against her that they were wrong,” Addi responded.
I continued, “So when you hear people say or do things that discriminate against people because of their identities, what could you do?”
After a long pause she said, “Tell them they’re wrong?”
“And if you feel like, or someone tells you that you are being prejudiced or discriminating, what could you do?”
She paused momentarily and then replied, “Ummm…I forgot.”
“Think about Daniel Tiger and Krissy” I said.
“Oh, oh yah, you can create relationships” she shouted with a smile.
Recommendation six: Keep the conversation open
After two exhausting, but amazing hours I concluded, “The words identity, discrimination and prejudice are long and can be hard to remember. They are not easy to understand. I’m still trying to understand them. The one word that I want you to remember most is relationships,” pointing to the word on the piece of paper. “The more relationships people have, the less interested they will be in building walls.”
She looked at the paper and then looked at me. “Daddy, can I share this with my class tomorrow for kindergarten meeting?”
I laughed. As a teacher, I am well aware of how events from home magically transform into something unrecognizable once they are discussed in class. “You can share everything with Ms. Tina. When you come home tomorrow, you can tell me what she said; then I’ll talk with her. How’s that sound?”
She shook her head with agreement.
I cannot formally gauge how successful my efforts have been, but I am reassured that I am doing and saying the right things when my daughter comes to me to talk about the (in)justices and (in)equity she observes, asking questions for a deeper understanding of the complex world she lives in.
Oh, and she continuously tells me that when she grows up she wants to be a scientist who studies social justice and equity, a Supreme Court justice or president.
Call to action!
You are not the only one feeling like you hear messages of (in)justice and (in)equity every time you encounter a news article. Whether it’s about taking a knee, black lives matter, terrorism, war or the other countless messages, #OurKidsAreListening. So you need to listen! What are their concerns and their questions? They’re speaking up, so you too need to speak up! Talk to them about what they are hearing. Do not sit back and allow society to construct a world for them where injustice and inequity are acceptable. We must build relationships, not walls.
Click here to read part two by Dr. Goff.
Guest blogger Andrew Goff, Ed.D. (@AndrewDLGoff)
Andrew was an early childhood educator for twelve years, nine of which were enjoyed as a special education classroom teacher. He has grown through the up and downs of inclusion many times over. His passion for inclusive programming and practices has guided his work in school districts, community colleges, and universities. However, his greatest source of inspiration comes from his two young children. He currently serves as faculty in the Early Childhood Education Department at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado. His research interests include critical theory in early childhood education, social justice and equity in early childhood classrooms, and social justice and equity in personnel preparation. You can connect with Andrew on Facebook and LinkedIn.