Important Conversations About Social Justice for Kids – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 26

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Children are hard-wired to want to help others. Collectively, we’re raising the next generation of leaders — and we can empower them to make a difference. On this episode, we’re exploring social justice. Our child development experts share strategies to help you teach your child about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and encourage them to be curious, share feelings, and take action.


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In past episodes, we've discussed how kids see race, identity, other people, and how their young brains learn. But what about the next level when your child is faced with bigger moments, bigger issues, racism, stereotyping. In this episode, Rachel and Melanie discuss social justice, what it means to be an upstander and help you figure out how to help your kids around these more complicated topics.


Rachel: Hi everybody, thanks for joining us again. I am joined by my colleague, Melanie Brooks again. And we are going to talk about racism and social justice for families and how those heavy, big, adult sounding words make sense for young children and early childhood. So we've been talking about diversity equity and inclusion, a lot, doing a lot of work at Bright Horizons, and helping parents navigate this tricky topic.


Melanie: Yes.


Rachel: And achieve their goals, and just really sharing our educator insights, and some complicated developmental information and making it usable and practical. So thank you Melanie, for joining me again for this conversation.


Melanie: I'm glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.


Rachel: We've been talking about racism and race, and how children notice that. We have another podcast on that topic. But today we wanted to talk about action, social justice or advocacy, and those are some pretty heavy terms. And we are also gonna just say that we're detaching it from any kind of political environment because those terms live outside of politics, and that's how we think about them as just social justice and advocacy and what those mean. But help us, Melanie, what do those mean when we're talking about, five-year-olds? Give us some context in early childhood.


Melanie: It's really not as heavy as we think when we're talking about children. It's really about empathy. It's about caring about others and wanting to help them. And there's been some really great research recently that really shows that children are hardwired even as babies and toddlers, they come into this world wanting to help others. And so that gives me so much hope that we know as human beings, we come into the world that way. Rachel, there's a interesting study that was done. So Alison Gopnik is one of my favorite child researchers. And she talks about this study that they did, where an adult would be holding I think it was a pencil or some objects and they would either drop the object, or throw it down. Either pretend like they just dropped it accidentally or just throw it down and the toddlers would more than likely pick it up to hand it back to them if the adults seem to have dropped it.


And that's just a way of, again, showing that they are noticing when others are in need, and wanting to help them as young as 14 months old. I think that's amazing that they're starting to already see things like you're sad, or I see you're hurting and wanting to do something about it. And then as they're getting older, they're starting to develop that theory of mind, starting to understand what's going on in the mind of others. And so when I think about social justice and advocacy, it's really tapping into what we're hardwired as thinking about other people and paying attention to what's going on young children.


We talked about earlier, they're thinking about what's fair and what's not fair. And so when we engage them to be these human beings, we're teaching them not to sit back and just watch that. That they learn that they can do something about it. Now, just even thinking actively thinking, this is not right. You know, this is wrong. It doesn't always mean doing something. It just depends on the child and kind of their temperament, but just at the beginning stages of them feeling like they can recognize the difference between what's right and what's wrong as regards to other people.


Rachel: Yeah. I love those studies about babies and those researchers, Alison Gopnik is the whole author of a book that the title just is so fascinating, ''The Scientist in the Crib'' researching everything, right? If we really think of the job of a researcher and they're learning about everything and it is interesting about how young children can tell from adult behaviors, what's preferable or shapes their preferences or who they're drawn to. I've even seen studies like that with puppets and the children, if one puppet is acting kind of angry that the children do not choose to play with that puppet later.


So they are paying attention to that. They are hardwired – we know every little kid on the planet cares about fairness. They care a lot about fairness. They don't always get it right what's fair and what's not fair, but they're thinking about that. And then there's this idea of personal agency. You just brought this up at the end. And I think it's valuable to share with families here, is this idea of personal agency means that you believe you can do something. You can take action. You have the ability to change, influence things. So you kind of have the wherewithal to make a difference, and you don't feel like life is just happening to you, or that you can't do anything about it.


So when we're helping develop personal agency, which it should be something we're doing all the time for young children. Then if they see a wrong, or if they think something is unfair, we can help them do something about that. And that's really what we're taught. Like you said, really that's social justice. That's advocacy for young children is I am a person, I am powerful, I can notice something and I can do something about it.


Melanie: Exactly.


Rachel: So let's talk about what this could look like. If you're a family with young children, what's practical, realistic, effective types of action that families should be thinking about?


Melanie: I think part of it is not avoiding conversations about things like racism with kids. We get nervous about that, but it's so important that we are having those conversations with them, and pointing out things that are different for different groups of people. Even if we don't point it out, Rachel, they are noticing it. I was just thinking about how recently we where driving through a neighborhood and it was not the best neighborhood. As we're driving through, my daughter was like, ''Why does this neighborhood look like this?''


And so even just thinking like the stores didn't seem as clean. There weren't trees, beautiful bushes. They're noticing the difference between these areas, and that prompted a conversation for us to talk about groups of people who may not have the same as other groups of people. And they're gonna notice these things, even if we're not bringing them up, but we should definitely be having conversations about that. Even thinking about asking them about things that they see happening at school and, you know, when they're playing with other children in the neighborhood and ask, "How does that make you feel? Or how do you think that makes them feel?" Or sharing your own feelings.


Now, this is uncomfortable to talk about. Or if they ask you a question and you're unsure of the answer, it's okay to say, "You know, I need to think about it and we can come back to that." So I think those conversations are really key in helping children to think about this even more than they already are.


Rachel: Yeah. So it's good to take action as a parent and bring those conversations up and respond to what you see in your children. And then with everything, is use natural opportunities to teach. If your child is expressing something or doing something, don't miss that moment. We often call those teachable moments. You can teach through your conversations, through your actions, through your modeling.


Melanie, I like what you just said about it's okay to say you don't know something and you wanna think about it and come back to it. That's great modeling too. Your children might find themselves in tricky conversations, and they know then that they can say that. But of course, like you were saying, you have to come back, don't tell them you're coming back to it and then dodge it later. And they're learning just from that behavior, just how you approach it, because you don't want this to be just a one-time conversation. You want this to be your learning about them and what they're interested in, what they're grappling with as they develop as humans. And so this allows you to help understand what they're interested in.


Melanie: Absolutely.


Rachel: One of the things we talk about Melanie and I specifically have long conversations about this, teachers should be comfortable being co-researchers, or co-learners with children. And that's the same with parents too. You don't have to know the answers. You can explore together. Even if you do know the answers, or think you know some of the answers, still get into that, "Let's learn this together. Let's research together. Let's go to the library. Let's get on the internet." Let's find out what activities or events and use that as a catalyst for you both to be learning together. Children love that. And if they even love it more, if they can teach you a thing or two as the parent.


Melanie: Definitely.


Rachel: And we've talked about this a bit, but just a little bit more detail about making sure that the toys and books you have in your home represent full diversity. And this is something most of us don't pay attention to unless we're intentional about it. So go look at your kid's bookshelves. What color skin do the characters have in those books? Is everybody the same? Are there different family makeups? Are there different women being firefighters and, and men being nurses. Are there different ages represented? Are there differing abilities represented? And of course, are there different cultures and skin colors?


And not in a let's learn about this culture nonfiction book. That could be part of it, but that's not all we're looking at. We wanna normalize. We want people to get familiar and comfortable, teach our children to get familiar and comfortable. And we can do at the same time by choosing books that celebrate diverse authors and illustrators and characters that are just like real life, just living life. Not doing anything special, not everyone has to be giving a speech or a leading action in the book, just living life, making friends, being a part of the human race.


Melanie: So important.


Rachel: And that's something that all parents can influence. Look for that with your toys too. Is every toy coming in a very kind of stereotypical look to the toy, and that's most of them are. So it's worth taking a look at those. We often recommend and use in our classrooms open-ended or representational materials. That can be anything. Of course, if you're gonna have dolls, you wanna look at the diversity of skin color, but you don't have to will make anything be a person or they can take an old spool and a PVC pipe, and make that into an animal. So that allows their imagination and their creativity as well. That's one way to help with that.


Melanie: Exactly.


Rachel: So we talked a little bit about some action and some steps that parents can take, Melanie. But one of the things, when we're thinking about action and uncomfortable conversations around this topic, is that we have kids and parents and everybody living in families that don't always agree. And a question that's come up quite a bit is what if the grandparents, or other family members say something that's against what we're trying to teach our children, or blatantly biased or racist. How do we handle that?


Melanie: That can be tricky, but it's definitely not a situation where you can stay neutral in that situation it is uncomfortable, but for real change to happen, those tough conversations do have to happen. And as I was saying to you before, when you're talking about asking questions, the coming from a place of curiosity, I think is a way to address that.


So you're talking about that, it's making me think about a friend of mine, who he was telling a story. And as he was talking in the story, he mentioned, he said, ''So this colored band came into the store.'' And I remember just thinking, "Huh? He said colored." And, you know, let him finish the conversation. But then I was really curious and said, ''Tell me why you described him that way. You know, why did you use that word? I'm just so curious. I haven't heard someone use that word in a very long time.''


And he mentioned that that is how people in his family referred to black people as colored. That's how he grew up. There wasn't a negative connotation associated with it. It was just the language that was shared in his family. But if I didn't ask, or if I even didn't have a relationship with him, I could have made an assumption about him and his thinking about black people in general. So, so much of what we think and how we talk comes from our upbringing and people in our family and what we're exposed to. And so I think that that's why it is especially important that we're modeling for children. And if there's something that is said, if you can, in the moment say something about it, that that's really modeling for your child to be an upstander, to be an ally. Giving children phrases and language like, "I don't like it when you use that word." You know, empowering them with that.


Or if you don't feel like you can react in the moment, you can still bring it up with your child later and ask them, you know, "What do you think I should have said to grandpa? I'm gonna speak to him about that the next time I see him." One thing Rachel, that has really given me so much hope is that I see, you know, I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I see her group or generation really feeling empowered to call out things that are not appropriate or that are racist or sexist or whatever that is, because they're growing up in a way different world than we grew up in. And so I think that there's some hope there thinking about our children and you see it in the world of how they're speaking up about things and not being afraid to do so.


Rachel: Yeah. I think that you mentioned the term upstander versus a bystander and that's something that we've been talking a lot about with my kids is that when you're a bystander, you're witnessing something happening. You might not be participating in that thing happening, but you're there and you have a choice to take some action or not. But if you take that action, you're an upstander and you are helping with change. Of course, it depends on the age of your child, but you can be modeling it for them.


And those are tricky situations, just you yourself saying "I'm uncomfortable with that conversation, that doesn't match my values" versus just kind of avoiding it, teaches them so much in that moment. So figuring out what you're comfortable with in those situations, and then yeah, going to them kind of co-learning together, co-thinking together, "What should I have done?"


People disagree. You can love someone that you disagree with and that's good skillset for kids to have. It's in short supply these days. So we need these young kids to be growing up, knowing how to do that.


Melanie: That's so true.


Rachel: Last question, Melanie I think we should tackle is what we're kind of getting into it here. But we're talking about what if our child or ourselves witness racism, stereotyping or bias and we wanna empower them with some language and ourselves with some language about how to handle that. But what if our child themselves experiences bias, stereotype or racism? How do we help our children through that situation?


Melanie: And now we wish that we could avoid that situation altogether. No one wants that for their child, but that's just it's gonna happen. So I do think it is important to think about how we would respond to those situations. I think first and foremost, really responding to your child's feelings, that's an important part of your role as a parent. And then the other part of that is taking action.


One of the things that I think about with this is making sure that you are helping your child understand that whatever it is that was said about them, whether it's their appearance or whatever it is that's related to their identity, that you're reassuring them and uplifting them and pointing out the positives. Hopefully, you're doing that just in general and not waiting for situations to come up. But definitely when situations come up reinforcing that, so that they don't start to have issues around self-esteem and not feeling great about themselves.


And then going to the child's teacher, their parents, you know, whoever the adult is in the particular situation and let them know what your child's shared and how they felt about it. And I would even say, just ask questions, you know, "Have you ever heard this before from this child or this group of children?" And then, you know, "Well, what can we do to address this?" Partnering with the adults in the situation to figure out what we can do. And sharing what you're gonna do to help your child, and then saying, "You know, what can we do to help the other child or the other children?" Because again, this is coming from a place of a lack of understanding, or fear of something that's different from them and not understanding it as well. So that means that there's an opportunity to help that child or those children to learn something that they don't currently have the knowledge about.


Rachel: Yeah. So of course we don't want any of our children to experience hardships and anything hurtful, but at the same time, they need some of that to build their agency, to build their resilience, to understand who they are and their own identity. We don't want it to be harmful or hurtful so we can equip them and support them to help them through those situations. And of course, we all have a role to play in this, too, is if a parent, or if someone comes to you about something that your child has said or done, that's a teaching opportunity and it's a curiosity opportunity. It's an exploration.


If we try, especially with children, they're picking it up from other things they hear, television or friends or family. Their intent is very unlikely to be malicious. And if we approach it as a learning and opportunity for everybody involved in those situations, everyone can grow and make a difference and change from those situations. But that's tricky as adults. We have to work hard to be the ones that are willing to be open to it, not defensive and correct ourselves, learn ourselves. We have a lot, all of us have a lot to learn.


These topics we know, and conversations can be uncomfortable. But when you're uncomfortable, when you are doing something a little different than normal, usually that's where you're learning. So that might mean we're doing it right. Keep talking about these topics with your families, keep thinking about these topics, keep thinking about your family's values and how you can be an upstander not just a bystander. How we are growing these little people to be the citizens and that make decisions for all of us. Our next leaders are in this generation here.


So we wanna be thinking about all the opportunities we have to grow all aspects of their development, and we're not gonna get this right. We have to have a lot of curiosity, and humility, and being okay about learning from mistakes. So I'm just gonna kind of wrap us up with a quote that I think sums up what we're talking about here. ''Learning how to have these conversations is a necessary art of moving forward as a healthy society. You can't fix what you can't talk about.''


Melanie: That's such a good one Rachel.


Rachel: Yeah. It's from Beverly Daniel Tatum, who is the author of ''Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?'' If you're looking for books and resources, that's a good one we've mentioned. We congratulate you for listening to this podcast, and being willing to think about your family and your approach to how you talk to your children about these tough topics. Thanks everyone.


We hope you found some great takeaways from this episode. It is a big topic that we continue to explore. And as always, you can find a ton of resources on our website or podcast episodes, articles, and webinars on diversity, equity and inclusion. Check it out under Family Resources at



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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
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