When and How to Talk with Young Children about Enslavement:

Discussion Questions for Educators

By Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards

The successful, collective effort that resulted in the recall of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a young children’s book that offered an inaccurate, sugarcoated version of the realities of slavery, brings up another important conversation for the early childhood community staff, families,  and social justice activists. This one is about when, as well as how, do we talk with children about slavery. At what age do we first introduce the topic, and what concepts do we communicate at different ages? When do we think children can both cognitively understand and emotionally handle the truth about the realities of slavery?

Here are some suggested questions to help the early childhood community, families, and social justice activists to get started on this essential discussion. 

1) What are the key concepts we most want children to understand about the institution of slavery, and when are they old enough to understand such concepts? What do we most want them to feel about slavery and about people who were enslaved?

2) What are our specific goals in teaching about slavery to young  children? What are the messages we want them to take home? What are possible consequences of teaching children a sugar-coated or antiseptic, cleaned-up version of slavery?

3) What do preschool age children actually understand when we say an event happened a long time ago? Do they really understand the dimension of time in the past? Or do they think “yesterday” or even today?

4) What do young children think–especially African American and other dark –skinned young children– when they see pictures and hear stories about the mothers and fathers of children who look like them being sold away from their own children? Or being sold at all? Or being mistreated? Do they fear this will happen to them?

5) What do young African American children think about themselves when they learn that people like them were enslaved? Does this support their development of a positive identity? Of belonging in the world? Do we even ask them what they think/feel when we decide to read them a story about slavery?

6) What do young white children think about African Americans when they learn about their being enslaved? Do we even ask them what they think/feel when we decide to read them a story about slavery?

7) What do children learn if they hear about slavery in media or in casual references and the trusted adults in their lives have not discussed it with them?

8) How do we include families in this discussion? What do families think about teaching about slavery in school? What have they shared with their children? How do families of African American children and families of white children think and feel about teaching this topic in school? What do we do when families have very different beliefs about how to handle the issue of slavery with children?

For many children, it is during the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday or during Black History Month that their schools first begin discussing African Americans in the U.S.  In addition to thinking about when and how we introduce the topic of slavery to children, we also need to have conversations with each other about how to most effectively teach  about the lengthy historic and current work of the movement for full liberation of African Americans and other people of color.

Here are some questions to consider about teaching children about the movements to resist and end racism.

1) What do young children understand about fairness and unfairness and how do we connect current issues of injustice to their understanding of these two concepts?

2) What issues do young children in our country, in your community, in your family, see, hear, encounter regarding race, and racism?

3) In what ways how might learning about resistance to racism support young children’s development of a positive self-and group identity? In what ways, might learning about resistance to racism support positive, accurate ideas about people of color? How might this be different or the same for White children and for children of color?

4) Conversely, how might not learning about resistance to racism affect children’s identity or attitudes?

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Louise Derman-Sparks is an internationally respected anti-bias educator and author (along with Julie Olsen Edwards) of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. She has co-authored  several additional books with Dr. Carol Brunson Day (Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism), the ABC Task Force (Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children),  Dr. Patricia Ramsey (What If All the Kids Are White?) ,  and Dr. John Nimmo and Debbie Leekeenan (Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change). She speaks throughout the United States and abroad, and served on the NAEYC Governing Board from 1998 to 2001. Louise has a lifelong commitment to building a more just society for all people. Her children Douglass and Holly, now grown, were her inspiration. A Pacific Oaks College faculty member for 33 years—when its mission and pedagogy reflected anti-bias education principles—Louise is now retired.

Julie Olsen Edwards began her early childhood education career working as a family child care provider as a way to stay home with her new baby. She went on to work for Head Start, teach in private and public preschools and parent cooperatives, and teach kindergarten and reading in elementary schools, and work with the community teen mother program. For 45 years, Julie was on the faculty of Cabrillo College’s early childhood education department, served as program chair, and was founding director of the campus Children’s Center. A lifetime activist for children and families, she continues to write, teach, and consult on issues of equity, diversity, and anti-bias; emerging literacy; and family life and empowerment. She served on the NAEYC Governing Board during 2003-2007. In addition to Anti-Bias Education, she also worked with Derman-Sparks and Ramsey on What If All the Kids Are White? For more information, visit Julie Olsen Edwards.