Original Publication: PBS Kids for Parents
By kindergarten, most children have heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They are taught that he, like Mahatma Gandhi, was an advocate for peace and equality.
However, consider going beyond Dr. King. For example, teach your child about Rosa Parks, the seamstress and civil rights activist whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her small act of nonviolent resistance helped to forge the way for transportation desegregation across the nation.
Her story is part of our shared American history. Instead of shying away from hard truths, parents can explain that a long time ago, people were separated by the color of their skin. Some people did not think that was fair, and men and women of all races united to make a change. This is a straight-forward example that teaches empathy, cooperation and the commonality of a shared goal. It is also a way to teach children how to connect their personal experiences with the larger world.
Television programming can also offer children windows into worlds outside their own. PBS Learning Media has a great lineup of short history lessons featuring former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, scholar Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, and others.
In an article for PBS, children’s book author Cheryl Willis Hudson offered these and other suggestions to help you connect your kids with Black history:
- Buy a book by a Black author or illustrator and make it a part of your child’s permanent collection. Books offer a fun and easy way to introduce your children to new cultures and to help them explore the experiences of people from different backgrounds.
- Look for books that are inclusive and reflect the diversity of our communities. Books help illustrate that diversity is a natural part of everyday life.
- When and if children ask questions about race, don’t sweep differences under the rug. Give children simple, concrete explanations when they have questions. Select books that affirm a valued place for all children. Try to find books that will help prepare children for the complex world in which they live.
- Make sure your selections include contemporary stories. Celebrate Black culture and experiences, in addition to history, through picture books, chapter books, and poetry.
- Seek the suggestions and guidance from knowledgeable cultural experts, booksellers and librarians. Coretta Scott King Award-winning titles are always a good place to start for excellence in text and illustrations.
For parents of mixed race or transracially adopted children, you must do your homework. You are your child’s first teacher, so educate yourself about your child’s cultural history. Stoke your child’s curiosity about their place in the world and their ancestor’s role in the establishment of this country. Young children believe what their parents tell them so take advantage of their eagerness to learn and show them how to appreciate differences. While you have their undivided attention, introduce your budding train conductor to Engineer Elijah McCoy, inventor of an oil lubricant for steam engines for locomotives and ships, and aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African American civilian issued a pilot’s license.
There are so many notable Americans to learn about. Beyond the internet, don’t forget my favorite resource: the public library. During themed months (like Women’s History Month or Asian American Heritage Month), most local libraries display related picture books. They may also schedule read-alouds about different cultures and offer scheduled lecture series for parents or activities for children.
In the end, people are more alike than different. And if children learn this simple truth early, the world will be the safe and interesting place that Dr. King dreamt about.