5 Powerful Strategies for Using Storybooks to Combat Racism: Young Children

Red haired mother lifting a curly haired mixed child. Start supporting your kids against racism at an early age.
Photo by Thiago Cerqueira on Unsplash

1 – When Do I Start?

The statistics show that it is never too early to start.

“The process of learning racial bias is a lot like learning a new language (e.g., a child raised bilingual vs. a child who starts learning Spanish in junior high). Biology determines a critical early learning period as well as a later window where learning is much harder.

  • As early as 6 months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences.
  • By ages 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias.
  • By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs—giving parents a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves cultural understanding,”

according to Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, MSHS, FAAP & Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP in HealthyChildren website.

So, the answer is that it is crucial to start as soon as you can. For babies and toddlers, you can begin with an awareness of differences and the importance of acceptance.

It is also critical to realize that with the many influences on children today, you can expect that they will run into inappropriate encounters at the store, stereotypes through media, or witness a protest in your neighborhood.

2 – How to Share the Storybook with your Young Child

Just a Story, at First

It is essential to share this type of book in a typical manner. So, if you read with your child after lunch or at bedtime, introduce this special type of book during those familiar times.

Approach the first reading for the story elements. Read the book as if it were just a story. So, on the first reading, let the book tell the story without extensive discussions, except perhaps to clarify its meaning. Make sure your child understands the details of what is happening.

But respond to any questions or comments they have. Do not go into lengthy explanations and try to link your explanations to the story.

Over and Over

Be prepared to read the book many times. Your young child will need multiple exposures of the ideas in the book for them to absorb the concepts. And besides, most of these books are great stories that kids want to hear multiple times, just like any good storybook.

Don’t Tell

After your child is familiar with the story, you can start discussing the social impact behind the story and your expectations of behavior for everyone in the family and among friends. If your child does not provide you with a way in through their comments or questions, you can begin by making comments or asking insightful questions. But don’t tell or lecture.

Here is an example of a book that will appeal to a very young child. You can view the author reading the book to a group of children on Youtube.

Same Difference;

Same Difference – This book has all the qualities to capture the imagination of young kids – it rhymes, it involves friendly cousins and a common problem
When you feel it is time to explore the inappropriate attitudes in this book, you can start to question the motive behind the little girl’s comments and the impact on the girls’ feelings. Here are some questions you might use to interrupt the story for valued discussion purposes. You can use all of the questions during the different times you read the story. Your child’s reactions will determine how many you can use in one sitting. If your child gets restless, continue with the story, wait to ask the questions another day.

When Lisa says with a big frown,” Your skin is tan, and my skin is brown,” you can stop the story to examine the picture and ask your child how the girls’ faces have changed. “How do these comments make the girls feel?”

When Lida says, “One of these hairstyles must be wrong.” You can ask your child, “How can a hairstyle be wrong?” “What do you think that means?” You can delve into their feelings and ask, “Have you ever felt wrong?”

And you can query “How do the girls feel when grandmother says, ‘Oh children,’ let me explain, ‘You can be different and still be the same. No one is better. No one is first.”

You might wonder aloud in front of your child by saying, “I was confused by how the girls could be both different and the same. But now I understand that the differences are not wrong.” You can follow up with “I wonder if you see differences in your friends or cousins,” to broaden the discussion and personalize it.

At the end of the story, you may remind your child of a time when he or she had a falling out with friends. You can relate life experiences to this book to sort out your child’s reactions in a calm manner. Perhaps the underlying reason for the falling out was all about jealousy or superiority. Now would be the time to point out that you are glad your child got over these feelings and now are back to being friends. It is also suitable to explain that jealousy is an emotion they can control or overcome.

This next story is somewhat more complicated and in-depth. It will start your child thinking about values as well as what is important in the world. It also gives you a framework for your responses.

Last Stop on Market Street

Last Stop on Market Street: In this story, CJ travels with Nana to the soup kitchen to feed all kinds of people. For every negative observation of CJs, Nana turns it into something positive. Their journey to the soup kitchen is filled with diversity including different races, economic statuses, and abilities. During the bus ride, the music transforms CJ’s world. Nana handles CJ’s comments and questions by finding joy in each of his negative statements.
While reading the story, you can stop from time to time to remember how Nana turns a negative observation into something more positive. This strategy brings hope to many people. It is called “looking on the bright side of things.” And it is one attitude that if your child adopts will be a comfort to him or her for a lifetime.
If your child tends to look at the negative side of their situation, you, too, can respond to your own child’s inquiries with observations that are full of hope. Or you can encourage them by saying, “What do you think Nana would say in this situation?” The addition of the “Last Stop” to the soup kitchen, thrusts the story into the need for activism to support the community. Some parents have the opportunity to make giving back, a reality for their children as they lead through an example in soup kitchens, in schools, in hospitals, and in many other areas of their world.

3 – Normalize the Conversation about Racism.

Include discussions about racism whenever suitable in your conversation. This will normalize the issue while making it part of the way in which your family approaches life. You do not need to wait for Black History Month or any other time of the year to discuss matters. It should always be a topic that is always available for examination.

4 – Address Racist Behavior in Your Lives

You can expect there will come a time when you and your child will witness racist behavior. It could be an act or word that is obvious, or it could be a subtle gesture. You can use the stories you have been reading about racism to help your child recognize what is going on and what to do about the situation.

Use the stories you have read to evaluate your life circumstances.

Same Difference: For example. If you hear that someone is putting the other down, you can refer your child back to “Same Difference” to explain that differences are all part of life. One type is not any better than any other. All differences are valuable.

Last Stop on Market Street: You can model how to be an ally to other people. Nana and CJ helped out at the soup kitchen. Your family may choose to donate your toys to the church bazaar for other children to enjoy. Look around to see how you are giving back to your community. Make your kids aware of how to serve their community. Live your life as if “All lives matter”.

5 – Evaluate Every Book, Media Source

One Viewpoint Only: Typically, many young children’s storybooks do not demonstrate inclusiveness. They are books filled with characters of one race only. Many Disney stories are a prime example, although this situation is changing.

Negative Stereotypes: What is more detrimental are stories that paint a negative viewpoint of different races. Many stories include slaves but do not point out how disgusting this situation is. If, by chance, you start reading a story to your child without realizing that it includes negative stereotypes, stop the story to explain that this viewpoint is not appropriate. You can say that this is what happened a long time ago, but that it is not acceptable today because people value everyone’s contribution to society.

Start Now

You are the parent and your child’s best teacher. You can talk about slavery, institutionalized racism, and protests when you and your child are ready.
But when your child is young, It is the ideal time to start educating him or her about racism in concrete terms. With your constant support, your child will begin to understand the more abstract concepts.
However, the foundation you build with them when they are young will provide them with a critical lens to evaluate all life’s situations.

Consider These Books

All The Colors We Are: This is a book that explains how we got our skin colors in a simple but accurate explanation. So now you have the answer for your child’s question, “Why are our skin colors different?”

All the Colors of the Earth: This book is a lyrical version that embraces all of the colors of our different skins. Parent testimonial: “My baby boy adores this book. It’s one of a select number of books he will sit and listen to all the way through (he’s 11 months old now, and he has been listening to this attentively for at least four or five months). 

All Are Welcome Here: This is a positive affirmation of diversity. Your child will love the rhyming text and pictures that demonstrate that everyone belongs. Not only does it celebrate diverse cultures but also diverse family structures.

Teach Your Dragon About Diversity: This is just one book in an amazing series of books to help young children understand complicated issues. Parent Testimonial: “It  really opened up a very important discussion we all need to have with our children. Highly recommended.”

Can I Play,Too? The diverse characters in this book start out with a unique problem. The first response is cruelty. But by the end of the story, elephant, snake and piggy come up with a creative solution so that everyone gets to play in their own special way. In the end they choose to make it work for everyone’s sake.

Hey Black Child: With a compelling rhythm that is memorized by many kids, this verse honors the power and potential of black children. It may help your child set his or her sites high. Not only are the words empowering, but the visuals are dynamic. 

I Am Mixed: This is a perfect book to start a conversation about all of the positive qualities for being “mixed.” Often kids of mixed backgrounds find many societal situations difficult. You can be intentional in supporting your kids, especially when someone asks an awkward question.

Indeed, you will tailor the way you use these storybooks with your child to suit both of your personalities.

With a little patience, you can support their growth to

empower your kids to stand up to racism.

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