When I was a teen, my uncle Jack Moran wrote a song called “Skip a Rope.” It was recorded by Henson Cargill and was nominated by the Country Music Association for Song of the Year. I was very proud, not because I was a country music fan (I definitely wasn’t), but because Uncle Jack had used his talents to talk about important things. The song talks about the unintended lessons children learn from their parents—sometimes lessons about hatred and violence. It was brave music for its time. I’ve been thinking about that song a lot in recent days. I am a teacher at heart. In the face of the horror that is George Floyd’s death, and so many other horrors before that one, I keep wondering how and when people learn to view others with enough fear and anger to make the others’ lives seem disposable. Children don’t come to us with that kind of anger. How do we do better with the young ones in our care? There is much I don’t understand, but I know some places to begin.
We must talk about differences. I remember my well-intentioned mother teaching me that all people were the same and that I should not look at color. She was trying hard but she was wrong. Of course we are alike in many ways, but human beings vary in many important ways, too. And that variety is good. The key is not to ignore differences, but to see them, embrace them, and learn from them. Trying to erase differences or suggest we don’t see them is both dishonest and insulting. Children are smart. If we pretend we don’t see things that they see quite clearly, they will come to believe we are either dishonest or foolish. And they will know we don’t actually see them.
The basic principle of seeing and embracing differences is powerful across many dimensions. Children learn differently. They play sports differently. They speak different languages and variations of languages. They come from different cultures, different histories, different types of families, different races. All those things make them who they are, give them strength, potential, and beauty. Only by welcoming diversity in all its dimensions do we teach children their power and value. Pretending we are all the same teaches children that some ways of being different are shameful, less-than—that those differences must be hidden. That is not a lesson that belongs in any classroom or any home.
In particular, white parents and teachers need to talk about race. People of color have been doing that work for years, so one place to begin is by listening to the experts. Like any other kind of creative problem solving, we start by understanding the situation more deeply. For many of us, that means recognizing the limitations of our own experiences and our need to know. A bit of humility can go a long way. And once we begin to have some understanding, it means using our own power to uplift and advocate. There is a place for everyone’s work.
When we talk to the young people around us, especially in difficult moments like those we face now, we can admit the things we don’t know, share our efforts to learn and try to be our best selves. How we do that will change with the ages of the young people. It is relatively easy to make sure preschoolers have dolls, books, and crayons representing many skin tones. It is much trickier to talk to adolescents about the history that led us here. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources to help us. Here are a few.
This “toolkit” for talking to young people about race starts with the important observation that there can be no “quick tips” or easy solutions for this work, but shares recommendations from a variety of experts.
Teaching for Tolerance has a downloadable book for parents and teachers called Beyond the Golden Rule, with specific information on teaching children of various ages about bias and advocacy. They also have a wealth of materials for teachers teaching about race. Be sure to notice the link at the bottom for the full list of resources.
This blog post from Kat Michie of “Pretty Good” includes information and resources specific to teaching young children about race.
As we learn and talk, we will also want to examine the day-to-day interactions in our homes and classrooms to see what perhaps-unintended messages we are sending. Those are “Skip a Rope” moments. What are young people learning just from being around us—from our choices of pictures, friends, books, TV, restaurants, conversation, and reactions to bigoted comments? What happens while they are skipping rope? It matters.
Want to hear “Skip a Rope” for yourself? Here it is.