Ashes in the Hands of Children

AW1I have to say, I went into yesterday’s Ash Wednesday service with some trepidation. The weather has been strange. We’ve cancelled services, changed the times, stood on watch looking out the window for snow. But the snow storm in Durham meant that our public schools were cancelled for weather. And the new time meant that families with children could come to our 12 pm service. I mentioned this a few times and hoped some would show up.

As the time drew nearer I started to feel nervous. It’s not because I think Ash Wednesday is morbid and therefore not for children. The Gospel message is that we’re sinners and that grace is a free gift for sinners. But this service isn’t brief. And it’s wordy. We don’t live in a world where Lent is an assumed understanding. So we offer an extensive Invitation to a Holy Lent. We preach. We pray over ashes. We confess at length. We pass the peace. We sit in silence.

My daughter showed up five minutes before the service started. Both our littles were falling asleep in the car so my husband sent T in alone. All that silence. All that ritual. I handed her over to the senior pastor in the front row. She wasn’t alone. Lots of children came with parents.

Despite how long I’ve been in churches with sound liturgies and rituals, I always forget the power and grace of these moments. And I forget that children, for centuries, have been woven into the liturgical life of our church, assumed to be participants alongside us. Some of our children colored in their coloring books, others looked at books, but when it came time for ashes to be blessed and imposed all eyes were up front. Another minister pointed out to me that in the silence reflection there was more snuffling and shifting from adults than children.AW3

I long for a robust enough service that a children’s time is no longer necessary, when children are seamlessly integrated into our common life. I think we’re working towards that here, finding creative, thoughtful ways for children to bring their whole selves into worship. But Ash Wednesday is a reminder to me that children are able, are longing to be brought fully into the life of this body.

After worship the senior pastor, her children, my daughter, and I went out to the corner to distribute ashes to anyone who pulled up to the light and asked for some. Heather’s son was incredibly excited about the opportunity. He stood there, finger ashed, at the ready. Our daughters held up a sign that said “It’s Ash Wednesday. We’ve got Ashes to Go!”

It was a powerful moment to turn this responsibility over to our children, to say, “now you go and remind others that God is calling them back. Go remind them that even death cannot separate them from God’s love. Go and make this your own.”

They’re ready. They’re more ready than we know.

Epiphany

This Sunday chalkinwe celebrated Epiphany at Duke Memorial. I love Epiphany. Here’s how we marked God’s “revealing” of God’s self in Jesus.

Chalking the Doors We lived into the tradition from the Middle Ages of chalking our doors. For their Pew Projects our children “practiced” chalking on a black piece of paper so they could chalk their doors and outsidebless their own homes. 20 and 15 stand for the new year (2015) and C+M+B stands for the names of the 3 wiseman (symbolizing hospitality/welcome to Christ) and/or for the Latin saying “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” which means “may Christ bless this house.”

Chstepsalking the Sidewalks We also blessed our church, asking people to come out after worship to share words of welcome with chalk on our sidewalk. I loved walking around the front of the church today to see the message and words of blessing written there. outside 2

Gifts for the Diaper Bank Since Epiphany is also the time when we remember the magi who visited Jesus, we asked our church to give a gift to babies in our community. Throughout the month we are collecting diapers for the Durham Diaper Bank, a non-profit that provides diapers of all sizes to families who cannot afford diapers. diapers

Advent and Christmas

I’ve finally cleared out my office of piles of Advent and Christmas worship supplies. I was too busy pastoring to blog it all, but here’s a little look at the ways children were ministers at Duke Memorial during this season when we waited then welcomed Emmanuel, God with us.JTBIMG_0010

Repent! We got our hearts, bodies, and minds ready remembering the larger-than-life John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Lord. Children got a bag of cloth scraps and tissue paper and showed us what they saw when they heard the description of JTB.

Living Gospel Much of our Sunday school hour was spent getting ready to share the IMG_3769Gospel with our congregation on Dec 21. Our older ones preparedmanger to tell the Christmas story and made props/sets while our little ones made crafts to prepare the manger for the arrival of Jesus. It was a wonderful time of worship. In between scenes our choir sang parts of Messiah. We had a wonderful director and some of our children even memorized their parts. Can you imagine how amazing and empowering it would be to be a 10 year old girl who could recite the Magnificat? Because Charlotte can!

Jesus Genealogy  We had another Pew Project where we remembered the people in Jesus’ family tree. During  chrismonworship children each got to color a picture of someone from the Old Testament who showed up in the line of David. Children put them in clear bulbs and added them to our chrismon tree after worship. St Nicholas

St Nicholas At the beginning of the month we celebrated the feast day of St Nicholas. During worship children brought their shoes to the back and during the service the high school youth filled up with their shoes. We had a prayer card, an orange, several gold coins, and a candy cane. Each corresponded to a story that I told about the life of St Nicholas. Children also colored a stained glass St Nicholas during worship.

We also had wonderful Wednesday services where our children prayed and served as acolytes. It was a wonderful season of waiting, watching, and then of celebration and hope.

Into the mess He comes

I am taking a deep breath tonight. In a few hours about 30 kids, a full orchestra, and a choir singing Part I of Handel’s Messiah will lead our congregation in worship. I’ve been sick – the “I can’t get out of bed” sick – for three days. My Tuesday prep didn’t happen because I had the holy honor of burying a long-term, beloved church member. I also have three children, two of whom are also sick, not to mention about a hundred other Christmas-is-almost-here things that need to get done.

Since I don’t like chaos, and since I like to be in control, this is a tough moment for me. At this late hour not all the sheep for our “Living Gospel” have legs. I’m not sure if we have the Styrofoam needed for our little ones to put up their stars. And I haven’t enlarged the font so the angel Gabriel can read her long lines.

So instead of worrying I’m going to follow the God of swaddling cloths. Swaddling cloths, the kind from the Gospel of Luke – “you’ll find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloth.” It seems like such an odd detail for the angels to tell the shepherds in order for them to identify baby Jesus. Then Luke mentions this detail again – “she wrapped him in swaddling cloth.” Why does it matter?

Recently a friend of mine who studies early Christianity told me that those swaddling cloths were Mary’s undergarments. These were her undergarments, soaked in blood and birthing fluid, probably the only thing she had. My friend Kate was sharing with me this image of the God of the universe, wrapped in strips of cloth, covered in Mary’s blood.

Maybe that was God’s way of saying to the shepherds, “Look! My son is really, really poor. He’s one of you.” Or maybe it was God wanting to show that there is no limit to the ways Jesus is going to enter into humanity, that no human experience is out of bounds. Whatever the reason, it reminds me that from the very beginning, literally the first moments of life, God jumped into the mess. And God stayed there.

I think tomorrow is going to be good. It’s going to be messy, and fun, and probably a little more chaotic than I like it. But I also know God shows up wrapped in bloody underwear, that God shows up as a person, and that God still show up as persons.

So tomorrow the Gospel will be preached through singing and children and legless paper sheep. It will happen with or without me. Swaddling cloths. Lord, make me ready to receive you.

Empowering children: A review of books addressing sexual abuse

I know that as one of the two staff members who works to implement our sexual abuse prevention policy (Safe Sanctuaries) that I have an enormous and difficult task. We have a good policy. We train, screen, and keep in regular contact with teachers. I also know that one additional way to protect children is by empowering them and their families.

A few weeks ago I purchased several books that are available for parents to check out. These are books that help children to learn boundaries, appreciate the sacredness and goodness of their bodies, and to open up a safe space for dialogue with caregivers. My hope is that these books will be an additional defense as we protect children against the sexual abuse.

Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman.
We’ve owned this book for a long time and it’s what we use to begin laying a foundation for later conversations. It’s a great book for all ages, but particularly accessible for toddlers and preschoolers. There is nothing explicitly stated about sexual abuse in this book. It is a helpful guide for beginning a conversation about appropriate and wanted touch, and “bathing suit areas.”

Do You Have A Secret by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
Moore-Mallinos is a social worker for children and her book covers a wide range of “secrets,” including bullying. Do You Have A Secret is less explicit about sexual abuse than some others, using the language of “if someone touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable and yucky inside.” This made me think that this is a good book for younger children. It’s interactive and provides a lot of material for conversation. The primary lesson is distinguishing between good secrets and bad secrets.

I Said No! by Zack and Kimberly King
Kimberly is the mother of Zack and they co-wrote this book after Zack had an experience of being inappropriately touched at a sleepover. While Kimberly had talked with her son about boundaries she realized in retrospect that conversation had not been forthright and specific enough. So she wrote this book. It is great for mid to older elementary. It’s much wordier and complex and incredibly helpful for children ready to think in more nuanced ways. She uses the language of red and green flags as aids for making distinctions, and this can be a helpful tool for caregivers. She cover bribes vs. rewards, caregiver/doctor care vs stranger touching, keeping a good secret vs. keeping a bad secret.

Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Jayneen Sanders
I found this book very helpful because it’s written as a narrative. It’s accessible and interesting to read. There is also helpful guidance for parents in terms of how to read the book. It’s probably not one you want children to pick up on their own. It needs to be processed and discussed with trusted caregivers. The story is to the point and explicitly names the experience of a child being touched in the privates by an adult. I also loved that this book helped equip me. I could see the author pointing me towards warning signs of abuse and how to respond if I started to see those signs in one of my children.

It can be scary and hard to think about sexual abuse. We like to think that there is no way this could happen to us. As a pastor to children I want to partner with caregivers to ensure that we are each doing all we can to create a safe environment for our children’s faith to flourish.

Caregivers can also look at the following sites for additional ways to protect children:
https://rainn.org/protect-your-children
http://www.d2l.org/site/c.4dICIJOkGcISE/b.6292241/k.8331/Healthy_Sexual_Development.htm

Whispers in the pews

I love Carolyn Brown and her suggestions for creating space for children to engage in all-church worship. I took one of those suggestions this week. I handed out sheep stickers to each child (and one beloved adult) after the opening prayer. Each time the children heard the words “sheep” or “shepherd” they put a sticker in the bulletin.

There were, no exaggeration, at least 20 references to sheep and shepherds between the prayers, Scriptures, and sermon. And I noticed that every time I heard one of those words our 30 or so children would whisper excitedly “sheep! sheep!” Each time this little wave of excitement and joy washed through the congregation. And I thought, this is how God wants to be worshiped.

Later I came across this quote from Frederick Buechner that confirmed my suspicion.

Phrases like worship service and service of worship are tautologies. To worship God means to serve God. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for God that God needs to have done—run errands for God, carry messages for God, fight on God’s side, feed God’s lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for God that you need to do—sing songs for God, create beautiful things for God, give things up for God, tell God what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in God and make a fool of yourself for God the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.

A Quaker meeting, a pontifical High Mass, the family service at Zion Episcopal, a Holy Roller happening—unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.

-Wishful Thinking (and later in Beyond Words)

I get a little weary when I hear about how children don’t “get anything” out of worship. Someone said that again to me today – that worship is “over their heads.” I wonder about that impetus to “get it.” It seems like the amazing thing is that we’re all in a little bit over our heads. We sit in the face of these mysteries and we slowly figure out what it means to love God in the way God wants to be loved. And we try to put our bodies in a way that we can hear this story and sing these songs and pray these prayers. Sometimes we get so excited to find this word, to hear “shepherd” float up to the surface in this sea of words, that we’re foolish and giddy about it. That seems like good worship to me.

A Visual Lord’s Prayer

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At the end of August Carolyn Brown of Worshiping With Children pointed out that in the lectionary we could find Scriptures that illuminated the different parts of the Lord’s Prayer. It was amazing to see. Each week the Scripture connected to a different line of the prayer Jesus taught us.

Like a lot of liturgical churches, we say the Lord’s Prayer every week but we don’t usually spend time reflecting on or teaching the prayer. It seemed like Common Time, the teaching time of the church year, was the perfect opportunity.

Each week our children constructed a Pew Project based on one of the lectionary texts. I took these projects and turned them into banners. This was an awesome challenge. I had to find projects children could do in their seats during just the sermon portion (20 minutes) that connected with the Scripture and would look good and fitting in our sanctuary. But somehow I pulled it off.

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Something I loved about this series was that our children’s art became a visual prayer for our congregation. They helped us pray better because they showed us what we were praying. I will never pray the Lord’s Prayer again without seeing a kingdom of swing sets,  the temptations brought on by our fears of snakes, lightning, and monsters, and butterflies floating away with my anger.

We jumped around because the Scriptures weren’t in the same order as the prayer. So I hung eight white banners and each week added a new piece of the prayer. I also added a week for World Communion Sunday.

Aug 31           Proper 17 – Hallowed be thy Name
-The story of Moses before the burning bush. Children made shoes and fire as we remembered the ways that God’s name is special, unique and holy.

Sept 7            Proper 18 – Thy Kingdom Come…
-We talked about Jesus’ saying about the kingdom, and we talked about what it would look like when the kingdom of God comes. Children drew something that would be in God’s kingdom and we made a kingdom on our banner.

Sept 14          Proper 19 – Forgive us…as we forgive others
-This was the week we were taught to forgive 70 times 7 (or 77 times). We made 77 butterflies so we could see what that many times looked like. We practiced squeezing our palms together and letting go of our anger (along with the whole congregation).

Sept 21          Proper 20 – Give us this day our daily bread
-This week we heard the story about manna in the wilderness. The children received little pieces of “manna” and a puzzle piece. They glued their manna to their piece and I put them back together. What we saw was our manna – the bread and cup of Communion.

Sept 28          Proper 21 – Thy Will be Done
-We heard the story of the water out of the rock of Horeb. The children drew pictures of water on strips of cloth and we talked about how God so often does things in a way we don’t expect.

Oct 5              Proper 22 – “Our Father” (World Communion Sunday)
-God took care of Jesus because God was Jesus’ Father. God feeds us, too, when we have Communion. God feeds people all over the world! Children drew a picture of a person in their lives who takes care of them (mother, grandparents, foster parent, father, etc).

Oct 12            Proper 23 – Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil
-Golden calf was the primary Scripture this Sunday. We had the children make pictures out of gold paper of things that made them afraid. Fear makes us stop trusting God and we need God to “get us out of here!” when we are so afraid because we can’t trust on our own.

Oct 19            Proper 24 – Thine is … the glory
-We talked about how this part isn’t in the prayer, but that the first Christians added this prayer because they needed to be reminded that God could answer these prayers. We looked at the psalm and all the different words that are used to describe this faithful God. The children wrote their words to describe God on paper and I typed them out and added them onto banner. My favorite – “Wow”

Why We Don’t Have Children’s Church Anymore

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I’ve had a couple conversations with parents over the past weeks about children’s church and its demise. I’ve heard a a few different things. “It ended because we didn’t have volunteers.” “We stopped coming because we can’t have our children in worship.” “When are we going to offer that again? Having my children in worship is so hard.”

Parents of Young Children, I feel your pain. But I promise, I am not trying to torture you by asking you to bring your little ones into worship. And I am right there with you. I have three children. Two are still nursery age (a baby and a two-year old) but my six year old worships beside me for the whole service. We also attend church twice a Sunday – in the morning where I serve and in our home denomination, the Mennonite church, in the evening. In the evening all three of our children are in worship with us for most of the service. Our two little ones go to nursery only for the sermon. My six year old stays in both services the whole way through.

She is (God bless her) not easy. She doesn’t sit still and read a book. She is tired, squirmy, talks loudly, wanders, asks questions, spreads out her things, and distracts. I once took my daughter out the service to correct disobedience five different times. I’ve marched to the bathroom multiple times during every sermon I’ve ever heard. My husband and I have refereed fights. We’ve followed crawling babies around the sanctuary. We’ve created spaces to sleep, eat, and play. Every Sunday one of us sits in the nursery with our anxious toddler and “stranger danger” baby.

But ending Children’s Church was strategic. The reason we don’t have it anymore is because we know that going to all-church worship is the best indicator that our children will stick with their faith into adulthood. We aren’t making this up. Despite our intuition about engaging worship, relationships with peers, having something fun, none of this actually matches the data on what helps faith stick. The National Survey on Youth and Religion, which followed young teenagers up through adulthood, extensively detailing their lives and their faith, is where we learned this.

When I am wrestling a toddler to the ground or deciding at what decibel coloring is too loud I remember this:

The closest our research has come to that definitive silver bullet is this sticky finding: High school and college students who experience more intergenerational worship tend to have higher faith maturity. Of the many youth group participation variables we examined, involvement in intergenerational worship and relationships had one of the most robust correlations with faith maturity. This is true for our students’ senior year of high school and their freshman year of college.

Congregations are the place where teens, and before them children, create inter-generational relationships that will stay them through the years. For us, starting those relationships now, as young children, helps them be the church, not just show up once a week.

Being in church with our children shows them that they are accepted as they are because that’s what the church is. We don’t have to shuttle them off to their own private place, as if they are an embarrassment, or hindering us from worship. This season of life worship is about helping our church learn what it’s like to be a community of faith. It isn’t easy. It’s often messy and hard. But that’s also what church is.

We also know from the statistics that parents are the most formative influence on their children’s faith lives. Children overwhelmingly turn out just like their parents, despite our intuition that children are faith experimenters. So if my kids see that other activities trump going to church, or if they never see what adults do in worship, then chances are good that they are going to look the same way in twenty years. If we want children to learn the language of faith they actually need to see us worshipping, praying, singing, and receiving bread and cup.

Knowing these things has made church a little easier for us. In the moment I too long for children’s church, for an age-appropriate, entertaining space away from me. I want to be fed on Sundays. I want space to be hear the sermon, to sing without interruption. And there will be a time for that. There will be a time when my children are engaged in worship, when they can listen and sit still, where they can participate. But right now we are working on something else.

Just when I am at the end of my rope I can start to see the fruits of our work. Our daughter has asked us to invite some adult friends from church to her birthday party. We have other adults who help is in worship, who will hold our baby, or stop our child as she runs out of the room. In nursery many adults without children volunteer to stay with our little ones. One day soon, when they too reach kindergarten and join in worship for the whole service, they will know those faces and voices. And there are other adults my daughter can sit with in worship, other adults who she can go to when she needs support.

None of this makes worship easy. It doesn’t mean that we’re not tearing out our hair, or wishing we could be away for the weekend. It doesn’t mean we don’t worry that our child will fall behind, won’t have enough extra curricular activities, won’t be fed spiritually. But we keep moving ahead, keeping packing up our kids into the van. And we know our church loves our children and wants them to be a part of God’s good work. And we know we’re all in this together.

A few weeks ago I read Scripture during the service wearing our eight month old (see picture above). Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to be imitators. He writes, “You became imitators of us and of our Lord.” On the word “imitators” our baby did just that. Hearing mama read she yelled “ahhh!” We hope she continues to imitate the lives of faith, old and young, single and married who surround her as she grows. We hope her imitation of mama’s voice turns into imitation of mercy and justice, to imitations of the faithful people that surround her. Surrounding her with those people every Sunday starts now.

Guidelines for Talking to Children About Race


1. Allow them to take the lead. Young children are already noticing difference in skin color. Listen for opportunities to talk about what they observe. One way this happens in our family is when we’ve seen someone in a career that is not historically typical for women. I am always quick to say, “women can be astronauts/engineers/President.” But I also started to add, “people of all color skins can be astronauts/engineers/President. People with cinnamon color-skin or chocolate chip skin or olive color skin.”

2. Don’t censure. Children don’t comprehend the social boundary around discussions of race. They may want to talk about skin color in ways that make adults uncomfortable. It is important in these situations to stay calm and to answer questions factually. Getting angry or upset, or silencing a child will lead them to believe race is something that is a bad subject, or that can’t be discussed with you. April Harris-Britt of the University of North Carolina says that if a certain question makes you uncomfortable to tell your children that their question is fine to ask but that you’d like to discuss it later. But be sure to return to the subject with your child in a private place.

3. Know the facts and be open to change. It is important for parents to know the history of racism in America and to know the ways race has, as a form of power, been used to benefit some while harming others. Be open to having your own opinions and biases challenged. A great way to inform yourself is by watching the PBS Series “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”[1]

4. Expose your child to people of all shades. Ziba Kashef writes, ” Before your preschooler even utters the words “black” or “white” in reference to skin color, be sure he sees plenty of people of different ethnicities. If you don’t live in a racially diverse area, surround him with children’s books and artwork featuring people of various races. All of this will help your child understand that a normal environment includes people of different races, says Marguerite Wright, author of I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children.”

5. Respond with concise facts and don’t expect too much. Every time my two-year old sees a black man he tells me that “there’s a basketball player.” It makes sense. We live in a historically African-American neighborhood where young black men play almost all the pickup games at the YMCA. Like all preschoolers he is too young to think about the complexity of issues of power and privilege related to race. By simply noting his comments, being open to discussion about what he sees around him, and making corrections we are laying the foundation for important and more serious conversations in the future. When my son sees “a basketball player” I tell him, “I don’t see him carrying a basketball. Maybe he likes dancing or soccer” or “Yes, he’s holding a basketball and likes to play just like you. People with peach color skin and coffee color skin play basketball.” I’m also careful to point out when we see people of different races and genders playing sports.

6. Be aware of media portrayals of race. Children get information about race from many places, including music, television, and movies. Help set the most open environment for your children by filtering out media that portrays race in a stereotypical way. Look for programs that provide positive multi-cultural messages. Be aware that certain older films (Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Jungle Book) contain ethnic stereotypes.

7. Remember that children are eager to talk about race. Po Bronson, co-author of the book NurtureShock shares his experience talking to his three-year old about race:

“I started with her baby dolls, as Bigler recommended. That night, as Thia played with her babies, I remarked that it was good she liked baby dolls with all kinds of skin color. I couldn’t get myself to say “brown skin,” but Thia practically leapt at the overture. She grabbed her brown-skinned baby doll and started talking about its brown skin, and how her doll’s brown skin was like her friends’ at school. Bigler was absolutely right. My daughter did want to talk about it. I felt something akin to relief in her ─ that her father had finally let her openly talk about skin color.”[2]

8. Make sure you share age-appropriately. It’s not best to read a preschooler a story that highlights the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But don’t avoid the racism that led to the Civil Rights struggle. One way to address this age appropriately is to focus on change- and peace-makers. Talk about a very important theme for preschoolers – that our world was not fair and that this lack of equity was based on color difference.

Talking to preschoolers about race can be awkward and strange for white people. Be of good courage! You are laying the groundwork for future conversations by showing your openness to talk. Remember these words of Willie Jennings: “Race was made, and it can be unmade.”

[1] http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm

[2] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/blogs/nurture-shock/2009/09/11/is-discussing-race-with-a-3-year-old-too-young.html

Talking to Preschoolers About Race: A Guide for Perplexed White People

My daughter and I were sitting outside of seminary housing when one of the few married, male black students in our apartment complex walked by. My daughter, then two, shouted, voice ringing across the playground, “Mom! That’s the man from the weather! The one on TV!”

She was talking about Al Roker, the famous weatherman who, in my opinion, looked nothing like our friend Earl. But in Princeton, NJ, with fewer black men in her daily life, my daughter thought she’d recognized someone famous.

As I felt my face turn red it took everything in me not to grab her and put my hand over her mouth. Fortunately, I was prepared for something like this to happen. Instead of pulling her aside I said, in my normal voice, “No, that’s not the man from the weather. That’s Mr. Earl. He’s a daddy and a pastor. And he’s a student here, just like mommy.”

If I had silenced her in that moment I would have been reinforcing an age-old myth, a secret code among white people – we don’t talk about race. When we stop children from talking about a subject, when it’s clear we are embarrassed by what he or she has said, they come to believe that the topic they brought up is shameful and embarrassing. It’s crucial in these formative years to lay groundwork that will make it possible to talk about difficult subjects like race when our children get older and start thinking in more complex ways.

One of my favorite educational pieces on discussions of race includes this teaching: “During childhood, our attitudes are molded directly and indirectly by the race, ethnicity, and status of the people around us (i.e. teachers and classmates, parents, colleagues and friends, salesclerks, doctors, nurses, waiters, house cleaners, construction workers, the unemployed, the homeless, etc.). By age twelve we have a complete set of stereotypes about every ethnic, racial, and religious group in our society.

One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.”[1]

Why do we have to start in preschool?
Children begin to notice physical differences from birth. Studies show that babies as young as six-months old can discriminate on the basis of skin color. Rebecca Bigler concludes from her studies conducted at the University of Texas – Austin that children are prone to in-group favoritism. Children naturally make sense of their world through categorization, and they most heavily rely on visual cues.

By the time children are five years old they begin to place value judgments on these categories of difference and similarity. This is a crucial period in the development of racialized attitudes. Children between ages five and eight are old enough to think about more complex ideas such as race but still young enough to be flexible about these beliefs. By the time children are in fourth grade their racial attitudes are much more rigid and difficult to change.[2]
Isn’t it better to ignore race differences and encourage children to be color-blind?
All physical human differences, including race, are clearly visible to children. If we don’t talk about race with our children they will begin making judgments on their own. “Bigler contends that children extend their shared appearances much further—believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn’t like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism.”[3]

An important study by Phyllis Katz, then at the University of Colorado, looked at 100 white and 100 black three-year olds to discover how they think about race:

‘Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”‘

Color-blindness is a myth and starting with this premise can lead to harmful racialized attitudes later in life.

That’s the “why” of talking to children about race, and at an early age. In my next post I’ll share specific guidelines and assistance as we begin to encounter these conversations with our under-4 set.

[1] http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children/

[2] http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children/

[3] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html