Social Justice: Never to Early to Teach Children

As a society we think topics like discrimination, inequity, and social justice should be reserved for tweens and teens. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these difficult, complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible. Many kids don’t have that luxury of being shielded or protected from the devastating outcomes of injustice, they live it each and every day.

What we don’t think about often is that young children have a profound consciousness of and passion for justice (fairness). They innately notice differences or when people are treated wrongly. According to Louise Derman-Sparks, an early childhood education expert believes:

“The preschool years are critical, they are the first most fundamental period when children are in fact noticing who they are and are noticing the attitudes and the stereotypes and the discomforts or the positive messages about their skin color, their racial identity, their ethnic identity and so on.”

Our role as adults is to guide our young children is they navigate their natural inquiries and curiosities in ways that expand their knowledge and their love for others. Here are a few things that everyone can implement in their family practices


  • Spending quality time with your children (at their eye-level, no distractions, no multitasking). It’s amazing how much we can learn about and from our children when we follow their lead and scaffold their learning and JUST LISTEN.
  • Don’t shelter them from tough situations. Find developmentally appropriate ways to engage in critical dialogue with your young children. They really understand far more than we give them credit for and they want and deserve to know about the world around them.
  • Be consistent and constant. Most of the issues that I am talking about here don’t get resolved in one conversation or one activity (no neat, pretty bow here). Children need multiple ways to think about and experience the world.
  • Checking your own biases. The most important idea to think about is how much you know yourself. Sometimes our children will forces us to confront some of our own biases and stereotyping. Often their inquiry requires us to dig into our own past experiences, which can be painful and/or enlightening. And remember, you don’t always have to be right or have the answers. Let your child see you in a vulnerable state. Imagine what life lessons they can learn from these interactions with you.

So how do we do this, especially if our initial reaction is to shield our young children from injustices? I often hear parents tell their children that they should be “colorblind” when they ask about the child of color in their class. I also here parents “shush” their children when they asked why the person in the park is in wheelchair. We want them to ask questions and to notice differences…it’s the natural thing to do! It’s when we bring our own assigned judgements, values, and biases that a child’s natural curiosity  is viewed as rude or inappropriate and then is soon squashed. You can lay a foundation for more complex appreciation of the world as the grow and develop.

Engage children using literature. Books can be used as mirrors, windows, or doors. Using literature as mirrors allows your child to see herself in the pages of a book. This affirmation is important to the self-identity and self-worth of children. You can also choose books to learn about others who’s experiences are different from yours. This peek into the window of others’ perspective is important way to build compassion. The door metaphor represents the action (walking through and interacting) part of social justice. Using books as the starting place to begin to develop young activist in  world that’s not always “fair” to everyone.

Use current topics in media. Find a social justice topic in the news that impacts your family or an issues that is important to you. As a mother of four Black boys, we’ve had many conversations about being safe as they navigate around the world. We did a deep dive into the Tamir Rice case, specifically because he was the same age as my oldest son at the time. We watched the news together, with me explaining historical context and how something like this could happen in our country. I talked to them about the police’s role in protecting us (and that most law enforcement officers were there to keep us safe). We read articles together, we wrote a list of “rules of engagement” with police officers. We tried to separate facts from fiction and ways to empower them. Currently we are discussing immigration issues and how new policies allow children to be taken away from their families at the US/Mexico Border.

Get active as a family. It’s important that we talk about the inequities that are apparent for certain groups of people, but it’s more important to show how your family can contribute in some way to be a solution to the problem. How can your family contribute time, money,  or talents to injustices in your neighborhood or to a topic/issue that’s important to each of you. The June Social Justice Box focused on Youth Activism. It highlighted children movement leaders and how your child can be a part of something bigger than themselves and that they have the potential to change lives (look at the Children’s Crusade during the Civil Rights Movement or the Students from Stoneman Douglas High School in the #NeverAgain Movement).

Finally, I would  challenge you to start early…don’t wait. We need to begin to make the impact with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have lasting impact in the world. We raise more compassionate and socially conscious children.

In what ways do/did you engage your young children in social justice issues?

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