Here’s why we must start talking about race in children’s ministry.
“CAN I TALK TO YOU?”
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The volunteer gave me one of those you-need-to-talk-with-your-child looks. In a whisper just outside the room, she informed me, “Your daughter and another girl wouldn’t let one of the other kids play with them.” Based on the hushed tone of the volunteer, I suspected it was serious. She continued, “When I asked them why they wouldn’t let the other girl play with them, they said it was because she had darker skin than they did.”
I was caught off guard and embarrassed. I was the children’s pastor. Furthermore, how was it possible that my daughter was capable of excluding others based on skin color? I myself am multiracial and have brown skin.
Up to that point, I’d worked under the assumption that young children, for the most part, weren’t really aware of skin color and race. In other words, young children were supposed to be colorblind, weren’t they? What did I do wrong as a parent? as a children’s pastor? My daughter’s friend’s family was equally shocked by the girls’ behavior. Where had these two learned to discriminate based on skin color?
It’s been many years since that incident, and those questions regarding children and race kept coming back to me. In my current work as a sociologist studying children, race, and the church, I now know that children do in fact have pretty complex understandings of race and racial categories. Additionally, I’ve found that most children’s ministries and children’s ministry curricula do not address race at all. By this I mean there’s a scarcity of discussion, materials, and lessons in children’s ministries that bring up a person’s race—let alone broach topics like racial discrimination and racism.
There’s also a glaring lack of children’s ministry resources that equip leaders to address race and meanings of race with the children at their churches. There are plenty of kidmin materials addressing cross-cultural missions, issues of poverty, respecting the elderly, and helping those with different ability statuses. There’s even a growing number of resources on how to work with children from varying family arrangements, including children from single-parent households, blended households, and same-sex households.
“WHY AREN’T WE TALKING?”
Racial tension has always been a part of history—from widespread chattel slavery, to the Civil War, to Jim Crow and segregation, to the civil rights movement, to the racial integration of schools, to the removal of restrictive laws on interracial marriage, to the election of a black president.
Yet while we’ve come a long way in racial reconciliation as a country, we still have a long way to go. Recent events such as the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the deaths of people such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and more; and the deaths of five police officers in Dallas have exposed the raw nerve of racial tensions in the United States. In response to these events, Matt Guevara, executive director of the International Network of Children’s Ministry (INCM), published a blog post on the Bethel Seminary Cory Center website pointing out that the vast majority of children’s ministry leaders were silent over these racially charged events, offering little to help children and families process them.
“Why aren’t [children’s ministry leaders] talking? These events impact the families and children we serve. Why aren’t we talking about it?” pondered Guevara.
While there’s no single, overarching answer to that question, what I have found in my research and conversations about children and race is that many of us don’t think it’s important or even appropriate to explicitly talk to children about race and racism. We believe children are “colorblind” and don’t see race or racial differences. Furthermore, we tend to believe shielding children from conversations about racial tensions and racism will maintain a child’s innocence surrounding race, prolonging their perceived colorblindness.
However, sociological research on children and race tells us that these assumptions, while well intentioned, are mistaken and can unintentionally perpetuate negative racial stereotypes.
“ ’RANNY, WHY DO THEY HATE US SO MUCH?”
Soon after the deaths of Sterling, Castile, and the five police officers in Dallas, Kathie Phillips, author of the kidminspiration.com blog, wrote on her Facebook profile about her experience as a black woman raising a black young man and explicitly teaching him how to guard himself from potential harms due to the negative stereotypes about young black men. Phillips followed up her Facebook entry with a blog post on KidMinspiration challenging children’s ministry leaders to directly address the rising racial tensions and help children and families talk about them.
“Our kids are listening and watching,” she notes. “They’re listening to these conversations [about racial tensions]and watching the news. They’re asking questions like my 8-year-old niece asked my mom (her grandmother): “’Ranny, why do they hate us so much?’”
At this point, many of us in ministry may be thinking something like this:
But I don’t live in an area where there’s a lot of racial tension. The children in my church aren’t really exposed to racial prejudice or discrimination directly. In fact, our children don’t even notice people of different colors or races. Don’t we just have to teach children that we’re all created in the image of God and that it’s important to love everyone, no matter what?
Yes, we need to teach children to love everyone, but it’s even more important to unpack what it means to “love everyone.” Children need to learn that God created us the same and he created us different.
The late Dallas Willard, philosophy expert and author of Knowing Christ Today, said we often unknowingly pick up beliefs and attitudes just like a wool jacket might pick up lint, and it takes an intentional effort to deal with all that “lint.” When we choose to not teach children about racial differences, they’ll implicitly pick up attitudes, assumptions, and stereotypes about race from our cultural landscape— and it begins a lot sooner than most of us assume.
Sociologists Debra van Ausdale and Joe Feagin spent 11 months observing and interviewing children at a preschool to discover how children dealt with race and racial differences among themselves. Their eye-opening findings are published in a book entitled The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. What they discovered was that children as young as 3 years old used race as a means to include some people within friend groups and exclude others. What’s most intriguing is these racialized actions weren’t a direct result of explicit exposure to racial stereotypes at school, home, or elsewhere. Van Ausdale and Feagin found that children tended to pick up racial attitudes and assumptions from the surrounding culture and acted out those attitudes and assumptions with other children. In other words, regardless of whether the children in your church are directly exposed to negative racial stereotypes and racism, they’re picking up “cultural lint” about race—and they’re picking it up at very young ages.