Here’s why we must start talking about race in children’s ministry.
“Can I talk to you?”
The volunteer gave me one of those you-need-to-talk-with-your-child looks. In a whisper, she said “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, “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?
What I Know Now
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. There’s even less that broach topics like racial discrimination and racism.
There’s also a lack of resources that equip leaders to address race and meanings of race with children at church. There are plenty of materials addressing cross-cultural missions, 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. These might include 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 slavery, to the Civil War, to Jim Crow and segregation, to the civil rights movement, to racial integration, 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. So why aren’t we talking more about race in children’s ministry?
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.
“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?’”
What You May Be Thinking
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? That it’s important to love everyone, no matter what?
Yes, we need to teach children to love everyone. However, 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 differently.
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.
They discovered children as young as 3 used race as a means to include and exclude some people within groups. What’s most intriguing is these racialized actions weren’t a direct result of explicit exposure to racial stereotypes. Van Ausdale and Feagin found that children tended to pick up racial attitudes and assumptions from the surrounding culture. They then 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.
A Deafening Silence
When I asked Phillips about children’s ministry materials that explicitly address issues surrounding race and racism, he was unable to identify any curriculum or children’s ministry leadership materials—with the exception of Illustrated Children’s Ministry (illustratedchildrensministry.com), which caused some controversy on its Facebook page and website by posting an artistic rendering of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” that was made of the names of 26 African-Americans who’ve died in race-related incidents over the past couple of years.
Similarly, over the course of examining 169 individual kindergarten children’s ministry lessons from seven different publishing houses, I found only one lesson from one publisher that talked about race—“God Loves People of All Colors.” The main focus of the lesson, though, was more on intercultural missions rather than on how to appreciate racial differences and the importance of standing up against racial prejudice and discrimination.
Although children’s ministry curricula don’t talk about race, that doesn’t mean the curricula don’t teach about race. By remaining silent and not being explicit on issues of race and racial tensions, we are implicitly teaching children in our ministries that it isn’t important to stand up against racial prejudice and discrimination.
Start the Conversation
If it’s so important to talk with children in our ministries about race, how do we do that? For many of us, talking about race is awkward. We’re afraid to say the wrong thing. It’s difficult to come to grips with the ugliness of racism. Additionally, the problems surrounding racial tensions seem overwhelming; where do we even begin? Here’s a starting point.
1. Ask yourself, “Does my children’s ministry reflect the world we live in?”
According to Phillips, an easy way to begin addressing race and diversity in your children’s ministry is to assess how well your ministry mirrors the outside world. Phillips makes certain that illustrations and take-home sheets have images representing different races and genders. She also intentionally recruits volunteers from different racial backgrounds to do everything from greeting children to teaching. Phillips even commissioned a mural in her church that includes children from various races.
2. Surround yourself with people who don’t look like you.
Sociologists have established that the most significant way to address racial bias is to have relationships with people who have racial backgrounds different from your own.
3. Sit down with people of color in your church or in your community and listen to their stories and experiences.
This doesn’t mean to come prepared with talking points. It really means just listening with an open mind and heart. One of the most effective ways to break down racial barriers is to set aside your experience and learn about another’s.
4. Read books that talk about race and diversity.
One recommended book is Right Color, Wrong Culture (Moody Publishers) by Bryan Loritts. Loritt’s explores three cultural expressions that exist within every ethnic group. He shows why understanding these cultural expressions is important when looking for the right leader to move your organization toward multiethnicity.
Loritts points out that Paul makes the case for a diverse yet unified church in Ephesians 2:14-15: “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code… Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody” (The Message).
Sociologist Henry Zonio is a veteran children’s pastor and co-author of What Matters Now in Children’s Ministry.