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Social justice for toddlers: These new books and programs start the conversation early

John Francisco teaches a music class in his studio at the Italian Market in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of John Francisco)
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In the era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, many parents are wondering when the right time is to talk to their children about social justice. Experts say it’s never too early, and a new wave of tools and resources can help start the conversation.

You can enroll in a music class (virtually now) that develops understanding of gender and personhood. A drag queen story time will soon be a television show. And there are more and more children’s books that discuss intersectionality and broaden representation, plus flashcards and short videos that teach parent and toddler about anti-racism ideas.

“Teaching children to have an equity mind-set and strive for justice is giving them a crucial skill that will help them through life,” says Nicole Stamp, a Toronto-based children’s TV writer and host who co-founded the limited-run ByUs box, a curated box of toys, books and curricula that aims to dismantle bias for kids as young as 2 years old.

“Some children don’t usually get to see kids like themselves reflected in the media,” she says. “Positive representation validates them.” For all kids, “widening the lens to not just include but equally center other identities teaches an accurate and important lesson about what the world actually looks like.”

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Leigh Wilton and Jessica Sullivan, Skidmore College psychology professors who study race and social interaction, say that children develop implicit bias as early as 3 months old, and at 4 years old are categorizing and developing stereotypes.

Sullivan, a developmental psychologist, says that while there may be no precise age to discuss race — all children are different — there are abstract notions that children need to deal with, and they are capable of reasoning about things such as death even in preschool.

“Parents often report discussing topics, like death, with children when it comes up. Perhaps the trick, then, is to be intentional about noticing when and how race comes up in daily life, and using those moments as opportunities for discussion,” she says.

Wilton adds: “When you think about reading, you don’t say a child at 2 years old can't read, so let's not read to them or teach them to recognize letters. We begin building those foundational concepts early. Adults can help even the youngest of children begin to develop the social, emotional, and cognitive skills that will enable them to engage with race throughout their lives.”

They add that ensuring children have authentic connections to people from different backgrounds is likely to reduce bias.

In Philadelphia, Jeannine Cook, owner of Harriett’s Bookshop, developed a children’s space that aligns with her mission of promoting Black women authors, women’s activism and women artists. She sells children’s books such asAntiracist Baby,” “Woke Baby” and “You Matter and plans to institute child-led storytelling, publishing and book talks.

Cook suggests using Christian Robinson’s picture book “Another to start social justice conversations with young children. “What I’ve been encouraging parents to do is take a picture book like that and support their children in telling the story. Put children in the position where they are the storytellers,” she says.

The publishing company Mango and Marigold Press was created to share the South Asian experience and bring equal representation to the children’s and young adult literature space. “What is so important about these books is that everyday stories come out,” says Sailaja Joshi, the chief executive and founder. “In the same way that it could be a White child doing it, a Brown child could be doing it.” Books like “Super Satya Saves the Dayand “Always Anjali” focus on stories of Indian American characters navigating daily obstacles that may come up for children.

“These stories, these authors, have always worked to have their stories shared. It's been an industry that hasn't taken in these stories, they haven't valued them or, worse yet, when they took them in, the stories became whitewashed,” says Joshi. “These stories belong on the bookshelves, all bookshelves, because the stories are universal and meant for all."

Not Quite Narwhal” “All are Welcome” and “The Family Book” are some of the books celebrated by Canadian drag performance duo Fay and Fluffy, embraced by kids for their sparkly dresses, candy-colored wigs and zany children’s storybook readings.

Kaleb Robertson and JP Kane are performance artists who have experience in early education and have been offering free drag story time in Toronto since 2016. Their goal is to increase exposure to drag, support gender-variant children and create an inclusive space where everyone feels welcome.

“We want kids to have the tools and knowledge to accept all members of their community and celebrate their differences,” says Robertson. “So if they see someone with a beard wearing a dress, they are coming from a place of acceptance and understanding."

Children must use cues from their parents to interact with the world around them, says Shauna Tominey, an assistant professor at Oregon State University and the author of “Creating Compassionate Kids.”

“From the very beginning, children look to the adults in their lives for cues as to how to respond to others, how to interpret what they see and hear, how to respond to people they meet or learn about. Even before young children can engage in conversations, they engage in ‘social referencing’ to figure out how to respond," says Tominey.

John Francisco, the founder of Mister John’s Music, a music company in Philadelphia known for its use of popular adult music in its baby classes, has been using social referencing in his classes since 2015. A recent eight-week session featured Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Green Day. Francisco says that the choice of the music strengthens the engagement between parent and child. “If we can make it feel like the adult is immersed in the music, that is going to make their kid much more excited.”

In class, Francisco holds up a colored ball and asks the toddlers, “Is pink a boy or a girl? . . . Remember, kids, a color is not a boy or a girl, a color is just a color.”

“Our values are about inclusivity, personhood and kindness,” he says.

For her part, Brandee Blocker Anderson, founder of the Antiracism Academy, is trying to ensure cost is not prohibitive for families that want to access her anti-racism platform and curriculums. She plans to charge a $10 monthly subscription fee for access to her website, app and course materials and build in a way for families to pay it forward to subsidize the cost for those who can’t afford it.

Blocker Anderson, originally from North Philadelphia, left her job as a corporate lawyer in 2020 to oversee the Antiracism Academy full-time.

“There is an opportunity to reach adults and children who want to do better,” she says. “We can give kids the language they need to respond in meaningful ways about race. We are at a point in history where there is a critical mass of people who get it.”

This year, Dena Simmons, a specialist in social and emotional learning and racial justice, launched LiberatED, a community-generated approach to social-emotional learning, racial justice and healing for schools.

Simmons, author of the forthcoming book “White Rules for Black People,” says children learn about injustice based on the way the world treats them, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) will have different experiences from their White counterparts.

She recommends that parents have difficult conversations about unfairness from an early age and interrogate their own actions in daily life. “What has changed since you regrammed or tweeted something about anti-racism?” she asks. “How have you changed how you live your life, how have you changed how you are parenting?”

Natalie Jesionka is a Dalla Lana Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto.

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More reading:

Nine things parents should consider when searching for anti-racist media for their kids

Children’s books can help start a conversation about race. Parents have to continue it.

What white parents get wrong about raising anti-racist kids — and how to get it right

In black families like mine, the race talk comes early and it’s painful. And it’s not optional.