Social justice is a tricky topic to approach, especially when it comes to teaching children. Some people think that it’s best to leave the past in the past—to let it go. Others think that children should learn about social issues on their own, when they’re older.
Is social justice really something that should be taught to young children?
Injustices Are All around Them
Though teachers may have some part in controlling the culture within their classrooms, and parents have control of the culture in their homes, no one can control the world that children face when they walk outside, or when they turn on a TV, or when they turn on their computers.
The fact is that injustice is all around them. They face social issues all of the time. They will see it and some will live it, too. Some might wonder why they can’t find television shows with characters that look like them. Some might notice assumptions made about them based on their looks, their sexual orientation, or even their names. They see, and feel, unfairness all around them—even if they don’t realize exactly what they’re seeing and feeling. Children are actually quite the keen observers of the outside world. They experience struggles regarding privilege, power, and identity.
Ignoring social issues isn’t the answer. Even if you don’t talk about it, others will. And children might get a skewed perception of power, privilege, racism, sexism, and other social justice issues if teachers and parents don’t step in to explain—and to teach.
Social Justice as a Tool
Instead of ignoring social issues and avoiding social justice, we should be using it as a teaching tool to help children better understand themselves, better understand others, and better understand the world they live in.
It can help those struggling with identity crises to feel more comfortable with themselves and to understand why they’re being picked on, why they’re being hurt, why things just don’t seem “fair.” It can help those who come from power and privilege to ally with those who are disempowered. It can teach context and empathy for minority groups.
Furthermore, it’s an opportunity to create future social justice warriors who can question, challenge, change, and improve the status quo. It’s an opportunity to empower children to stand up for what they believe in.
By listening to and reading stories of injustice, progress can be actualized.
Teaching children about social issues is, no doubt, a difficult task. It can be uncomfortable and awkward. And it can raise difficult questions that you might not feel ready to answer just yet. But it’s so important. Children need to be able to understand the society they live in as it is—not as we wish it to be. They need our honesty and openness.
We cannot deny that injustices exist, and thus, we cannot deny kids the opportunity to learn about social justice. It should be taught both at home and in the classroom. And diverse books can help start the conversation about social justice.
No doubt, learning about injustice and oppression is important. Teaching kids about social justice matters. We should be sharing these stories with children. However, when all we focus on is injustice, we fail to create characters that all children can identify with, and we fail to help other children learn about the similarities that are present among other races, cultures, communities, and marginalized groups.
Not all LGBTQ books should be coming-out stories or bullying stories. Not all stories with black characters should focus on slavery. Diversity in children’s books is growing; however, many of these stories still focus too heavily on oppression and injustice, on “the problem.”
White characters in children’s books deal with a wide variety of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with their race. They grapple with heavy personal issues and they go on fun, exciting adventures, too. So why do we continue to focus on oppression in diverse books? Black characters, Latino characters, characters with disabilities, gay characters and all other characters should be created in such a way that they are more than just their races, their disabilities, or their sexual orientations.
The Risks of Focusing Solely on Oppression
Focusing solely on oppression and injustice or on the struggles of having a disability, for example, doesn’t allow children to see others around them as people similar to themselves. It reduces the complexity of their lives to a teaching lesson, to a life of suffering, or to a source of pity.
Oppressive narratives are often restrictive and inadequate, and sometimes, even stereotypical. And they’re often void of creativity and imagination. Non-fiction children’s books about black historical figures, for example, can help teach black children about their history; but children also want to find aspects of their ethnic heritage and their culture outside of their history books. They want to see characters like themselves having adventures in space, fighting zombies, and having typical days at school. Ethnic-themed lists appeal to parents, but children want more. They want diverse characters they can identify with in fun, exciting stories. Focusing solely on oppression often sacrifices the cultivation of wonderment that embodies high-quality children’s books and prevents children from being able to identify with characters and better understand themselves and those around them.
Books featuring diverse characters in myriad situations doesn’t just benefit the marginalized groups reading the stories, either. It also benefits all children, allowing them to understand those around them much more than books on ethnic traditions or historical figures could ever allow.
A Healthy Mix of Diversity in Children’s Books
There needs to be a healthy mix of diversity in children’s books. Some books should celebrate the differences between groups, and others should speak out about injustice. But we also need diverse children’s books that teach inclusion.
There needs to be more books with diverse characters without focusing on problems, struggles, and injustices. Culture and race, disabilities, and sexual orientation can be organically weaved through stories in a way that isn’t so forced. These aspects of the characters’ lives can be part of the story, without being the story. Authors of children’s books should be depicting characters of colour, characters with disabilities, and other marginalized groups doing many things, in all sorts of places. And just as importantly, teachers and librarians must commit to reading and promoting these types of books to children.