The United States’ newest federal holiday, Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery. It can be a complicated event to mark with young children because talking about slavery is tough. Yet it is also an opportunity to help kids learn about Black people’s resilience and bravery, as well as their fierce battle for civil rights.
Children under the age of 8 have a somewhat naive understanding of history. They have a fluid sense of time, so specific dates or decades mean little to them. When sharing stories of slavery, emphasize that it happened a long time ago, before parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents were born. Use phrases like “a long, long, long time ago” to locate these hard facts in a distant past. Otherwise, young children may fear that they will be enslaved like their ancestors. (See NMAAHC Kids for a helpful script to use.)
Young children also look for ways to connect historical events to their own lives. When talking about African Americans who fought for freedom from slavery, link their efforts to contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter. Emphasize the activists’ bravery and relate it to a time that your child demonstrated courage. Talk about perseverance and note ways that your child keeps trying, even when something is hard to do.
Abstract concepts can be hard for young children to grasp. Use stories to describe what ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ look like in practice. You might say: Enslaved people had to wear what the slavers told them to wear and do whatever the slavers told them to do. They didn’t get to make their own choices. They wanted to be able to make decisions for themselves. They wanted ‘freedom’. Or you could say: In the time of slavery, there were different rules for different people. Some people could do what they wanted and had lots of things. Other people were bossed around and had very little. This didn’t seem fair to the people who were enslaved. They wanted to be treated justly. (NMAAHC Kids also has a useful script for talking about freedom.)
Even young children have seen or experienced discrimination. Provide examples of how your community is still working to obtain freedom and justice for everyone. Share some of the ways that people of color continue to be oppressed and invite children to add their own stories of unfair treatment. Talk about the many ways communities address problems: changing rules (laws), having conversations to find solutions, marching to call attention to issues, putting up lawn signs, etc.
Talking about hard topics often generates big emotions in young children. Acknowledge children’s feelings and encourage them to talk about them. Ask not just what they think about stories of slavery, but also what they are feeling. Affirm that these stories may evoke sadness, anger, frustration, and fear. Offer reassurance, comfort, and opportunities to participate in activities that promote freedom and justice. Being able to ‘do something’ lessens fear and builds young children’s confidence that they can make a difference in the world.