Bedtime stories, read over and over again — sometimes long past the point of parental endurance — are as powerful as prayer. At night, tucked in tight, children drift away to sleep on the last words of tales of unselfish trees, bears walking to school for the first time, and spiders lighting Shabbat candles.
Behind the beautiful art and the deceptively simple prose, each carefully chosen word underscores a secret and powerful message: This is how to navigate the world without leaving emotional carnage in your wake. This is how to wake up in the morning and go outside, free of fear. This is how to make space for holiness in your life.
The books we choose communicate our values. We use myths and stories to show our children how to be the adults we hope they will become. We use stories to teach our children to be the kind of people we wish we were.
But stories, however lyrical, won’t single-handedly teach white children to identify and challenge racism. Watercolor images of kippah-clad children of color won’t diversify their real-life playgroups and social circles.
Only their parents can do that.
Children know when we aren’t sincere. When they see dissonance between our words and our actions, they follow our actions. When you own stacks of children’s books about healthy food but cruise through the drive-thru seven nights a week, you can guess what your children will choose to eat when left to their own devices. Every parent knows this to be true.
Just as with the rest of your values, you already know that you lead by example. If you understand that, then you know that talking to your child about this particular moment in American history is not enough. If you want to teach your children about race, the first step is for you to change your own behavior.
There are many ways to do this: For starters, normalize conversations about difference. Make brown faces and voices part of your everyday life, not just when violent racism is impossible to ignore. Model the behaviors you want to see in your child. Be the adult you want your child to become.
I am a mother. A Jewish mother. A Black Jewish mother. I have always talked to my children about race, but being Black hasn’t given me any special advantages. I’ve read, I’ve experimented, and, yes, I have made mistakes. I can offer ideas and resources that will help you to begin teaching yourself (and your children) about race, but then you need to take the first step. No special equipment is needed. You can start right now.
You may think you don’t see race, but your child certainly does (and if you’re being honest with yourself, you do, too). Even toddlers notice differences in skin color. Don’t panic when they point out that their friend’s skin color is darker than (or lighter than) theirs. Noticing race is not racist. Answer their questions about skin color honestly, and remember that children understand race in different ways at different stages. Lay the groundwork for more complex conversations in the future as you go.
Really. See race.
Children’s books about color and diversity are a start, but you have reading to do, too. Go out of your way to find and share books written by Jews of Color, like Michael Twitty. Read classic books about race in America, but don’t stop there; push yourself to further think about and understand the concepts. Search out Black-owned bookstores, and read books by Black authors that align with what you ordinarily read — from literary fiction to science fiction to romance.
Listen to your child.
It’s not enough to talk to your child about race. Ask your child what they know and what they have heard. Children overhear more than you realize and draw their own conclusions. This will give you a clearer sense of what you have and haven’t taught your child, the behaviors you have modeled, and the kinds of resources you need. Be open and honest when you don’t know the answers.
Talk about race all the time.
Engaging with race shouldn’t be an inherently negative conversation, any more than being Black is inherently negative. (I love being Black!) Reinforce positive examples of diversity. Use everyday moments to point out places where diversity is lacking. Make sure there are children with different skin colors in their picture books and your magazines. Don’t wait for moments of crisis.
And don’t stop reading to your children. Start with this one.
Jewish university professor, award-winning author, and civil rights activist Julius Lester was known for a body of work focused on African-American culture, history, and folklore, as well as for his fierce advocacy for books for Black children by Black creators. His children’s book Let’s Talk About Race normalizes, with vibrant imagery and text even the smallest child can understand, the idea that each person has a race, and that race is one of the many things that make each person special. The webpage features a video reading of the book as well as discussion questions to get the conversation started. You can find more multicultural Jewish children’s books here.
Keep reading bedtime stories. And make sure that the values you espouse at bedtime, and the values your child sees in practice, are in agreement.
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