Dear Dr. Debbie,
My children, ages 5 and 7, were excited to attend the parade and festival in Annapolis to celebrate Juneteenth but they had some challenging questions about the holiday.
How much should I be telling them about such things as abduction, enslavement, separation of families, adversary politics, and the human toll of the Civil War? I tried to keep it light, but knowing them, and thankful that this will now be an annual national holiday, the questions are just beginning.
Keeping it Real but Simple
The Juneteenth holiday brings up topics that can be challenging to explain to younger children. Typically, early childhood educators gloss over such complex matters as historic timelines, the human cost of warfare, and the continuing inequities and injustices in our country that are due to racial prejudice. Keep in mind that your answers and explanations are creating a foundation from which your children can build deeper understandings as they mature through the years.
A child might have had some background on Juneteenth from a teacher, a published reference, or other “authority”, but as a parent you have the opportunity to put your own slant on the events and people of the past as you talk with your children about them. “A long time ago” is a good way to mark events that happened even before the lifetimes of people your children know.
History is a tough concept for children because chains of events are typically complex. It’s not just that there were good people with good ideas and bad people with bad ideas. Nor were there simply lucky people and unlucky people involved in what happened in the past. Although this is how a young child might categorize plantation owners and the enslaved, or the Union army and the Confederate army, or the literate and the illiterate, or people on the lighter side of skin tones and people on the deeper side of skin tones. The history of Juneteenth is more complex than Black and white.
You can frame people and their actions with, “It was a hard time for . . .” when describing the Founding Fathers deciding whether to abolish slavery as they envisioned a new kind of government, or Black soldiers taking up arms on both sides of the Revolutionary War, or Kunta Kinte as an example of someone who was abducted away from his family but vowed to preserve his cultural pride, or Harriet Tubman as an example of an enslaved person who risked her life to gain her freedom and the freedom of others and worked as an abolitionist to bring about change to the country’s laws, or the actions of a particular ancestor that you know of in your own family and how their story fits into the history of Juneteenth.
If your children have already learned about Moses and the enslaved Jews in Egypt making their way to freedom, this can be a starting point of reference.
Think about what you want your children to understand about war based on: their ages, their connection to someone in the military, and what your feelings are about the politics of war.
Children understand conflict in very simple terms, especially if they have siblings, so use concrete examples for them to understand how a war can happen. Keep in mind though, that children under the age of seven have trouble accepting that each party in a conflict believes they are on the right side.
You can use statements such as, “It was hard for the country to change the laws because there were states that had a lot of big farms that couldn’t get all the work done without slavery and there were other states that had more of other kinds of work that used workers that got paid.” Or, “People felt very strongly about freedom, and others felt strongly about keeping slavery, so they were willing to possibly die in a fight with guns and cannons about it.” Or, “A war is a bad thing that sometimes has to happen to prevent more bad things from happening.”
If you’re a pacifist, lead discussions with your children about conflict resolution as an alternative way to settle disagreements now and in the future.
Liberty for All
Juneteenth is a celebration of gaining access, after generations of extreme hardship, to all the benefits of a democracy. When the Civil War was over, and “Order Number 3” finally reached the furthest plantations in the furthest slave-holding state of Texas, the formerly enslaved people were on their way to better health, to public education, to upward economic mobility, and to voting rights, among other fair entitlements. Look for concrete examples of continuing inequities, as well as the efforts being made to correct them, for African Americans and other groups that have suffered discrimination in our country.
Teach your children how change takes place. Help out a neighbor, engage with elected representatives, take part in an organized protest, use legal channels to effect change, contribute to food and clothing drives (and books and toys, too), look for opportunities to volunteer as a family and for other forms of civil activism that can help to make your community, and our country, and our planet, better for everyone. “Anyone can be an activist,” is a quote from The Little Book of Little Activists to inspire children to make corrections to all kinds of wrongs.
The Anne Arundel County Public Library has several more picture books that can be a starting point for family discussions:
A is For Activist by Innosanto Nagara
All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson
Juneteenth: a Children’s Story by Opal Lee
Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper
Juneteenth Jamboree by Carole Boston Weatherford
Preaching to the Chickens: the Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim
The Story of Our Holidays: Juneteenth by Joanna Ponto and Angela Leeper
Celebrating Holidays: Juneteenth by Rachel Grack
Keep the conversation going. We have a year to get ready for the next Juneteenth celebration.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. See the website for Zoom workshops for Girl Scouts and outdoor activities for families at the museum’s park.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.