How do you explain slavery to kids?

It’s important to tackle the topic in an age-appropriate way, experts say—and to make sure children understand how the legacy of slavery informs life today.

Chandra and Brandon Carr remember taking their children to visit the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit last year. Upon seeing a replica of a slave ship packed with shackled, life-size, real-looking Black people, their then-six-year-old daughter became upset and asked to leave.

“I remember hugging her and telling her ‘It’s OK to be sad. What happened wasn’t fair,’” says Chandra Carr, an administrator at Wayne State University. But a few days later, the Carrs, African American parents from suburban Detroit, talked with their children not only about the horrors of slavery, but the heroic efforts of Black people and others to resist slavery—and how efforts to make life fairer for all people continue today.

Slavery is a tough topic for any child. But approaching the subject in age-appropriate ways that help children understand the full context of the institution—then and now—can help build empathy and critical-thinking skills. Here are some ideas from the experts on how to get started.

Talk about slavery in age-appropriate ways

Educator Rebekah Gienapp, author of Raising Antiracist Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide for Parents of White Children, supports having conversations as soon as kindergarten—or younger, if it comes up. But the older a child is, the deeper and more explicit conversations you can have.

For instance, Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and a psychologist who specializes in race and education, says with children five and younger, it’s important to emphasize that slavery happened “a long time ago.” They can’t always distinguish between what happened hundreds of years ago and today, and therefore might be afraid that something similar could happen now to their own family.

Other grade-by-grade resources can be found through groups like Learning for Justice and Teaching for Change.

For children of any age, Tatum advised acknowledging a painful past while pointing toward a brighter future.

“It’s appropriate to acknowledge that this is a sad thing that people were mistreated in this way,” says Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? “The good news is, we now live in a time when we know better.”

(Learn about the Underground Railroad with your kids.)

Be mindful of language

Avoid language that dehumanizes people or reinforces the superiority of one race over another.

For example, instead of saying slaves, say “enslaved people,” which helps children understand that these people had lives and personalities beyond enslavement. Instead of saying “slave masters or mistresses,” call them enslavers, a word that does not imply superiority over enslaved people.

“Using accurate language helps children understand that enslavement was a system,” Gienapp says. Children, she notes, should know it was a deliberate system of oppression.

Talk about race—not just slavery

Children notice and comment on racial differences at a young age, and experts say it’s important that parents don’t shy away from those conversations. (This Nat Geo article has some tips on getting started.) That way, stories about slavery are not children’s introduction to stories about Black people.

“Make sure you've had lots of conversations already about race that are not about this traumatic, difficult history,” Gienapp says. Otherwise, children could think that all Black history is sad and traumatic.

Emphasize life before slavery

Understanding Black history beyond slavery is an important lesson for both children and adults, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, coauthor of the children’s book The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, inspired by her New York Times series “The 1619 Project.”

Listen to Nikole Hannah-Jones discuss bringing "The 1619 Project" to Hulu as a six-part docuseries on the Overheard at National Geographic podcast.

“Sometimes when you begin the story with our enslavement, that’s a way to further dehumanize our ancestors,” says Hannah-Jones, who coauthored the book with Renee Watson. “To help children understand all that was lost, you have to show all that we had before slavery.”

For instance, Born on the Water tells the stories of Africans before they were enslaved. Parents can also look for stories about cultures like the Mali Empire of Central West Africa, whose leaders oversaw complex political systems and hundreds of thousands of people during the 13th through 16th centuries.

“It’s important for all children to understand that enslaved people had culture and history in Africa,” Tatum says.

Give children a fuller picture

Children often learn about the day-to-day lives of enslaved people. But Tatum says it’s also important for children to hear stories about their resistance to slavery. That way, they’re not seen as passive victims, she says.

Also, by learning a fuller story, children don’t end up feeling like all white people were bad. “Were people enslaving people, going to slave markets and looking at human beings as though they were merchandise? Yes, that was happening,” Tatum says. “But there were white people who thought that this was wrong. There were white people who were on the Underground Railroad helping people to escape.”

And as horrific as slavery was, children should also know it was a story of survival.

“Ultimately, the story is patriotic and triumphant,” Hannah-Jones says. “Because it talks about how these people who didn't want to come here, who were ripped from their homes, came here and fought for equality for all Americans.”

Connect the past to the present

The effects of U.S. slavery didn’t simply end with the Civil War, and Tatum says it’s important for children to understand how the lasting impact of slavery shows up today. Here’s a paraphrased example that can help explain economic differences that children likely notice or learn about as they grow up:

“Enslaved people weren't paid. And so they didn't have the opportunity to grow richer. And it was illegal to educate them.

“Meanwhile, the people who were benefiting from that unpaid labor did grow richer. So they could buy more property and attend good schools.

“After slavery, Black people had little money to support themselves, and they were still denied education. So those people had little wealth to pass down to their children and grandchildren. But enslavers did have money to pass down.

“Fast-forward to today: Black people are more likely than whites to be poor, undereducated, live in poorer housing, and have poorer health.’’ 

Tatum says that understanding the history of slavery as well as Jim Crow laws after slavery helps children contextualize the poorer conditions of many Black people today.

“If we don’t talk about the structural racism that led to these circumstances,” she says, “they might think that the disparities are the result of the failings of the people who are experiencing the disparity.”

The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Media and Hulu.

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