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We all know the feeling. A child or teenager asks a tough question, and not tough as in math tough—tough as in emotionally tough. And they’re looking up at you with questioning eyes and expecting an answer.
Tough questions can range from inquiries about racism, gender inequality, why natural disasters occur to discussions on why schools have lockdown drills. In today’s world, there are plenty of opportunities to explore hard-hitting questions of identity, safety, and how we treat other people.
Whether this happens in a classroom, library, or at the kitchen table, it’s a crucial moment that could make a huge difference in the life of a kid. And you’re the one who has to find an answer that makes sense, is age appropriate, and offers both meaning and inspiration. No problem, right?
We’re here to help. Read on to find some tips and hints on how to talk to kids about tough topics.
Talking to kids about tough topics is one of the hardest things educators and parents have to do. Whether kids have questions about the pandemic, racial tension, terror events around the globe, class inequality, drugs, or something else, we need to be clear, safe, and thorough when offering up answers.
And above all, we must be truthful, while remembering that “I don’t know, let’s find out together” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say.
It’s impossible to protect our children, no matter how much we want to. The world is full of media outlets, and they are going to come across a YouTube video, a post on social media, a news broadcast, or even a conversation between other people that makes them stop and wonder.
Of course, every age has its own guidelines for these kinds of conversations, but overall, it’s best not to shy away from hard subjects. Certainly, don’t expose kids to news media before they’re ready, but you can make a difference in how they react by being open and willing to discuss things, even if you feel uncomfortable about it.
Keep some of these tips in mind as you navigate the questions and concerns of children growing up during what can feel like tumultuous times.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the publishing business for the past several years, you’ll know that publishers, writers, illustrators, teachers, librarians, and parents are calling (and answering the call) for more diversity in the books we give to our children. The grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books has been instrumental in getting #WeNeedDiverseBooks into the spotlight and into editorial meetings around the country.
Both kids and adults want to see people who look like them in the books they read. Part of reading is exploring new ways of perceiving the world and using your imagination to be someone else for a while. Another part of reading is feeling less alone. It’s learning how you fit into your community and what you can do to make it better. If a child reads through a dozen books without ever seeing anyone of their own gender, skin color, religion, race, or culture, they’re not going to feel less alone. They might feel more isolated. They might wonder what roles are available to them in the larger world. If they never seen anyone with their features or history, they might not realize that they have their choice of roles.
There has been a surge of children’s literature that features characters of color, and the publishing industry is working hard to make sure teachers, librarians, and parents—the gatekeepers of children’s books—know these books are out there.
Here at Nomad, diversity means publishing an entire series on women working in science. Diversity means making sure the characters in our illustrations reflect the cultural makeup of the real world. Diversity means finding experts to read our books before press, experts who will make sure that not only did we manage to get the science right, but that we also practiced respect and inclusion when talking about different cultures and races, both past and present.
In most of our books, the real characters are the sciences that we’re inviting readers to learn about and explore. But every book features a secondary cast of characters, illustrated kids who do experiments, demonstrate different scientific facts and principles, and act out a story-within-a-story to complement the text. Some of these kids are African American, some are Asian, some are transgender, some have physical disabilities such as missing limbs and degenerative diseases. We make it a point to populate our illustrations with kids that look like those in the real world—all of them different from each other and all of them curious.
In our science books, we make sure to highlight those discoveries that historically might have been overlooked. For example, in our forthcoming book about innovators in history, we recognize and celebrate the contributions of women and people of color alongside people whose names are more familiar. Whereas many biographical collections ignore the efforts of scientists such as Daniel Hale Williams, Mae Jemison, and Philip Emeagwali, we strive to make our books inclusive.
In our social studies and language arts books, we make an effort to explore topics and time periods in ways that incorporate the experiences of all involved. Books about the Underground Railroad, the Holocaust, and Native American cultures explore key moments in history with truth, respect, and an unflinching sense of accountability.
Is this enough? No. That’s why we continue to find ways to practice inclusion in our books. We look forward to a publishing future in which diversity isn’t something to be practiced, but is the thoughtless normal, where we won’t even need the call, “We need diverse nonfiction.”
What does race mean to you? Do you discuss race in your classroom or library? Do you make sure that the materials you use with your students are reflective of a diverse range of people? The anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a fantastic chance to talk about race with your students.
It can be difficult to keep race and diversity in the forefront when there are so many other aspects of education calling for our attention. But it’s extremely important. The events and rhetoric that our children are witnessing on a daily basis through radio, television, newspaper headlines, and dinner table conversations are evidence that conversations about race are crucial as we strive to become a world in which people of different races, genders, orientations, and cultures are truly equal.
What better occasion to host a healthy, productive discussion about race than the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech?
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. joined thousands of others during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered a speech that became one of the most famous in history. In it, he calls for an end to racism and equal civil and economic rights for all.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
That march and King’s speech are considered turning points in the Civil Rights Movement. President Kennedy watched the speech on television and was very impressed with it. His administration was impressed that the march was entirely peaceful—not one arrest was made during the demonstration. The land of equality that King spoke of in his speech began to seem more like a realistic possibility.
You can listen to the speech here. Play the recording for your students and start a discussion using the following questions as a jumping off point.
Classroom discussion questions:
You can learn more about civic unrest for kids in our book, Civic Unrest: Investigate the Struggle for Social Change.
A couple of words that have been getting a lot of attention the past few years in conversations about education are “grit” and “failure.” How do we teach kids that it’s okay to fail?
When a kid shows grit, it means they’re sticking with something. They’re not quitting. They’re not letting themselves be defeated by an extra hard math problem or by a long-form essay. They’re rising to the occasion and working as hard as they can to succeed.
And if they don’t succeed? Well, for a kid who’s got grit, failure isn’t the end stage.
Think back on all the times you’ve failed. For most people, those are pretty easy moments to remember. These moments aren’t usually the feel-good moments, but they’re the ones that stick to our subconscious like chewed-up gummy worms because we learned something. We changed. We grew a new wrinkle in our brains.
In our culture, we’re pretty impressed by winners. We love a good rags-to-riches story. We like it when the underdog surges ahead against all expectation. But we still need to keep in mind that failure is the stuff that teaches us the most.
How to teach kids the value of failure in a world that insists winning is everything?
“Nomad Press is committed to bringing the world into sharper focus for kids,” says Alex Kahan, publisher of Nomad Press. “Sometimes, this means producing books that deal with subjects that can be uncomfortable. And while nobody wants to be uncomfortable, it’s essential that teens have access to books that treat hard social issues with candor and rigor.”
Books in Nomad Press’s Inquire and Investigate Social Issues of the Twenty-First Century set aim to do exactly that. Titles in this set include Gender Identity: Beyond Pronouns and Bathrooms; Feminism: The March Toward Equal Rights for Women; Race Relations: The Struggle for Equality in America; and Immigration Nation: The American Identity in the Twenty-First Century.
One only has to listen to the news to find examples of the pervasiveness of these issues. Today’s teens hear daily news stories about the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico, and the headway toward acceptance made by some transgender people—Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono are names that come to mind. These four books provide readers with a foundation of deep knowledge from which to form their own opinions and develop a sense of agency.
Why are these books critical in today’s world? “Not only do these books speak to individuals who might need help dealing with personal experiences, but they also help combat the general tide of misinformation and negative connotations,” says Kahan.
One crucial thing these books do is provide a historical context for immigration, race relations, feminism, and gender identity. While these might seem like purely modern challenges, in fact people have been dealing with them for decades, even centuries. Understanding this history is an essential requirement for tomorrow’s leaders.
These books inspire young people to explore the social challenges that have faced our world in the past and that continue to drive us to do better in the future. Kahan says, “Today’s teens are dealing with a whole host of hard issues, whether the adults in the room know it or not. These books are our way of bridging the gap between personal reality and global history.”