What Children Can Handle

by Charlotte Long, Youth Ministry

When E.B. White published Charlotte's Web in 1952, there was a literary outcry from many famed children's librarians, parents, and essayists that a children's book should not depict a narrative in which not only is the main character a scary lady spider, but a narrative where said character [SPOILER ALERT] dies. White had little patience for these objections; he saw them as a lack of faith in his abilities as a competent writer. In an unpublished letter to his editor Ursula Nordstrom, White dismissed these concerns in his usual satirical way:

"I am [also] working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing."

More seriously, he later wrote that he believed children to be capable of much more than we give them credit for, and insisted that if we present a high bar for children in books, they will inevitably reach for it and incorporate it into their understanding. He used large words in the story line. He included definitions! He fought for the spider's anatomy to stay anatomically correct (it's not, entirely)!

Okay. So I love Charlotte's Web. Not only for its name and awesome female heroine, but because of its assumption of the intelligence of children. It is not unlike what we do in Chapel with Godly Play here at Holy Comforter: we assume the child has their own personal understanding of God without our instruction. The concept is not beyond them. And it is not unlike what I believe can be taught to our children about the racial injustices at the forefront of our country right now.

As a society and within our educational systems, discussions (if there are any) about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. It is often true that there is a right time in an individual child's life to teach them certain things. But we've somewhere decided that little kids can't understand these complex topics. Or perhaps we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice in their own lives.)

However, young children have a keen awareness for fairness. They demand right over wrong, and think about justice early on. Two and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical differences ("He's fast, she's not"), become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they are entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children [Kristina Olsen research, Yale University].

Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings [Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University]. This does not mean our children are inherently prejudiced. It just means they take in what their environment mostly looks like and who looks like them. They are little sponges. They repeat things without knowing meaning. The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we're exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children's desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. A great jumping off point!

Teaching and talking about it may seem daunting. After all, we as adults are still learning ourselves! But I cannot tell you how strongly I feel God calls us to this task. If we are at all interested in the fact that Jesus was born to an impoverished family on the fringes of society, proclaimed that the marginalized understood God better than the mainstreamed, and ate and drank with the most religiously "unclean" of persons - if we are at all interested in the fact that Jesus was most definitely not white - then we must also be interested in those corners of our society now.

Peace, Charlotte