Talking to Children about Ferguson and Social Justice

Social justice may seem very much like a buzzword lately, but that’s because it encompasses a great many ideas. The easiest definition presumes that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Teaching children that everyone is deserving of such things means teaching them to value diversity and all people. Instead of tackling all those things at once, however, it’s best to choose themes based on the questions that children are asking.

American students are plugged in more than ever, and modern parenting has become both a thing to use and a concept to understand. If I had a dime for every time a parent told me their child didn’t have a particular account or app (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc …), I’d be as wealthy as an app development executive. What I continue to impress upon parents is that kids have these apps, and that a great many of them are “underground.” All of that leads to kids being exposed to much more than they may be ready for and having a great many questions about the world around them.


When talking to children about major news events like Ferguson, Missouri and Mike Brown, it’s important to first ask them what they know. Teachers use this process prior to embarking on a new topic by using a KWL chart: tell what you Knowtell what you Want to know, and finally, upon completion, tell what you’ve Learned. Sometimes, as parents, we can tell our children too much when all they wanted was the basics.

It’s also important to figure out which concept they’re trying to understand when it comes to social justice. Is it the acceptance of others and their individuality? Or are they trying to come to grips with issues of gender inequality? Are they watching the news and seeing a conflict in which peace is elusive? With each of those specific examples, it would be silly to give a pat answer because those issues are very different and require special language.

Art teacher, Sarah Ryder, compiled a fantastic art resource for teaching the following themes of social justice:

Acceptance of Others/Individuality
Kindness to Others
Environmental Awareness
Understanding of Other Cultures
Developing Peace
Gender and Families
Economic Equality

With each specific topic, Sarah has also offered multiple book titles to accompany them for parents interested in taking the conversation to the next level, as well as art projects post-reading. My favorite thing about this idea is that she encourages her students to express themselves in an art form once they’re confronted with social injustice. It’s a great place to put energy. (This is also true for adults! Look how much art comes out of social injustice!)

Another resource for kids wanting to understand a current social justice issue is the #FergusonSyllabus created by Dr. Marcia Chatelain, author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. This great resource is from the librarian/review site called Stacked and is titled Ferguson, Race, Civil Rights, Social Activism, and YA Fiction: A Round-Up of Reading. If your teen or pre-teen is asking questions that you feel inadequate answering fully or if you feel as though teaching them requires more than you’re comfortable with, any of these resources is a good place to start.

Kids care about fairness and social justice, and their brains are busy doing the work of categorizing and understanding it all. Whatever you do, just talk and listen. There will be no shortage of conversation on this topic.

Fondazione Cariplo [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Talking to Children about Ferguson and Social Justice

    1. Good question! Schools don’t do this actively unless they’re grounded in social activism but many teachers do this on their own. It’s tricky territory for some reason and I actually disagree with *just* leaving it to parents. We’re to be partners in this and when we want to discuss race then schools sometimes back off because they’re not well versed.

      That’s why I’m glad our district is doing some active anti-racism training. I think that needs to happen everywhere.

  1. Thank you, Kelly. This is such a valuable post. I should probably use the KWL chart in every conversation I have with my children. In any case, I’ve bookmarked this page so that I may refer to it when my children are older and start asking different kinds of questions about the world around them.

  2. In addition to talking and listening, there is also keeing silent. I’ve heard so many hurtful things casually tossed around by small children who are simply parroting what they’ve heard. We must always make sure that our words build up instead of tearing down.

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