As I support educators in reminaging their teaching through a social justice lens, one of the most common concerns I hear is about how parents and caregivers will react. If a caregiver questions your rationale for integrating social justice goals into your teaching, think about how you might pull them into your goals instead of wishing they would stay out. I recommend these guiding principles:
Understand the resistance. There is no simple explanation for why people resist talking about inequality, but when we understand the feelings associated with this resistance, we can better navigate it. This type of resistance comes from defensiveness and the desire to protect ourselves. If we acknowledge the extent of social inequalities in our society, we have to also acknowledge our position in that system of inequality. Whether that is a position with more rights/opportunities/resources or less rights/opportunities/resources, either way, that’s psychologically and emotionally challenging.
Start with the numbers. Before we begin a unit/lesson/discussion on any social justice issues, make sure that everyone is on the same page about the social inequalities you intend to discuss with your students. Provide caregivers with information that lays the groundwork for the discussion. Help them visualize social inequalities that may be hidden from them. Part of why inequality can be difficult to see is because we sometimes confuse visibility with equality. Marginalized social groups are sometimes very visible in our media or in powerful positions, but visibility doesn’t translate to equal rights or fair access to opportunities and resources for the entire social group.
Zoom out to the social. Remember that, for most of us, our default reaction to talking about social inequality and social justice issues is going to be individualized. That’s an expected response when living in such an individualistic society. That’s what we’re used to. But, of course, this is bigger than us as individuals. Show caregivers how your role is to help students to “zoom out” and see the social context. When we see the “big picture,” we can see that not everyone is given a fair opportunity. We can see the negative stereotypes embedded deep in our culture that have an impact on our lives. We need to talk about this with our students because they are the generation who may be able to get us closer to making sure we ALL have equal rights and fair opportunities, so the most vulnerable people in our society can truly experience the American Dream that we all hope we can believe in.
Find common ground. When caregivers express concerns about social inequality or social justice themes, invite them to have a conversation. Always start with a positive presupposition that we are all on the same page when it comes to wanting a fair and just society. We may disagree about how to achieve that goal, but if we can start the conversation with that connection point, we are building community and recognizing our shared humanity. If we can agree that we still have work to do to make this society live up to its ideals of fairness and justice–where your hard work and effort would be the only thing that mattered, not where you came from or who you are–then we can begin to make the case for why we feel it’s so important to talk about these issues with children. We need this next generation to be informed and empowered enough to solve these problems.
Reframe issues as complex vs. “controversial.” If caregivers are concerned that these issues are “too political” and don’t belong in school, make the case instead that these issues are complex. Calling social inequality or social justice issues “political” or “controversial” makes it seem like they exist outside of the classroom. In reality, these issues are faced by the students in our classes. They are all around us. They impact our life outcomes in very real and tangible ways. If they feel these issues are important, but that their children are just too young to learn about them, remind them that if a child is old enough to experience social inequalities, a child is old enough to learn about social inequalities.
Emphasize that school is a place to practice. Our children need to be prepared for having these conversations about social inequality and social justice. The venues in which they are going to have these types of conversations are only going to get bigger and more consequential as they age–in college classrooms, at work, in their very public online communities. When we talk about social inequality in school, we are showing students how to find essential information about the world around them. We are giving them the tools and the language to engage in these conversations. How they ultimately interpret this information is up to them. And that’s ok. Disagreement about what we should do about inequality leads to productive struggle, but ignoring it doesn’t help anyone.
Appeal to the parent in them. Remind them that there are amazing, beautiful, innocent children in this school who are already experiencing the impacts of negative stereotypes in their lives. If we don’t talk about these things with young people, we are not acknowledging those experiences and that does real harm to kids. And as educators, we need students to be aware of the impact of stereotypes on certain groups of people so as to prevent them from reproducing those stereotypes. If we don’t talk about the dangers of stereotypes, kids will absorb them anyway, but with no counternarrative to interrupt them. We need to talk about social inequality, so they learn about these issues from us, and not in stereotypical ways that can lead them to reproducing biases.
Show them how you are fostering compassion. As educators, one of our main goals is to foster kindness and compassion in young people. To illustrate how you can make the case to caregivers for fostering compassion in children, let me provide a specific example. Some caregivers, especially of younger children, are resistant to their children reading about, learning about, or talking about LGBTQ people and issues. But, even if we don’t know it yet, we have LGBTQ students in our classes, and these are their formative years. By our action or inaction, we are instilling in them how to feel about themselves. When we ignore these identities or say that these topics are inappropriate, what messages are we sending to young people? Remind caregivers that when we don’t address LGBTQ issues with kids, it doesn’t mean they don’t hear about them, and when they do, these issues are often presented as jokes used to ridicule others. One of the most important jobs we have as educators of young kids is to teach them respect and empathy. If we don’t commit to this goal, we may be fostering bullies.
Move beyond diversity to social justice. For those caregivers who want the “diversity” themes but don’t want the “social justice” themes, remind them that if we only focus on the positive (“we’re all unique and all equal”) and end it there, we are not telling young people the whole story. Of course it would be ideal if we could only focus on the fun stuff, but we aren’t there yet. The social groups we belong to have a significant impact on our life outcomes (how much money we are likely to make, how likely we are to own a home, how long we are likely to live, how much education we are likely to get, our likelihood of being arrested, etc.) We need to tell young people the truth if we expect them to do anything about it. Emphasize to caregivers that our intention in having these conversations is not about making anyone feel guilty for social inequalities. Social inequalities are not anyone’s individual fault. But whether we talk about them or not, they affect us. Trying to pretend like they are not there is not helping them go away. We need to uncover the bad stuff if we want to get rid of it.
If we can motivate caregivers to come alongside educators in working toward our goals for a better world, we can much more effectively empower the next generations with the tools to be agents of positive change.