On my first official day of unemployment, for the first time in my daughter’s almost eight years, I joined her class for a field trip. It was unseasonably warm and sunny, and a few clusters of colorful leaves still held strong to the trees, trying to delay the inevitable. We went to Phillipsburg Manor, which as the website description states, was once a working farm that used to “rely on a community of 23 enslaved Africans to operate the complex.”
The night before the field trip, I wondered out loud to my husband how much discussion of these slaves would take place during the visit. We have not discussed slavery with L yet. We have not told her about 9/11, or the Holocaust, and a year ago, I made sure she did not hear about the massacre at Sandy Hook.
No, I am not planning on keeping this child in a bubble forever. If you know us in real life, you know that she has faced a good amount of hardship in her immediate family, and she knows that life can be scary and sad. But I hesitate to let her in on the terrifying secret that human beings can be incredibly unfair and downright evil. How do you explain to a child that not too long ago, in this very country, many of her classmates would have been considered property? That a crazy man in Europe just in the last century wanted to exterminate all Jews? That every day people use weapons against other people for absolutely no reason? How and when do you shake the foundations of a child’s world, when they live in a cocoon of safety, love and protection?
She has started putting two and two together on her own – “wait a second, how come so many Jewish holidays are about people trying to get rid of us?” Or “Columbus was really not a nice person if he sailed here for riches and then killed all the Indians.” She has an emerging awareness of injustice and prejudice, and has an uncanny talent for protesting against unfair behavior. This year, on Veteran’s Day, she had many questions about war. Her great-grandfather fought in World War II, and she wanted to know if he was fighting on the “good side.” She was relieved that the good guys won that war, and extremely upset when we explained that not all wars have clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and that some wars are not even fought to free people.
I think it is essential that children learn to identify injustice, and it should make them uncomfortable enough that they have to speak out, and try to correct it whenever possible. Understanding our history, the good and the bad, plays a large role in developing this kind of conscience. I think that it is the role of the family (along with school) to talk to children about difficult subjects. But how? When? What are the right words? The right context? I don’t know the answer to that. Clearly it varies greatly according to a child’s maturity level, their own sense of security and self-worth, the thickness of the walls of the cocoon. It is a delicate balance for a kid to understand that the world can be dangerous and people can be cruel, but that she is still safe and most people are still inherently good.
My daughter is probably ready for some of these conversations, though I am sure that they will be upsetting. I want her to understand the world, but I do not want her to be afraid. I want her to develop her instinct that all people should have the same rights, without losing faith in humanity. By the way, during the field trip, slavery was not mentioned. One of the farmers made an oblique reference to the “enslaved Africans” who once worked on the farm, but not one of the children asked about it. They were far more interested in the farm tools than the people who used to use them. For now.