Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.


Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.


Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.


Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.


Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.


Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.


Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.


Q&A with Beth Wilson, Director of Early Learning Initiatives!

If you’ve ever been to the Pritzker Playspace- our exhibit for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, you’ve probably shared a chat and a laugh with Beth.


What made you interested in early childhood development?
I went into early childhood education because I had been in formal education for elementary education and realized in that program that I wasn’t so much interested in teaching kids what they should know but helping kids grow and develop at their pace and through play, so early childhood is where that fits in.
I think early childhood is so wonderful because you are able to work with children in such a formative stage. It’s a rapid period of growth and development and amazing things happen in the first 8 years of a child’s life. And I am interested in helping children grow into smart, happy, healthy people!

What is something people may not know about the Pritzker Playspace?
Well, what is really great is that the space is set up to be just right for babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
The kids are super engaged, in this intimate enclosed space, while parents have great conversations. They know their children are safe, they can see their children and they are playing at the right level for them because there are no big kids in the space. Parents talk with us as facilitators and with each other, and share ideas about parenting. They talk about their birth stories, the issues they are facing and it’s just a really cool community. So it’s much more than just a space to come play, it is a place to connect with other people.
It [the playspace] is really fluid, the kids self-initiate and the families self-initiate. And I think that is what is most surprising, that you may leave having made a friend or gotten a new idea about what to try at home.

Do you have any favorite moments in the playspace?
One of my consistently favorite things is when kids come over and over again and we see them once a week for the first 5 years of their life. We have had several families who have grown up here, who feel a part of it, who come in and tell us about their week. They are excited to play and explore, so that is the best part I think of what you get in the playspace.
Even just today, looking around the space, there were moms talking to each other, nannies talking to each other, I was talking to a dad, just all these great conversations and then I look around and there are like 7 people breast feeding, just so relaxed, so comfortable, their kids are happy. Those are my favorite moments when I look around and think, wow we a really are creating a community here.

You are an early childhood expert and the mom of an awesome 3 year old (with another baby on the way!) is there anything you didn’t feel prepared for when you became a mom?
A part of parenting that was tricky and surprising is just how much emotion you have tied into this relationship with your child and how much you learn about yourself and how much you learn about interaction and your own feelings. So sometimes the things that I “know” given my studies or what the research says is different than what is coming to me naturally because of my own feelings or emotions. It illuminated the complexity of parenting. There are so many grey areas and parents are just really trying to do their best all the time and it’s a really hard and important job.
I think it makes me more thoughtful in my practice. I think as long as you are coming from a place of love and then taking time to reflect, you are going to be an awesome parent!