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How to Use Children’s Books to Talk to Your Kids About Tough Topics

How to Use Children’s Books to Talk to Your Kids About Tough Topics

Conversations with kids about complicated or upsetting topics like residential schools, racism, injustice, or changes in your family can be hard. As a parent or caregiver, you might feel unsure or hesitant.

These tips from Dr. Nicole Racine, postdoctoral fellow and clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, and Kate Schutz, Service Design Lead at Calgary Public Library, use books and other resources to help parents and caregivers approach tough topics in a meaningful and age-appropriate way.

Initiate the conversation

Although it is not easy to bring a tough subject up, kids can often tell when things are scary or sad. They may hear bits and pieces of information on the news, in class, or from friends or other adults. Instead of letting your child’s mind wander, be proactive and initiate hard conversations in an age-appropriate way. It helps kids feel safe and secure. Invite them to come to you with questions.

Consider the time and place

Ensure everyone is fed, hydrated, and able to focus before diving into tough topics. Turn screens off. Some children are more inclined to talk while their hands are busy or if they are physically active. Go for a walk. Choose an informative audiobook and colour while listening to it together. Teens may focus better in the passenger seat while you drive.

Use books to start the conversation

Staff at your local Library can help you find age-appropriate books on the topic you are discussing.

Look at the book cover or an illustration with your child. Read the title and sub-title. Before anything else, ask them “What do you already know?” Starting where your child is at currently is a great way to find out what more they need to know from there.

Leave the books in an easily accessible place in your home, like on a coffee table or on a shelf, and let your child browse them.

Learn with your child

Make sure you are informed and grounded in facts before you have the conversation. If the conversation comes up and you do not feel informed, try learning alongside your child. It is OK to say, “I don’t know.” Your child will appreciate your honesty.

Visit your Library together to find more information on the subject. When you don’t have personal experience to rely on, look for books written by authors who have lived experience, particularly around cultural and social topics.

Aim for age-appropriate content

The Library’s catalogue categorizes books by age and reading level. Use that as a guide to choose books with language that is appropriate for your family and your child’s age. Universal concepts such as friendship, justice, kindness, self-care, and love can be applied to almost all topics and are psychologically safe entry points.

Keep conversations short

Most kids and teens can focus for one to two minutes for every year of age. For example, keep a conversation with a five-year-old to ten minutes or less. You can always revisit the topic in a later conversation at another time.

Invite curiosity

Children are naturally curious. Leave room for them to ask you questions. Ask them directly “What are you wondering about?” Illustrations, dialogue between two characters, and new vocabulary words can all provide insight into what a child already understands. Use questions like “Tell me about what is happening in this picture” or “What do you think that word means?”

Name and validate feelings

If children see characters in books, or the adults in their lives, feeling sad or frustrated, it can be an opportunity to model talking openly about our emotions. Here are some phrases for beginning conversations about feelings:

  • This is not an easy conversation to have and I feel sad too, but it is important that we talk about this.
  • When you heard that story, how did you feel?
  • It is sad because people’s feelings were hurt and they were not respected. We know that’s not how we treat people.
  • Have you ever felt like the character feels?

Normalize their feelings and give physical comfort

Reassurance can sometimes come across as dismissive. Avoid saying it’s OK when it isn’t. Instead, let children and teens know that their feelings and questions are normal. Young children may need to be reminded that they and their family are safe. Hug them. Thank them for talking with you. Tell them they can come to you anytime if they think of more questions or ideas. Tell them they are loved.

Call to action

Children and teens have an innate sense of justice and can naturally feel what is right and wrong. They can feel empowered even by taking smaller actions, like painting a rock to put in a garden. Older children and teens often express their emotions through art-making, activism, or music. Encourage self-expression and use their creativity to further the conversation. Children of all ages need to know their own actions and words are one of the most powerful tools they have.

Take care of yourself

Breathe. Discuss your challenges with other parents. Difficult conversations are not easy to have, and sometimes overcoming our own discomfort with the subject matter can be the biggest barrier to educating kids meaningfully.

Seek help when you need it

If you, your family, or someone you know is experiencing trauma or re-traumatization, professional support is recommended. Begin with resources from the Library’s Wellness Desk.

Recommended resources and tips for talking about:

Residential Schools

When talking to your kids about residential schools, it can help to focus on experiences that were common to all residential school children, like the cutting of hair, removal of clothes and the use of mandatory uniforms, separation from their families, separation by gender, loss of language and cultural practices, and assimilation.

Talk about Orange Shirt Day. Many students and teachers wear orange on this day that is dedicated to commemorating the residential school experience, honouring the healing process, and committing to the ongoing process of reconciliation. Wearing an orange shirt on this day, or any day, allows children to feel like they are taking immediate, measurable action for change. Orange Shirt Day is on September 30 and is now also the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

As a family, learn more about the Indigenous communities in the area where you live. Older kids can work with you to make their personal plan for reconciliation.

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson. For kindergarten to grade 3.

We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp. For kindergarten to grade 3.

I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Cathy Kacer. For grades 3–5.

Speaking Our Truth by Monique Gray Smith. For ages 9–13.

The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad. For grades 1–6.

Sugar Falls by David A .Robertson. For teens.

Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. For adults.

Broken Circle by Theodore Fontaine. For adults.

Islamophobia

Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi. For grades 1–3.

Once Upon An Eid by S.K. Ali. For grades 1–6.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad. For grades 1–6.

Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. For ages 3–7.

This Is your Brain on Stereotypes by Tanya Lloyd Kyi. For ages 3–7.

Malala a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal a Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter. For grades 4–7.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. For grades 4–8

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson. For grades 4–9.

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan. For grades 5–8.

Many Windows: Six Kids, 5 Faiths, 1 Community by Rukhasana Khan. For grades 5–9.

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali. For teens.

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali. For teens.

Gender Diversity

Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall. For preschool to grade 1.

It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn. For preschool to grade 3.

George by Alex Gino. For grade 3–6.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. For grades 4–7.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. For grades 9 and up.

LGBTQ+ definitions for elementary school kids.

This blog post is published as part of The Kitchen Table Classroom: A Series to Support Learning from Home, a partnership with Edmonton Public Library. Visit our website for information on the next live, online workshop in the series and for more tips and tools to support learning from home.

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