We all know too well the regularity with which children are offered messages that are harmful to their self-worth. These hurtful messages may come explicitly in the form of a mean remark made by another child, as in a group of boys announcing to a girl, “You can’t play with us. Only boys can play superheroes.” Or they may be implicit, as in a teacher telling a racially diverse group of children, “Jesus makes us clean and white as snow.”
These harmful messages must be rejected and countered with positive affirmations, especially at church. We can help by being attuned to the prevalence of these harmful messages, intervening immediately whenever they are communicated, and following up with activities that counter the societal stereotypes that underlie these messages.
There is often a hesitancy to address common societal biases with children. If we just don’t say anything about differences in race, gender, ability, and so forth, children won’t notice them and won’t develop biases, or so the logic goes. Children notice differences in skin color, ability levels, gender, family types, and so forth. When adults are silent about these differences, children use whatever they observe from adult interactions and the media, as well as their own logic, to develop their own conclusions.
So how can Sunday-school teachers develop classes that address harmful biases? Here are some ways:
Make sure than any posters, puzzles, dolls, and books in your classroom represent the diversity present in your classroom, as well as in your community. Make sure there are accurate, non-tokenizing representations of different races, family types, ability levels, and so forth.
Be attuned to the underrepresentation of women in biblical stories. Try to tell stories of women in the Bible about as often as you tell Bible stories about men.
When you tell healing stories, be cognizant of children with disabilities in your church or community.
Remind the children that healing doesn’t always mean people need to be physically cured. Healing can also mean that people are fully loved and accepted as they are.
Remind your children of the diversity God created in humanity.
Make it a motto in your classroom that all children are created in the image of God and loved by God.
Address pre-prejudice behavior when you identify it by circling back to this lesson. If a child makes a mean remark to another child, remind the rejected child that they are created and loved by God, and set a firm and calm boundary with the rejecting child.
As appropriate, follow up with an activity that counteracts any negative messages you hear. If children make a jail cell out of blocks and pretend that Jesus is putting “bad guys” in jail, it might be helpful to read a book with them that features a child whose parent is incarcerated or teach them about a prison ministry your church is connected with. You can be creative according to your context.
Countering cultural biases takes time and a whole community of people. As people who teach children about God, it’s especially important for us to consistently counter harmful messages about any of God’s children.