Juneteenth is an annual holiday commemorating the freeing of the last enslaved people in 1865, and it has been celebrated since.
But it just became federally recognized, after nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd last year. That means for many families — perhaps especially white families — it’s just now something they’re really learning and talking about.
Are you looking to talk to your child about Juneteenth and wondering where to start? HuffPost Parents spoke with Jelani Memory, co-founder of A Kids Book About, author of “A Kids Book About Racism,” and a father of six himself about some simple strategies to keep in mind.
Lead with questions
Kicking off with questions isn’t just a good strategy for talking specifically to your kids about Juneteenth; it’s a good idea when having any conversations about race, racism and what is happening in the United States now, as well as what has happened historically.
“Start with questions. That can happen at the earliest ages,” Memory said.
For example, you can start by asking your child: “Have you ever heard the word ‘racism?’” or “Have you ever heard of Juneteenth?”
Memory noted that he will be asking his own children that question this year, and he expects their answer will likely be “no,” as his family hasn’t intentionally marked the holiday together in the past. He offered that example to show how even “experts” like himself — a biracial dad who has written books on racism — are still having many of these conversations for the first time.
Of course, it’s a good idea to know some basics about the history of Juneteenth, which marks the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in Texas and announced that more than 250,000 enslaved Black people were now free — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
But it’s OK to tell your child that it’s a history you’re still learning, if that’s the case.
“Stop trying to pretend like you’re an expert on everything,” Memory said. “Your kids already know you’re not!”
If there are things you do not know, be honest and commit to finding more information together. Kids really relish hearing that their parents don’t have all the answers, Memory added.
Also, embrace the possibility that your child is just as good (or better!) at discussing and learning about things like Juneteenth or racism — especially if you grew up in a family that claimed to be “colorblind” and you’re just now learning how to have frank conversations about race in adulthood.
“I watch 6, 7, 8-year-olds do this all the time, because grown-ups don’t know where the hell to start, and kids just dive right in,” Memory said.
“Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Be afraid of saying nothing.”
Be prepared to talk about why it hasn’t been a federal holiday until now
Memory said that when he talks to his own children about Juneteenth this year, he expects their immediate follow-up question to be about why it hasn’t been a federally recognized holiday until this week. And that’s a question that’s probably worth thinking through.
“I’ll tell my own kids the history of how we take these really beautiful moments in our country’s history [like Juneteenth],” Memory said “and we squash them down. We suppress the stories of people of color and their victories and their achievements, and we highlight some of the worst moments.”
Lean on books
There are several kids books available that can help teach your child about the history of Juneteenth. (Here’s a quick roundup of some.) And there are also plenty of books about racism and activism more broadly that can be a good jumping off point for discussion.
“I think a book is this magical vehicle to just break the ice and give you some of the words to say and create a shared language,” said Memory, whose own book is available for free on YouTube.
Talk often — and know it’s never too late to get started
“The advice I give as often as possible, and ends up being the most surprising to parents — especially white parents — is just to make sure that you talk to your kids about this stuff,” Memory said. “When it comes to racism, systemic racism, and holidays like Juneteenth, the worst thing you can do is not talk to them at all.”
Research really backs that up. Children can internalize racial bias between the ages of 2 and 4, and by the time they’re 12 years old, many children have become set in their beliefs, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns. Parents really have about 10 years to “mold the learning process,” according to the AAP, so don’t put it off.
That said, if you haven’t talked to your child about Juneteenth until now, don’t worry that you’re somehow too late. Kids are open and resilient, and these conversations are good to have whenever you start them, Memory said.
“Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing,” he added. “Be afraid of saying nothing.”