My four-year-old daughter is asking questions about colonial history. How do I respond in an age-appropriate way? | Sisonke Msimang [wafact]

Dear Ms Understanding,

I am a white Australian and my partner is Mexican. We live in Australia and have a four-year-old daughter. Lately she has been asking questions that I don’t know how to answer.

Initially childcare spoke with the kids about Capt Cook around Australia Day. Some of the things she came home repeating sounded very colonial, such as “Captain Cook first found Australia”. I tried to explain that, actually, Indigenous people were here before that and the British took the land from them. The conversation has moved on to her asking things like: “Mum, was Captain Cook bad?”; and “did Captain Cook learn to be better later?”

I feel ill-equipped to speak with such a young person about our colonial history and the racism and discrimination that exists, but I don’t want to avoid her questions. We live in a very multicultural neighbourhood and we often speak of people’s heritage and all the different countries that our friends come from but haven’t introduced the idea of racism or discrimination. Are there any models or examples of how to do this in an age-appropriate way? I want my daughter to have a better understanding of our history and how racism affects the lives of others. I just don’t know what to say.

Dear Ill-equipped,

Thank you for this question, there is so much to chew on. Let’s start with Capt Cook.

Did you know that Capt James Cook was stabbed to death in Hawaii? He was indeed. After Cook left New Zealand and Australia, he continued to travel the seas, riding currents and “discovering” more people. Soon enough he and his men ended up in Hawaii. They sailed into the area twice, establishing relations with the islanders, but it was Cook’s third trip that proved to be his undoing.

There are different accounts of what happened on 14 February, 1779 at Kealakekua Bay, but generally the story goes that the Hawaiians were sick of Cook and his men who had at first seemed friendly but soon gave them venereal diseases, cut down trees surrounding their sacred burial sites and accused them of stealing things from their ship. Things came to a head when Cook decided to kidnap one of their leaders. A fight ensued, and when it was all over, the captain lay dead – killed by Hawaiian soldiers in a battle that is still celebrated in Hawaii.

So, in answer to your daughter’s question about whether “Captain Cook learned to be better,” history tells us that he did not. More than that, some might say that history tells us James Cook was a bad man (bad being a word that describes someone who goes back on his word, breaches trust and disrespects others within the logics of what is acceptable in the time in which he was living) who got his just deserts.

Your daughter probably isn’t ready for this story yet, but I remind you of these events, dear reader, because they speak to the fact that history holds the answers to many of the questions we ask today.

When you write, “we often speak of people’s heritage and all the different countries that our friends come from but haven’t ever introduced the idea of racism or discrimination,” I understand that you are doing this because you want to preserve your child’s racial innocence and spare her the kinds of gory details that are embedded in stories like this. Celebrating diversity is an age-appropriate way to ensure kids are comfortable with difference. But as she gets older you want her to respect and know the difficulties her Indigenous friends are experiencing. If you take the sweetness of multiculturalism while ignoring the bitter reality of racism you end up replicating the flawed logic that has Australians celebrating Harmony Day on 21 March rather than commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Racism.

You’re not alone in finding it easier to do diversity than talk about colonialism and racism. Many well-intentioned parents think that talking about race and history introduces kids to racism and puts ideas in their heads that wouldn’t otherwise be there. So, we keep quiet to protect them.

But the truth is that by the time they turn five, children of all races have already absorbed a frightening amount of racial bias. A 2020 study in the US found that three-year-old children were already associating some racial groups with negative traits and by age four, they were associating white people with wealth and higher status.

There are important differences between the US and Australia, but ultimately, the sooner you start talking to your daughter about history and race, the better. The world is already sending her all kinds of messages about what skin colour and socioeconomic status mean. Your task is to step into the powerful and wonderful role you have as her parent by showing her that we can talk about hard histories without falling apart; that difficult issues can make us more thoughtful and big-hearted, and that wisdom comes not from avoiding the past, but by confronting it. It’s a big job, but you sound ready for it.

If you do not meet the challenge, and if instead your daughter begins to sense that you are avoiding her questions, she will quickly figure out this subject is off limits. Kids are great at knowing where social danger lies. Over time your silence will teach her to be fearful and ashamed of her country’s history and that is the opposite of what you want. Instead, we want our kids to be full of human feeling for those who have been wronged by history and determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I know this can seem daunting, but take heart – four is a beautiful age. Four-year-olds are obsessed with moral rights and wrongs and with fair and unfair; and they are bursting with questions. I would ask you to follow her lead. Ask yourself the same questions she is asking you, and take the quest to understand them for yourself seriously.

Put in the work to read, think and reflect. If you see “Was Captain Cook bad?” as an invitation to pull her on to your lap and think together, rather than as a threat and a reason to retreat, I promise you there will be dividends. For one thing, as you help her to wrap her searching mind and her growing heart around the big questions of life and love and human belonging, I suspect that alongside her, you too, will learn to live the questions.

Good luck, Mama.

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  • Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)

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