Ready for questioning

November 15, 2016 Cheryl Devin, ATA Walking Together consultant

How to talk about residential schools with your school-aged children

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report in 2015, it contained recommendations for federal, provincial and territorial governments to teach students about residential schools. In a statement on the TRC’s work, issued in March 2014, the Alberta government made a commitment that “provincial kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum will include enhanced mandatory content for all Alberta students on the significance of residential schools and treaties.”

What does this mean for parents? When you are having conversations with your children around the dinner table, driving them to extracurricular activities or tucking them in at bedtime, questions about residential schools may surface. This can be an uncomfortable or even frightening experience for some parents. Taking time to think about your response and how to approach the topic of residential schools with your children will ensure that you are prepared with thoughtful and accurate answers to their questions.

A good starting point can be with questions of your own. Ask what they have learned in school and what they wonder about. This will give you valuable information on their level of understanding. Conversations on sensitive topics such as this must proceed with caution, especially with young children. If the age gap is significant between your children, having separate conversations might be wise. Ensure that your conversations are age appropriate and fit the emotional sensitivity of your children — you know them best and can determine how much they intellectually and emotionally can handle. For example, the information for young children may be that the indigenous children were at school away from their family and that they missed each other very much. Older children may be able to know a bit more about the justification for and the living conditions of residential schools.

Contacting your children’s teachers and discussing what is being taught would also be insightful. Establishing open communication with your children’s school will help to alleviate any questions or uncertainties you may have about the content being taught. It will also give you clear direction on the depth and breadth of the learning happening in the classrooms. As well, your children’s teachers or the school librarian may be able to suggest age-appropriate media to use at home to help frame your discussions.

If the topic makes you uncomfortable, if you feel you are unprepared, or if they ask while in line at the grocery store, allow yourself some time. Acknowledge that you have heard their query, tell them that it is an important question, and let them know that you will talk about it with them at a more suitable time. Buy yourself time to learn — there are many excellent resources that you can access for your own learning or to act as an anchor with your children.

Even though the subject of residential schools is very difficult, as a parent you can take the opportunity as a “teachable moment” to further build empathy and intercultural understanding in your children. If you do not talk about it with them or quickly rush through their questions, children may have significant misconceptions or hold fears that go unaddressed. What their imaginations can come up with can be much worse than the understanding you can guide them through with love and gentleness.

If we want our children to be fully educated and contributing members of our communities, we must help them understand not only the people and events that give us pride as Canadians but the dark parts of our collective history as well. We can be a source of comfort and wisdom to our children through this difficult learning.

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