Social Justice Parenting
Mother-of-five and author Dr Traci Baxley believes in raising globally minded, empathetic, inclusive children who have a deep sense of belonging.
Can you start by describing yourself?
I’m a Black woman, wife and mother of five beautiful human beings. I am an empath, which is my superpower that I use to fuel my passion and create ripples of change in the spaces I occupy. And I am also a professor, author, consultant and coach. I use all of these roles to advocate for belonging and inclusion.
Whatʼs your experience with education?
I have been an educator for over thirty years and I have degrees in child development, elementary education, and curriculum and inclusion. I started my teaching career in the kindergarten classroom and am now a professor in the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University. At the university, I teach undergraduate and graduate classes focused on diversity, inclusion, culturally responsive teaching, anti-racist curriculum, social justice education and critical race theory.
How old are your kids?
I have five incredible children who allow me to share their stories in ways that support other families going through some of the same challenges and wins that weʼve experienced as a family. They are my north star and why this work is so important to me. I have one daughter. She is my oldest and is 21 years old. And I have four sons, ages 19, 15, 14 and 12. They keep my life busy and full of joy.
What topics do you talk about most?
We talk quite a bit about race-related issues. I am African American, and my husband is Caucasian. As a multi-racial family, itʼs something that my husband and I have always been open and honest about with our children. We talk about the importance of self-identity and how the world will put them in a box or may label them something different. And we talk about racism, both individual and systemic, in the world.
As a Black mum, I want my kids to be prepared to live in their skin, both the beauty and the pain. We also often discuss our own privileges (and marginalisation) as a family and as individuals in society. We talk about how that impacts our role in giving back or supporting others. And finally, we try to nurture their skills in self-advocacy and problem-solving in their everyday lives.
Why are those topics important to you?
I think raising biracial children has unique challenges. They have been told, or at least felt like, they werenʼt being black enough or white enough at some point. I want my children to be part of more inclusive change. I want them to feel grounded and confident to go out into the world and make it better. If we donʼt talk about the current state of the world, in terms of the social injustices, they wonʼt be prepared to find their place in changing it. I want my children to be a part of the solution. They canʼt do that if they arenʼt exposed to and recognise various perspectives. They need opportunities to engage in dialogue about whatʼs going on in the world or topics that they are curious about.
What did you learn from parenting that has helped you become an educator?
Actually, in the beginning, being an educator taught me many lessons that I used as a new mum. Teaching students with such different backgrounds and needs taught me to be more patient and creative in finding multiple ways to support children. Early in my teaching career, I learned that children just need to be listened to, find comfort in belonging and be loved radically.
Tell us about your book, Social Justice Parenting.
This book was a labour of love. Itʼs a roadmap for parents to move beyond their own fears and parent their children from a place of radical love. They can use their childrenʼs natural curiosity to engage in dialogue and find solutions.
The book is focused on universal values and parenting tools. I've scatted my experiences of motherhood and as educator throughout the chapters.
There are chapters on creating belonging and safe spaces for children, raising children who are anti-racists and socially engaged, and developing habits of compassion and kindness in our homes and communities. There are also journey prompts, activities, and a list of childrenʼs books for parents to reflect on and take action after reading.
What is social justice parenting?
Social justice parenting is a way to be intentional and purposeful in the way we raise children to care deeply, love radically, and show up for themselves and others. Itʼs a way to raise children who are more compassionate, more kind, and who believe in the power of activism. Social justice parenting requires parents to move through their own fears, through self-reflection and honest dialogue. Then, they can create space to unlearn and relearn the lessons needed to take action to change the things that marginalise, hurt and stereotype others–and teach your children to do the same.
What was happening in the world or your life that prompted you to write it?
I started writing the foundational principles in the book several years ago after a major incident in one of my childrenʼs lives. I realised that a part of me operated in fear-based parenting, and I didnʼt enjoy that. So, I needed a way to move through that fear.
I began writing down all the ways that I showed up for my children that were expansive and focused on active hope and love. It made me see how much I needed other parents to know my story and to see, really see, my children. And I thought about how much I would do what was required to support other mums and their children.
So, the question I began asking myself was how we navigate the world so that we think equally about taking care of our own children, and keeping other people's children safe.
Ultimately, the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020 propelled me to finish the book. I got more and more mothers asking me to support their journey of being more inclusive in their parenting. They were asking how to raise children who will be better allies and activists.
As I have been writing parts of this book over the last five years, I realised that I couldnʼt live my life in that fear. I donʼt want to pass that fear on to my children. And there were defining moments in motherhood when I realised that I couldnʼt be the sole protector of my kids. I need other mums who will say, “I got him,” or ,“I see her and I’ll take care of her.” Itʼs with the need to support other mums, who may not look like me, to be an extended part of my village. How can we teach and learn from each other so that all kids feel safe, valued, and have a sense of belonging?
Who did you write the book for?
I wrote this book for parents, specifically mums. Mums who feel the gravity of raising children in a world that can be beautiful and joyful but complex and unjust. I wanted to support parents who recognise that we can no longer raise our children in silos or protective bubbles. We needed to hear the experiences of others and the space to raise a more compassionate and kinder generation of humans.
The book serves as a companion for parents who will raise children who want, and deserve, answers to tough questions. And for parents who will model how to use those answers to create a better world for all of us.
What have you learned about other people from teaching diversity and inclusion?
Iʼve learned that people just want to be heard, feel valued and feel a sense of belonging. Itʼs one of the most basic human needs. Iʼve learned to listen to understand and not listen to respond. Let me tell you a great example.
On one of my social media posts, a man reacted negatively, telling me he couldnʼt believe I was allowed to publish such “garbage” and that my book was racist. Other people commented negatively to him about his perspective. I thanked him for his insight and for taking the time to comment. I also explained that it was evident that he didnʼt read my book and gave an overview of what my book was really about, including the need for compassion and kindness. He replied immediately, and the first sentence of his response was, “Thank you for your kind response.” I would imagine he felt heard, and, in some way, he felt his perspective had been valued.
We all have our lived experiences, all so different, and sometimes they even conflict. But if we teach children to celebrate differences and practise inclusion, we can all feel valued and that we belong.
What have you learned about yourself from teaching diversity and inclusion?
I have learned to lean into my empathic nature. I used to try to change the way I took on othersʼ feelings and emotions. Honestly, it was exhausting. I was always crying and worried about people I didnʼt even know. As a young person, I felt that being an empath was a flaw in my personality. I now realise that having those intense emotions of empathy, compassion and kindness for others is what makes me passionate about what I do.
How can we be more inclusive as parents?
It starts with us, as parents, engaging in deep self-reflection. Have you examined your own biases and how they impact your thoughts and behaviour? You can reflect on your childhood experiences and be honest about how they show up in your parenting practices. You can begin by examining your inner circles. Does everyone you hang out with, that you invite over, that you and your children interact with daily look like you? What can you do to change that?
If you want to raise more inclusive children in their playgroups and relationships, it starts with how you show that you value those things in your own life. So I would say think of it in two ways. The first way is how you show up for your children. How you acknowledge, accept and celebrate who they are and how you create a system of practices that value all of the ways they occupy space. Being inclusive begins with your children feeling valued, wanted, heard and accepted in your home.
The second way focuses on how you teach your children to honour and value the unique differences in others. Itʼs about expanding their experiences to normalise diversity. This includes being around different types of people, exposing them to different opinions and points of view, and recognising how we all have value.
Expand your community activities. Join an organisation where the members are more diverse. Have dinner at restaurants that expand your surroundings and your palate. What professional in your childʼs life can you add that looks different from them (doctor, dentist, tutor, coach, mentor, etc.).
These are small steps individually, but adding them to your familyʼs life over time will significantly impact raising children who create inclusive spaces as young adults.
Do you have one thing you wish everyone knew about diversity and inclusion?
We are more the same than we are different. But itʼs so important to acknowledge those differences and actively listen to someone elseʼs lived experiences. No matter how different they are from yours. Itʼs up to all of us to create safe spaces where people feel valued.
When should we start talking to children about race, diversity and inclusion?
Kids are absorbing stereotypes, prejudices, attitudes and misinformation before entering grade school. If fear is preventing you from speaking to your kids about hard things, you should be more afraid of the messages your children are receiving out in the world. Studies show that children make assumptions and decisions about others based on race even before school.
In preschool, children are already engaged in “in-group” bias where they are more likely to pick people who look like them to play with if they are not exposed to other groups early in their lives.
Dr Beverly Tatum, race identity researcher and professor, reminds us that racism is like smog. Your children are breathing it in, no matter what you do. Thereʼs no way for you to filter it out entirely. Instead of trying to deny its existence, we need to teach our children how to see what is too often invisible. That way they can work to clear the air, making it safe for everyone to breathe. Children naturally want things to be 'fair.' Using those moments when they are young to support this natural curiosity is a great time to start.
Do you have any tips for talking about race and racism with kids?
Remember, it is a journey. Itʼs not a linear path. Our entry points are as diverse as each of us. If you havenʼt started or have some fear around it, you can start slowly. I think the most crucial part is just to do something. Impactful but straightforward actions that can be done at home with little ones could include:
- Reading and discussing childrenʼs literature with your children.
- Creating safe spaces for children to discuss big feelings and curiosities without judgement or shame.
- Talking about the differences that each of you, within your own family, have and whatʼs positive about it.
- Talking about the ‘fairnessʼ and ‘unfairnessʼ of the world regarding the treatment of differences (and how your family can make it better).
- Examine your childʼs books, dolls, toys, etc., to make sure there is representation of others in your home.
- Find any cultural festival or event in your community and add it to your familyʼs calendar to attend monthly or quarterly.
When introducing a difficult topic, just make sure your delivery is age-appropriate. Try to give some familiar and relatable context for better understanding, and there should always be follow-up.
I also think itʼs great to ask open-ended questions to see how much your child already knows. These questions help you understand how to start, where to fill in the gaps and what needs to be unlearned/relearned. Use questions like: “Can you tell me more?” or “Why do you think that?” or “Where did you learn that?”.
What is critical race theory, and why is it important?
CRT is a social science theory that analyses the role of race and racism in perpetuating social disparities between the dominant and marginalised racial groups. The approach centres on the voices and experiences of those traditionally marginalised to understand current societal issues from those who feel the most oppressed.
Thereʼs a push in the United States to block teachers in K-12 schools from teaching the complete truth about our history. Critical race theory is being used to stoke fear-based parenting across the country.
CRT is not “a push to make white students feel bad or guilty” (as Iʼve heard politicians defend their decisions to ban the teaching of brutal truths about our history).
CRT doesnʼt say white people are inherently racist. It speaks to the systems that were created to build the country.
The concept of CRT is to ask students, traditionally college students, to recognise that thereʼs been a history of systemic laws and behaviours that have contributed to or created racial division and inequities in our country. Misrepresenting CRT as a reason not to teach accurate history in our classrooms is shameful.
How can parents be better activists?
Itʼs really about being intentional and taking action. Your children need to see that itʼs important to you. They need to know how you have consciously built advocating into part of your family's values. They need to see how you support other people regularly.
The more you model intellectually curious behaviours, including asking questions and pushing back against the status quo when it comes to the most critical issues to you, the more these habits of activism will be normalised. If we model activism in our homes, our children will develop their own sense of social justice engagement.
I see many parents who are overwhelmed with the idea of activism. They think itʼs some colossal shift that they must make in their lives. Thereʼs no one right way to be an activist. Think broadly about how you define activism and consider how you and your kids can use your best skills (and privileges) to support others. It just takes a conversation with your children and taking small actions to get started.
You said, “To become a parent is an act of hope.” Can you explain that more?
I believe the very nature of bringing life into this world signifies that belief in creating a more just world. My children are part of my active hope that keeps me focused on positive change and love. Knowing that we are raising children who are compassionate, kind and inclusive of others sends light into the world. Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Our children are light.
Can you define what a ‘socially conscious kidʼ is?
Many parents are just waking up to the racial, social and economic inequities of our time. And they want to address current events with their young children. More than that, they realise the urgency of the need to be proactive in raising socially conscious children who will be equipped to confront climate change, gun violence, racial injustice, gender discrimination and economic anxiety.
Raising socially-conscious children simply means moving beyond what I consider the bare minimum of raising ‘good peopleʼ. Itʼs about raising children who are aware that the world is not always fair to everyone. It's teaching that all people have value and deserve to have a full life of opportunities and safety.
A socially conscious child is reared to take action that benefits the people who are hurting the most. These are the children who will become the allies, the activists, the agitators and anti-racists when they grow up. They recognise that some changes must be made and work to be a part of the change. I want to raise socially conscious children who can identify the problem, name the problem, reflect on solutions and take action.
How can we teach kids to self-advocate? And why is it important?
Self-advocacy is an essential skill that can help children create solutions in their lives, including at school, with family and peers, in relationships and in the community.
Many studies have suggested that children who are taught self-advocacy skills have an increased likelihood of becoming happy, well-adjusted adults. Self-advocacy doesnʼt mean doing things alone, or feeling like you canʼt ask for help. Itʼs about knowing when the support needs to come from you. Or when to ask for help from someone else, and who you need help from.
We can help develop our childrenʼs ability to self-advocate. Talk to them about their strengths and areas where they can improve. Let them see/hear you engage in self-advocacy. Remind them that asking for help is a good thing and we all need support. Praise their efforts at speaking up for themselves (and others).
When a problem comes up, give your children an opportunity to solve it before stepping in. Itʼs not always easy to see our children struggle. But allowing them to practise self-advocacy develops their ability to problem solve, builds self-confidence, creates a sense of ownership and pride. And it helps them develop independence and self-empowerment.
Whatʼs the best thing about your work?
The best thing about my work is that I get to contribute to something bigger than me and something that makes my children proud. I love the idea of leaving a legacy that is rooted in radical love and belonging. I am moved by the families that I work with each day. With some support from me, their willingness to develop more tools in their parenting toolbox changes how they show up for their children. All while collectively adding to the ripples of change that our world so desperately needs.
Whatʼs the hardest thing about your work?
I think the most challenging part about my work is feeling the weight of not being able to support more families. I am learning how to recognise the signs when taking on too much of othersʼ emotional energy. Learning to unplug, meditate, centre myself when I need a break, without feeling guilty. Itʼs a process I am learning every day.