Nurturing Children with a Heart for Justice

I recently shared several passages from a sermon my dear friend Rev. Dr. Shannon Daley-Harris, who served Children’s Defense Fund for 30 years, preached at Princeton University Chapel titled “Draw the Circle Wide.” In it, Rev. Daley-Harris spoke about the need for all of us to draw circles wide enough to see and welcome others in, instead of creating walls that keep others out. She also asked an important question: how do we learn to act with love and justice?  Rev. Daley-Harris shared that thanks to a grant from the Children’s Spirituality Research and Innovation Hub at Union Presbyterian Seminary, she has been engaged in a research project, “Nurturing Children with a Heart for Justice,” to understand how children from birth to age eight develop an understanding of justice.

As she explained some of her first findings: “The surprising bottom line is that children understand justice much sooner than we might assume . . . From the time they are babies, children are putting together many of the pieces that will develop into an understanding of justice. While still infants and toddlers, children prefer those who help to those who hinder, and want to help. They expect resources to be shared equally and want to share equally.” She also shared research showing that even young children value equity more than strict equality following explicit conversations with adults that show them the difference in age-appropriate ways. Absent these conversations, children often default to equality or to explanations like personal effort or personal qualities to understand why things seem unfair; but when children as young as five understand that a high-status group created, maintains, and perpetuates structures that lead to inequality, it reduces children’s bias and increases their efforts to rectify inequality. Rev. Daley-Harris added: “That means we adults must not shy away from these brave and honest conversations.”

Rev. Daley-Harris is studying “how children create ‘moral circles,’ and how they are helped to understand differences they observe. From infancy, children develop a familiarity bias; those whom they see, interact with, are cared for by, are familiar. As they observe who is around them children develop ‘moral circles,’ defined by researchers Chalik and Rhodes as ‘boundaries within which we view others as worthy of moral concern.’ Researcher Paul Bloom notes that children sort people into three large circles: ‘Kin,’ ‘In-Group,’ and ‘Strangers.’ As they are developing these circles, based on familiarity, of who is kin, in-group, and strangers, babies are also observing characteristics of people. They notice languages, accents, genders, ages, skin tones, and more, preferring those that are familiar. And so we see in babies that it is an inevitable part of human nature to categorize; none of us, not even babies, is ‘color blind’ when it comes to seeing people.” But, she emphasized, “babies and young children don’t attach values to any of these observed categories automatically. Children first look to adults to discern what significance differences have.”

She continued on this critical point: “If we treat people with different skin tones, languages, sexualities, genders, as bad or less than, our children will. If we wall ourselves off, hem ourselves into homogenous circles, our children will see those unlike themselves as ‘other.’ But, if we seek out or create diverse community, an inclusive circle of chosen family or ‘kin,’ that’s how our children will regard them. Researcher Bloom observes that ‘the categories of kin, in-group, and stranger are porous.’ Getting to know those who seem ‘other’ personally, through stories, by joining in common cause, and focusing on individual identities, all help widen our moral circles. And the powerful metaphor of kinship affects children’s perceptions, emotions, and actions as well. If we lean into our shared identity as children of God, which makes everyone ‘kin,’ then our children will too.”

This is a call to us. Helping children see that we all share a common kinship—and should all treat others as we want to be treated—is a critical step towards nurturing and preserving their innate sense of justice. Rev. Daley-Harris summed up: “It’s never too soon and it’s never too late to proclaim, teach, remind, and enact the truth that each person is kin as a beloved, precious child of God.” Amen!