How To Talk To Your Child About Human Rights Day


Is 21 March just another public holiday or an opportunity to talk about our history?

The 21st March falls on a Sunday this year, which makes Monday the 22nd a public holiday.  Our public holidays, while well utilized for rest, recreation, adventure or that long overdue nap, are actually days of remembrance in our own South African story.

How do we speak to our younger children about Violence? Racism? How do we explain the photos of Sharpeville Day and why we celebrate Human Rights Day (or Freedom Day or Women’s Day in August)? What do or don’t we say when we might not have all the answers or have our own strong responses to the current context and events unfolding in our world?

Children and their innocence are often touted as the reason why people don’t want to share these historical events with children – whether as a parent, friend, teacher or caregiver. Sometimes we simply don’t know the facts and so brush things aside, while at other times, it might feel awkward to have to explain systems of injustice.

What is Human Rights Day?

South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day in remembrance of the historical violation of human rights in our history. On 21 March 1960, police fired into a crowd of people demonstrating against the pass laws, killing or wounding 250 people, in Sharpeville.  This was said to be one of the first significant protests in terms of volumes of people involved.

Why would I explain this to my younger children? 

Children hear things, they see things – whether in the media, online or the radio as we are driving. If we are not comfortable talking about the injustices of our past, as well as present, it makes it that much harder for our children to ask us questions about these things. Our discomfort might make these topics feel like taboo subjects or subjects that are no-go areas for kids but we can, and should, cover these subjects in an age appropriate way with our kids.

Some key guidelines to talking these things through, with specific reference to Human Right’s Day include the following:

  • Keep it simple – there used to be laws/ rules in our country that meant that some people were treated differently.  So depending on the colour of your skin or how you looked, the people that made the rules decided on where you lived, or went to school or who you should be friends with.
  • Ask reflective questions – Would you be okay if only people with green eyes were allowed treats?  Or if only the girls or only the boys could eat cake but everyone else had to watch while they ate?
  • Keep it factual – Not everyone agreed with these rules/ laws.  They tried different ways of telling the people in charge that this wasn’t okay – so then one day, LOTS of people got together to say that they, together, all of them, didn’t like these laws anymore.  When the people in charge saw this, they got a little scared.  They needed to make sure that the people listened to the laws even if they didn’t think that the laws were fair.  This is a good time to ask a reflective question – What do you think that the people were feeling?  What do you think that the people in charge were feeling?
  • Use language that they can relate to and understand – When the people in charge realized that there were lots of people, they told the police that the people must listen to the laws, and so when the police tried to stop the people from saying the laws were wrong then people got badly hurt, some even died,  Do you think that the policemen and women all agreed with the rules?  I wonder ….*insert a thought or question here*.
  • You don’t need to have all the answers – If your children ask questions and you don’t know the answer, let your child know that you can figure this out together.
  • Pace yourself – It’s okay if this conversation happens in different stages over a period of time, rather than in one go.

As children get older, their sense of the world will change – it’s important to know that as adults, we will be confronted with questions regarding our history, a sense of injustice at the wrongs in the world and questions about the positions we hold. Learning to navigate this all as children grow, is part of our parenting skills developing and growing too.

As we honour and remember the past, Human Rights Day offers an incredible opportunity to equip and upskill our children as they continue to step into the future.

Written by Alexa Russell Matthews, Arise Adoption Support Manager