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Tough issues: Teaching your kids about National Sorry Day

National Sorry Day was one of the major turning points in Australian history.

Kids are starting to learn about it at school, but it can be hard for them to wrap their heads around. Here’s what to do when the questions start popping up.

The what, when and why

National Sorry Day is a commemorative day that focuses on apologising to and bridging the gap between Australians and the Indigenous peoples. Held on May 26 each year, it gives people the chance to express regret for the way Aborigines were treated in the past, mostly as a result of the White Australia Policy. In a nutshell, this policy aimed to “weed out” the Indigenous people and their culture by making them assimilate with white people. For over 150 years, children were forcibly taken from their families and communities and thrust into a completely unfamiliar world. These children are part of the “Stolen Generations”. Since the policy only ended in 1969, this issue is still very raw, and there are many Aborigines who have never found their families.

The process of reconciliation only really kicked off in 1998, when the first National Sorry Day was held. The event has helped to bring the whole nation together and create awareness about the suffering of the Stolen Generations. Indigenous people are well and truly part of the fabric of communities now, so no doubt your kids will come asking questions when the topic of the Stolen Generations comes up in class.

Kevin Rudd’s apology

Another major step towards reconciliation came in 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to the Indigenous peoples for the way they were treated. On behalf of the governments before him, he said sorry for the laws and policies that caused such grief and loss. He also promised to look into ways to improve Indigenous life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity — or, in other words, to close the gap. This speech earned K-Rudd a lot of respect as many people felt it was a long time coming. Many high schools (and some primary schools) show parts of this speech on National Sorry Day because it’s powerful and can help kids wrap their heads around what the Aborigines had to go through.

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Getting involved

There are plenty of activities and events across the country each year to mark National Sorry Day. Local communities usually host concerts, barbecues, reconciliation walks, lunches, or flag raising events for the day. Some communities even pass around “sorry books”, in which people can write messages about reconciliation. Of course, Canberra is in the centre of the action with marches as well as speeches by politicians. Many schools take an educational approach to National Sorry Day by showing films about the Stolen Generations, lighting candles for those who were taken away from their families and inviting Indigenous elders to speak to the kids. For more information on events in your area, go to the National Sorry Day Committee website.

Tips for tricky conversations

Children like to ask questions, and as a parent, it often falls to you to answer the tricky ones. Explaining the Stolen Generations definitely falls into that category. Child psychologist Dr. Phyllis Ohr offers her advice for dealing with difficult topics:

  • If the event or issue does not personally affect your kids, reassure them that everything is okay with the people they love.
  • Using simple, age-appropriate language, explain what happened.
  • Ask if there is something they want to know more about, or if they need something explained further. If so, stick to answering their question or clarifying. Don’t add on or digress.
  • Ask if they know how they feel. Stress that people feel differently, and if they don’t know how they feel (or don’t feel anything), that’s okay too.
  • If they are upset but don’t want to talk, suggest a fun activity to distract them.

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