Talking to kids about racism
I want to start by acknowledging that this has been a heavy week. PayPal and Pfizer were the latest companies to announce massive layoffs, and many people remain fearful for their jobs. If you have recently been laid off, I am so sorry.
I know how impactful coaching can be during times of transition and uncertainty. In the month of February, I am offering a free, one-hour coaching session to three people who were recently laid off. If this is you, please fill out this form and I will randomly select people next week. If you know someone who could benefit from gaining some additional clarity on next steps, please forward this to them.
This week has felt even more distressing because of the news of Tyre Nichols’ horrific murder. His death has once again highlighted the role that structural racism plays in American society, and many parents are now feeling a sense of urgency to discuss race and racism with their children.
Back in July 2020, my friend and former colleague Anna Warbelow and I wrote an article regarding how talk to children about race. Our article remains relevant, and I have excerpted and updated it for you below. Anna is a tremendous resource on this topic. In addition to being the mom of two school-aged kids, she is a qualified administrator of the Intercultural Competence Inventory and currently serves as the Director of Equity and Inclusion at the Whitfield School in St. Louis, MO.
Start with you
All challenging parenting conversations benefit from prior introspection, but self-examination is especially important on this topic since many of us have been socialized to believe that talking about race is “impolite”. Before starting a conversation with your children, take the time to reflect on the following questions. If you have a co-parent, it is useful to discuss these topics together:
Growing up, did your family ever talk about race? What explicit and implicit messages did you receive about race from your family? Your school? The media? What messages did you receive about police officers?
What was the racial makeup of your neighborhood? Teams and organizations you were a part of? Your faith community? What about now?
Who were your friends growing up? Who are your friends now? If you are friends with people of different races, do you talk about race, racism or oppression?
What are the racial identities of your colleagues and mentors? What are the racial identities of key professionals you interact with (doctor, dentist, childcare providers, etc.)?
How have the messages you received in childhood impacted your adult life and the decisions you make now? What kinds of messages would you like your children to receive?
In addition to self-reflection, it is important to educate yourself about race and racism (an important first step of allyship) and make sure you understand current events before you try to explain them to your children. We recommend the following resources:
The more informed you are, the more comfortable you will be initiating a conversation with your children. Confronting privilege and acknowledging biases can be painful and emotionally draining, but it is important work that needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis.
Guidelines for talking with kids
As you begin these conversations with your children, it is helpful to keep in mind some guiding principles. First, it is never too early to start. Children begin noticing and responding differently to race as early as six months and begin to express racial bias by age three. But on the flip side, if you haven’t yet spoken to your children about these issues, it is never too late to start!
Regardless of the child's age, conversations should be developmentally appropriate. Young children are very literal, so be clear in both the language you use and the messages you’re delivering. As children get older, you can begin to add greater nuance to your discussions.
If this is the first time you’ve had conversations about race, it can be helpful to begin by asking questions to gauge what your child already knows and what they may have heard from friends, other family, or the media. It is important to correct any misinformation. It is also important to address stereotypes or other harmful ideas or language. If you are not sure how to correct something in the moment, it’s fine to take some time to figure out how you want to respond — just be sure not to let it go unaddressed.
Finally, admit when you don’t know something. It is important you not shut down the conversation when your child asks a difficult question. This can reinforce that talking about race is taboo and shameful. You do not have to be an expert on race or racism to discuss these topics with children. In fact, it can be powerful modeling to admit when you don’t know something and then work together with your child to find out the answer. Be open to learning from your children, at any age.
Recommendations by age
The goal at this stage is to get children comfortable talking about race and to dispel common racial myths. Children are starting to become aware of differences at this age, which is why taking a “colorblind” approach is not only confusing to children but harmful in that it teaches them that discussing race or difference is inappropriate. Instead, offer books, toys, and media that feature a diversity of people and comment on the differences that you notice. As attention spans can be short, it is best to engage in short, frequent conversations.
Young children are concrete in their thinking, and may draw incorrect conclusions about race unless they are explicitly addressed. For example, preschool-aged children may assume that people who do not look like them are treated poorly because they are “bad.” Leverage preschoolers’ developing sense of fairness to emphasize the unfair ways that people of color have been treated.
For children in grade school, conversations can begin to shift to discrimination, slavery, and effective ways to intervene when one witnesses injustice. Books can be a helpful tool in introducing difficult concepts. These topics should be balanced with examples of Black inventors, scientists, artists, intellectuals, leaders, and heroes as well as celebrations of Black culture and Black joy. Introduce your children to books and films that feature Black protagonists, both historical figures and average fictional children. The latter will help them build their empathy.
Elementary-aged children are more likely to be aware of protests and discussions about policing. When discussing protests, emphasize both safety and empathy. Helpful phrases include: “We will keep you safe;” “People are more important than property;” “Have you ever felt so passionate about something that you wanted to take action?” Avoid the “one bad apple” idea when talking about police and instead begin to introduce ideas of structural and systemic racism in simple terms. Finally, empower your child to intervene when they see something unfair happening. Provide them with the language to use with peers and a plan for seeking help from an adult.
Middle and high school children
These discussions will be more complex and are likely to include more learning together. Talk with older children about structural racism and systems of privilege and prejudice. Examples in education are likely to resonate with children this age. Discuss ways in which your own education often privileged white voices and the gaps in knowledge you have as a result and allow that to lead into discussion about access to education. Look to concrete historical and contemporary examples of injustice. Encourage kids at this age to engage in critical thinking about race. Ask your children if there are topics or authors that they would like to explore in more depth. Media literacy is an important skill, so talk about the role the media plays in framing conversations about racism.
As you discuss privilege, be prepared for your children to express feelings of guilt and sadness. Examine the privileges your family has and why. Then brainstorm ways in which you can use your privilege to make positive change. Children of this age may be interested in participating in protests and/or engaging in online activism. Be prepared to talk together about how your child might engage in both, physically and virtually. Remember that there are many ways to act.
Finally, keep in mind that actions truly speak louder than words. Conversations are crucial, but our children pay more attention to the choices we make. If you witness something unjust, remember that your children are watching how you respond. This may be as simple as speaking up when you overhear a stereotype or biased language on the playground. For more complex issues like a racist practice or policy at school, discuss with your child how you want to address it and allow them to be a part of the solution. Together as a family, decide what steps you will take to promote racial justice on an ongoing basis and follow through.
A Cup of Ambition is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.