Tough Topics: 7 Tips for Talking to Kids about Race

In talking with friends — and in my work as a child psychologist — parents often say that what they want most is for their child to be kind. Many parents have told me that for their child to be racist or bigoted would (understandably) be a tragedy to them. I also know that many parents, particularly white parents, have not given much thought about how to raise a racially conscious child or are overwhelmed and unsure where to begin.  

Why it’s necessary

This post is about how to talk to children about race.  While the information here may be helpful for all parents, it is important to note that the conversations parents have with their children about race will be different based on family background.  That is to say, the conversations parents of color have with their children differ in significant and necessary ways some conversations white parents have with their children.

Children WILL learn about race and racism, and they will be better off if we as parents can control the dialogue and teach them about race in a constructive way.  For many parents, initiating these conversations feels paralyzing, and research suggests that many white parents rarely, if ever, discuss race with their child (which itself is a privilege unknown to children and parents of color). The reasons for avoiding these conversations usually stem from a fear of being seen as racist just by discussing race, wanting to protect children from feeling scared or feeling badly, or simply having no idea what to say or where to begin. When white parents do talk to their children about race, it is often in a negative context (like a hate crime), or when it is relevant to their lives specifically. Otherwise, there is often a belief that simply telling their children ‘all people are the same and they should not see race’ is enough.  It is not enough.

These conversations are difficult and daunting, but are also necessary. Unfortunately, our children are exposed to violence, hatred, and non-inclusive rhetoric. As parents, we have a responsibility to help children process and understand what they are exposed to, and to counteract negative messages they may hear.

Many parents avoid talking with their children about race in an effort to protect them from exposure to hate that exists in the world.  While children certainly need us to protect them, they also need us to be honest about the way the way the world is and share information with them about the way we think it should be.

If we want to raise the next generation of children to be more inclusive and accepting, a powerful way to do so is by controlling and initiating the conversation about race with all children (including children who are white). Children are perceptive, they see what is happening around them, and when we do not acknowledge injustice that exists it is confusing and can make kids feel unsafe.

Talking about race is not racist

Talking about race is incredibly important, and necessary if we want to raise inclusive, accepting, and racially conscious children.

When white parents tell their children that they should not see race, the intention is often to communicate that race shouldn’t matter in how people are treated.

The problem with this message is that it instead communicates that it doesn’t matter.

If we want to work towards a racially just society, our children need to develop a deep understanding of race and diversity, and a specific set of skills to confront and manage racism.

This understanding and ability will not be developed through the silence of parents. We would not expect our children to become fluent and knowledgeable in other subject domains without explicit instruction, guidance, teaching, and skill building, and the ability to understand and discuss race is no different.

Here are a few tips, and some resources, to help begin this important conversation with your child.

Start young

When I suggest starting young, I mean immediately and as soon as possible.  Include books and toys for your child that are representative and diverse. There are lots of great books (including board books for babies) that you can purchase or borrow from a library.

Some wonderful examples are Shades of People by Sheila M. Kelly, The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler, and A Rainbow of Friends, by PK Hallinan.

Develop meaningful and authentic relationships with people that are different from you

And encourage your children to do the same. One of the most powerful ways to combat stereotypes and encourage acceptance is to have meaningful relationships with people that are different from us.  Personal connections are often the starting point for change.

Develop self-awareness about racist beliefs

This is a difficult one, but if we truly want our children to think deeply about the complexities of race and understand systematic bias that exists in our society, we have to first look at our own biases as parents.

We all carry incorrect information and stereotypes about people. As parents, we need to examine our own behavior and ensure that we are acting as a model of inclusiveness. This means examining how we interact with others and thinking critically about the language we use.

Understand stereotypes and counter-narratives

As mentioned above, most of us carry stereotypes.  Negative images in the media and consistent exposure to stereotypes form the foundation for bias.  The easiest way to counteract this is to identify stereotypes and construct a counter-narrative.  One powerful way to combat stereotypes is to share stories with your children about leaders and positive examples of diverse individuals.

Learn how to intervene

When some of us suffer or are treated unfairly, we all suffer. Show your children that antiracist action can be accomplished in many ways. While many people don’t intervene in certain situations out of fear, there are ways to stand up to injustice and instill important lessons.

You can take a stand against ethnic, racist, sexist, or other oppressive jokes or dialogue.

You can mean volunteer or make a donation to a group with a mission of diversity and inclusiveness and discuss it with your child (you might even bring them along to volunteer). You can speak out publicly against injustice, or attend a demonstration against discrimination (again, maybe with your children).

Talk to your children about different ways they can safely intervene and how to stand up and not be a bystander to injustice.

Talk about fairness and unfairness

This is a good place to start with kids.  Many young children latch on, and deeply understand, the idea of something being “fair” (if you are a parent, no doubt you know this).  When you witness discrimination, label it, and address it as being “unfair.”  This is a great way to start the conversation.

Keep talking about it

There will come a time when you are at a loss for words.  If you are caught off guard by a question your child asks, don’t be afraid to say, “let me think about that and get back to you” – but make absolutely sure you do just that.  Don’t worry if you stumble or “mess up” (I do, too), bring it up again, revisit the conversation, and keep having the conversation.

More tips and resources

http://www.raceconscious.org/strategies/

http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence

The original version of the article was published on All The Moms on August 14, 2017   http://allthemoms.com/2017/08/14/7-tips-for-talking-to-kids-about-race-discrimination

Remember that what each child needs is different.  Dr. Adams provides individual (Skype or phone-based) parent coaching to address a range of concerns (e.g., sleep struggles, tantrums, limit testing, co-parenting issues).  Email Dr. Adams for more information, or to schedule an appointment at dradams@personalizedparenting.org, or learn more here: www.personalizedparenting.org.

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