talking to kids about racism
There is no doubt that children of almost any age are hearing about, seeing video of, or even witnessing the events that are rolling across our nation related to the death of George Floyd and others who have suffered similar injustice. If parents and other caregivers haven’t yet discussed the issues of racism, now is the time to start.
When do children begin to notice race?
- By 6 months of age, infants begin to notice and respond to skin color cues.
- 2-3 year olds may match people based on physical characteristics and can recognize differences in skin color.
- 4 year olds can recognize basic racial stereotypes and can have strongly rooted race-related values (ex: a black man is dangerous)
- By age 7, children are aware of racism against their own racial or cultural group.
- By adolescence, youth have the capacity to understand how cultural and institutional racism and oppression work.
How should you begin the conversation?
No matter your child’s skin color, it is important to talk about hard, messy topics like race, racism, and social justice. When parents intentionally open these topics of conversation with their kids, it helps to send youth a message that they can trust you to help them think about and work through hard things. You don’t have to have the “perfect” words, but it is important to open a channel of communication about these matters.
This should not be just one conversation. It should be a series of discussions that are open and ongoing. It is valuable to consider your child’s age and development, as these conversations will deepen and become more nuanced as your child gets older.
Start by checking in with your child. Ask what they know, what they've seen, and how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and reassure them it’s normal to feel upset, confused, sad, scared, and a host of other emotions - even all at once. You know your child best and what information they can handle.
- Young children may see the news, see videos on social media, or hear you talking and wonder if they are in danger. Share with them what you are doing to keep your family safe.
- Talk about the reality that people are treated differently based on the color of their skin and where they live, and share examples of this happening. This might be as simple as giving an example of children being treated differently at school or on the playground. Depending on their age and maturity level you may be able to ask them about if they have ever seen that happen and how it made them feel.
- Relay to your child that race is part of diversity and diversity is a wonderful, amazing thing. Highlight for your child how they are different from their friends, their teachers, or their siblings, but all have fantastic qualities. In this way, we are not training our naturally curious young kids to pretend differences don’t exist; rather we are training them to see the beauty of difference.
- Place limits on what your child sees in the media. Do not leave the TV on in the background. Make sure media exposure occurs in a common area where parents can check in.
- Research books and television shows that discuss racism or showcase people of color. Consider doing an inventory of your child’s picture books to see how many of them feature children of different colors. Need some ideas? Check out this list. Or this one.
Older children and teenagers:
- Ask if they’ve experienced mistreatment or racism, or witnessed this happening to someone else. Ask them how it made them feel and how they can respond if they see it happening in the future.
- Watch the news or online videos with them and discuss what you’re seeing. Also ask about what they’ve seen on their social media feeds and accounts. Listen to their observations and share your own. You can use commercial breaks, or pausing, to have brief discussions.
- Discuss the history of racism and discrimination in the U.S. Ask them what they have learned about in school. Ask them their thoughts on how this is still happening today.
- Equip your children to make changes. Ask them what ideas they have to make a difference and help them figure out how to turn those ideas into reality.
- Research books and television shows that discuss racism or showcase people of color. Consider reading a book or watching a movie together and having a discussion afterwards. Need some ideas? Check out this list.
For all ages:
- Share with your children that no one is perfect, talk about what you are doing to be anti-racist, what you have learned, and how you as a family can step up. Commit to an action. If you need any ideas for additional ways your family can be anti-racist, check out this website.
- Watch for changes in your child’s behavior – when children see traumatic events happening in the world around them they often act differently than their normal behaviors. Some children may become more aggressive, while others will become withdrawn. If you are concerned about your child suffering more severe anxiety, fear or distress, reach out to your pediatrician or mental health provider for additional support.
As a parent:
- Educate yourself. It is hard to have hard conversations; even moreso when you feel uninformed. There are so many great books to read, podcasts to listen to, movies to watch, and many more ways to learn the various experiences of minority and majority groups. Find a method of learning you like and dive in!
- As an adult, tune into your own emotions and check that you are ok. If you are not, ask for help to deal with the trauma and emotional impact of these images.
- Create a list of your own coping strategies, and when you need to use them, tap into that list.
These conversations will set the stage for children to embrace and respect how we are all different and yet all alike, while preparing them to act against bias and unfairness.