The Importance of Talking to Your Kids About Race

Many families are talking about race and justice. Children are naturally curious, and possibly concerned, about what they’re seeing and hearing. Help your kids join this important national conversation in a productive way.

By Dr. Chris Ladish, Chief Clinical Officer, Pediatric Behavioral Health, Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Network in Tacoma

Around the Sound and throughout the country we’re having a big conversation about systemic racism, social justice, our own biases, and how we can create a more fair and just future today.

In response to all they see and hear, children are asking questions, expressing confusion, curiosity, sadness, and anxiety. The following guidelines are offered to help you have productive conversations while educating and exploring the issues of race and social justice with your family.

A note before you delve in — race and ethnic socialization are processes by which children learn about race and ethnicity. These messages include things said and unsaid, things done and not done, and emotional reactions. Parents and family members are the first influence in teaching the concepts of race and equality. Parents can use conversation, open listening, and sharing of ideas with their children as they encourage ongoing dialogue.

Teach, Model, Ask, and Listen

Discussions about race may be uncomfortable but are vitally important. When parents avoid talking about differences and discrimination, children learn that the topic is taboo. If the topic is left off-limits, a child is more likely to form a negative self-opinion and have more negative opinions of others. When talking about racism, parents should acknowledge that racism exists and must be addressed. Parents should also provide truthful information.

It is important to model acceptance and compassion as children take their emotional cues from significant adults in their lives. Language that is developmentally appropriate is important so children can understand and apply what they are learning. It is critical that the information you provide be factually true. Parents should teach children to question statements that are stigmatizing, are not factually supported, or overgeneralize qualities or attributes to an entire group of people.

When sitting with your child, a good place to start is by asking what they know. Correct misinformation and keep asking questions. Learn about situations children have been a part of or have witnessed. What happened? Why do they think the events are happening? What is the issue? What does it mean to your child? How would they like things to change? How might they act, seek support, or support others in this situation?

Meet Them Where They Are

Children enter the conversation about race and ethnicity at different stages but begin to understand similarities and differences from a very young age.

If conversations about race and culture are not typical in your household, reach out to understand what your child’s understanding is. Once you understand what your child knows, lean into and build upon the conversation. Listen to feelings.  Explore misconceptions and inaccuracies.  Emphasize positive and familiar images of diverse groups. Discuss the many characteristics, values, and experiences that all have in common, as well as the unique community contributions made by all that is so meaningful and vital to our society.

With very young children, it may be necessary to enter dialogue simply by discussing differences among human beings. These may include hair color, eye color, and skin color, among other attributes. Focused conversations with children 3 to 5 should focus on acknowledging and celebrating differences and appreciating the wonder of all. Activities may include reading books about various cultures and ethnic groups, playing multicultural music, and trying multicultural foods. Children should be taught to celebrate all cultures, including their own and those of others.

School-aged children are more in tune with racial and ethnic differences. They are more likely to begin noticing differences when individuals are treated unfairly. To enhance appreciation and celebration of race and culture in school-aged children, read books highlighting the beauty of all people, both those of similar heritage and culture as well as those of others. Encourage curiosity and comfort with difference, as opposed to anxiety and fear. Take trips to heritage museums and teach important facts about culture and race.

Acknowledge the reality that people may judge others based on skin color (or other differences) and discuss this with your child. Offer guidance and direction about the concepts of “fairness” and “justice”. Begin to discuss the impact that positions of power may have. Encourage children to speak up, and seek support from you and other safe adults, when they or others are treated unfairly.

For adolescents and teens, continue the dialogue about race; discuss how your teen and others are treated in various situations. Discuss strategies for addressing and speaking up for anyone who is being harassed, bullied, unfairly treated, or blamed. Talk about how it feels to be blamed unfairly by a group or association and what the long-term impact of that might be. Explore the fears of speaking up and the consequences of remaining silent. Undertake projects to help those in need with people from diverse backgrounds. Be sure to emphasize how diversity enhances understanding and how multiple ideas are more powerful than one.

Talking About Protests and Demonstrations with Children

Children need time to think and process. Revisiting the topics of race, justice, and current events keep lines of communication open. Discrimination and racism are longstanding issues and our conversations must be present and frequent if we are to truly address them. To some children, this may be one of the first times they have truly considered the concept of racism. It is important they be made aware that racism has existed in the U.S. for over 400 years.

Your children may see the protests. They may have heard about rioting, looting, or other acts of violence. They may fear the police or other authority figures. It is important that these topics are not ignored nor glossed over.

Ask children what they have seen and how they feel — scared, angry, anxious? Provide context and explain the importance of what is happening. Share that most people and protests are peaceful. Also, share that their important message is being echoed across the world. Focus on the fact that the clear majority of people want to create a more fair and just system for Black people, Indigenous people, and all people of color.

Keep talking. When children notice differences between themselves and others, talk about it. A five-minute chat in the car can make a big impact on your child’s understanding of justice and race dynamics.

Invite trusted extended family and friends to be part of the conversation. Chatting with others and hearing their stories can foster and broaden perspectives. Grandparents’ stories about the Civil Rights Movement are good ways to expand your child’s understanding of race, justice, and history in America.

Action in the Community

Your children may want to act for justice. Applaud their sense of fairness and help channel that energy toward age and ability appropriate action. Here are some ideas:

  • Complete an art project. Children can’t always express themselves through words. Painting a picture for the door, wall or window, or using sidewalk chalk to draw images for justice are powerful ways for children to feel a part of conversations about race. Convey emotions like love, peace, friendship, and equality. For children who can write, consider making signs they can put up in their bedrooms or in prominent places in your home.
  • Talk with another family. Connect with family friends for discussions. Have a video call to talk about feelings, ways to help, and how to create an impact in your community. Ideas might include more inclusive playgroups, craft projects reflecting equality and justice, and facilitating inclusive conversations with classmates about race and justice.
  • Join a neighborhood protest. Many parents are concerned about large demonstrations that have drawn non-protestors who act in violent ways. Research details about recent protests in your neighborhood. There are both large and small demonstrations happening throughout the sound. With a little local internet research, you will likely find a gathering of two to 20 people peacefully protesting while observing social distancing guidelines. Don’t forget to wear your mask.
  • Continue speaking up and speaking out. Encourage your children to call attention to acts of racism when they encounter them, using phrases like “please stop” and “please use kindness, and to seek immediate support if feeling that they or others are unsafe in any situation.
  • Social media is filled with content about racism, race, and justice. If your child is active on social media, consider monitoring what they experience so that you can discuss it. Discuss criteria for assessing material prior to posting it. Remind your child that once posted, material cannot be controlled, and context is not always clear. Words may be used to hurt. Encourage avoidance of derogatory terms and swear words. If you are not already, consider limiting the amount of time your child spends on social media, particularly before bed.  Remember that the volume of content on social media can stress and overwhelm young people, increasing internal feelings of distress.  Check in with your child frequently about what they are reading and posting. Find out how they are feeling.

Most of all, recognize that you’re standing in the doorway of opportunity.

You can shape your child’s understanding of race and justice while helping them navigate the complexity of our culture. You are not expected to have all the answers, but you are the example your child will follow. Step into this opportunity and take every available moment to demonstrate kindness and advocate for each individual’s right to be treated with fairness dignity, and respect. You and your child will benefit. Hopefully, so will our world.

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