Given recent events, many individuals and families have been thinking about and discussing race and racism. As parents, it may be hard to know how to go about talking about these charged issues and how much to share with your child. I wanted to offer a few ideas as you have these conversations with your child.
I recently had a painful reminder of how important it is to first listen when trying to teach. Mentally I know that people learn best when you meet them where they are at. But when I have something important to say I get anxious or excited to share and find myself lecturing! The occasions where I take the time to ask questions, be curious and check-in, I am better able to adapt what and how I teach so the information sinks in better.
I’d say the same is true in parenting. It may be enlightening to hear your child’s thoughts, feelings, and questions before you jump in and lecture…I mean share your own thoughts and feelings.
Start with Race and Racial Identity
No matter your racial identity, when possible start with talking about the racial identity of your child. Start from a place of pride and positivity, teach about their continent of origin, share about their ancestry, and tell stories from your family’s history. For some parents, this may be a great time to do a little research on your own. Older family members or genealogy websites may be of help in learning more. In cases of adoption, you may have difficulty knowing or finding this information depending on the conditions of the adoption; I’d say do your best and share what you are able. Above all, affirm your child’s phenotype (observable characteristics), foster positive feelings about their own appearance.
My hope is that as you begin from a place of positivity about your child’s racial identity you may prevent some internalization of the negative roles (victim or oppressor) associated with racism.
Share Age-Appropriate Information
It may be tempting to emphasize that we’re all the same; while color-blindness is a nice ideal, it undermines the reality of our society. Acknowledge racial differences and authentically discuss how it impacts one’s life, help your child make sense of their lived experiences, and what they observe around them. Remember there is a contrast between noticing differences and developing prejudices. Encourage respectful curiosity and open discussion with your child when it comes to race. Be proactive and talk with your child early before they absorb the racist messages and actions in our society.
Luckily, you are not alone! There are many great resources – children’s books, articles, and parenting books about race and racism. These can help give clues as to general age-appropriate content. Don’t forget that consulting with other parents you admire, teachers, and/or your child’s therapist can also be really helpful.
Discuss Racism in a Way that Emphasizes the Ability to Change
Now, I’m not saying you should gloss over how bigotry and oppression have affected people of color in history and today–that’s important to acknowledge. I encourage you to tell stories of freedom fighters, emphasize the importance of taking responsibility, and encourage social activism. You want to enable agency, not despair in your child.
Be clear with your child that racism is about beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Within my work, I get to see people change their various thought processes and actions with effort and hard work. When children understand that racism is not an inherent trait of humans, it allows for the possibility of hope for change within themselves and others.
Align Your Actions with Your Words
We all know that children learn much more from our actions than our words. Gosh, isn’t this the hardest part of parenting? Be mindful of ways your thoughts, beliefs, and actions (subtle or not so subtle) are influenced by racism and make efforts to change. Be aware of ways you may act as a bystander, allowing racism to exist unchallenged. Don’t get discouraged as you make mistakes, we all do, keep at it!
Continue to regularly educate yourself about race through the many books, movies, articles, and podcasts available. Talk about what you’re learning with your children, how your own beliefs or thoughts are changing.
When you see or hear about your child involved in a racist situation, take action to re-establish safety. If your child has been an insensitive actor instead of saying generic platitudes like, “Be nice” or “We don’t say things like that!” find the underlying root to their comments or behaviors, ask what led them to say or do the insensitive thing. With compassion call out racism, discuss the need for change, and brainstorm together ways to do so. If your child was a bystander, talk about the responsibility we have in fighting racism, help them find ways to intercede and support their need for courage to do so.
Foster an Ongoing Dialogue about Race and Racism
Like other uncomfortable topics, it is tempting to sit down, have one discussion about racism, and never bring it up again. While it may be hard, it’s important to foster ongoing dialogue. If you’re unsure how to make conversations about race a more natural part of your daily life, start with having books, videos, and toys that depict diverse people in positive and non-stereotypical ways. In my office, I have a box of various skin-colored Crayola markers. This simple addition has led to meaningful conversations about race and racial differences with the children I work with.
I’ve noticed children often ask questions at the most unexpected or inconvenient times! When taken by surprise by a question about race or racism you may want to ask your child where the question came from. Sometimes you may not know the answer or need time to find the right wording. It’s OK! You don’t have to be an expert, just admit when you don’t know and that you would like to look up the information together. It’s perfectly fine to say that this is an important topic that you need time to think about and you will get back to them. Be sure to follow through and talk later.
As I researched this topic I found some great resources that you may find helpful as you work to educate yourself on race and racism.
This publication is broken into three age-specific sections that highlight personal stories and practical age-appropriate advice on how to integrate lessons into everyday life.
This webpage provides articles for parents, recommendations for children’s books, videos, and links to additional resources related to the topic of discussing race and racism with young children.
This article provides practical tips on helping your child deal with troubling news. The webpage also provides links to additional informative articles for families with children of color.
This book serves as a guide for families, educators, and communities on how to help white children become informed and effective anti-racist allies.
This book is intended for readers of all races and covers many subjects related to race and racism in our society.
This book provides a better understanding of the concept of racial identity and offers suggestions regarding communication across the racial divide.