How to Talk to Your Kids About Race and Racism
The time to start talking about race with your kids was yesterday.
Racial injustice is nothing new, but with the ongoing, worldwide protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, it’s now visible to many white families in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. That means that parents are having some difficult conversations—with each other and with their children—about race that they likely had the privilege of putting off.
“A good parallel to this anxiety is the trepidation parents have about talking about reproductive functions,” says Charles Adams, co-founder of Lion’s Story, a program dedicated to teaching people how to solve racially charged situations. “We don’t create space for young people to talk about race, and historically, we haven’t given them the best inputs.”
Even if you’ve shied away from the topic of race in the past, it’s time to start explaining racism to your kids right now.
“Teaching your kids about racism shows your kid how much you care about them,” Adams says. “If I don’t say anything to my son, that’s on me, and if a white person doesn’t say anything and their child says [the] n-word, that’s on that family. Before they get to college, they have to be equipped with racial literacy and history and identity. We need to make sure that they have the prerequisites before they’re out of our sight.”
If you need a little help teaching your kids about race and racism, here’s how to get started.
Kids can understand differences earlier than you might imagine. “Kids at six months of age notice skin color, and at two to four years of age, they’re already starting to notice things like racial bias,” says Jacquelyn Doxie King, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “We recommend starting the conversation as early as possible.”
Families of color often don’t have the luxury of waiting to have those conversations, as they need to begin teaching children how to deal with racism when they start interacting with the world outside.
“All of us as parents want to safeguard our children—we want them to be healthy and happy,” Adams says. “For black and brown families, that means more challenging conversations, earlier and deeper, while white parents and white families may have more freedom to wait.”
Point out the ways that being different makes us special. “We are brought up as a society to think that different is bad,” says Annette Nunez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Breakthrough Interventions. “Different equals not belonging or wrong. We as a society need to change the ideas about the word different and talk about people's differences. When we acknowledge that people are different colors and talk about these differences, that is when the stigma of being a different color changes.”
But even as you’re celebrating differences, make sure your children understand that we’re all humans and deserve the same respect and kindness.
Share your own experiences with race, and your own feelings about what has happened. “Your kids may have noticed that you’re upset,” King says. “It’s OK to talk about those feelings with kids.”
Early messages need to be simple and concrete, to match their level of understanding. “In preschool children, they’re more focused on what they hear and see that’s in their direct environment,” King says. “They might refer to those things in play.”
By school age, kids may take your explanation of race or any racially charged incidents more personally, and may worry that something like that could happen in their family.
For older children, you’ll have to help them make sense of the messages they’re getting from their peer group, social media, and the internet. “Older children are exposed to race and racism through social media and their friends,” Nunez says. “Rather than hiding graphic images of what is going on in the world, it is important for them to see these images and to have conversations about them because these acts of racism and injustice are going on in the world today.”
Placing what’s happening now in context with the past can be helpful. “Teach them about history by showing them images of protests in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s,” Nunez says.
People have a tendency to shush kids when they point out differences that are uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s actually the perfect opportunity to open the dialogue about race—or any other differences they spot.
“When kids start pointing out differences, it’s OK to encourage them and not shush them,” King says. “Point out how differences can be good. Silence about those things might teach kids that they can’t talk about it.”
Letting them ask questions—and asking them a lot of questions to understand what they’re observing and understanding—gives you an opportunity to see how they’re thinking about race and current events, and lets you correct any misconceptions they may have.
Pay attention to the shows, books, and music you and your child consume, the toys in your house, and your circle of friends. “A lot of the children’s shows for preschoolers and early childhood showcase diverse characters and talk about racism and unfairness,” King says. “It’s important to make sure that they’re exposed to a large variety of those things.”
With all the streaming services and content available free online, it’s relatively easy for most families—even in the most homogenized areas of the country—to expand their horizons through the media. “It’s a skill and a will issue, not an access issue,” Adams says. “They have the access to this media—it’s just a matter of seeking it out.”
Actions always speak louder than words, so have your kids come up with ideas your family can help. Consider welcoming a new, non-white family in your school district to dinner, taking part in a local protest or candlelight vigil, or donating to an anti-racism cause.
“We have to figure out the best way to respond for our family—and there are a healthy menu of options to fight back on things that are wrong, right from their house,” Adams says. “You have to pick your lane, whether that’s making a donation to a not-for-profit, food bank, or bail fund.”
For some kids—even older ones—it can be helpful to act out scenarios that they’ve experienced or may experience, to help them work out appropriate ways to react.
Lion’s Story teaches the CLCBE method—Calculate, Locate, Communicate, Breathe, and Exhale—to help people understand their feelings when an act of racism happens, and process those feelings.
“We teach people to notice what happens, how they get upset in a racially stressful situation,” Adams says. “Then I give it a number, and locate where I’m feeling the stress in my body—are my palms getting moist, can I not stop pacing? We try to talk through the stress, and express how we’re feeling in this moment. We breathe and exhale to get ourselves together, get our brain back online so we can think clearly.”
It’s also helpful, after a child encounters racism, to go over how they handled it, to see if there are better ways to address the situation. “We ask, ‘If you had it to do over, what would you do to resolve the situation?’” Adams says.
White families may want to role play with their children ways that they can use their privilege to advocate for people of color when they see racism happening at school or in the world.
“Now more than ever, white families need to teach their children to speak out when they feel their friends of color are not being treated equally,” Nunez says. “It is important to teach them to be advocates for their friends of color, so their friends feel safe and protected.”
Excellent resources for educating your kids (and you) about race and racism are available to help you prepare to talk about race and keep the conversation going.
For little kids, Sesame Street and CNN are partnering for a town hall about race on June 6 at 10 a.m.
The Smithsonian National Museum for African American History & Culture has produced a comprehensive guide online to help you learn more about bias, the history of racism, and how to be an anti-racist.
The site Raising Race Conscious Children answers the most frequently asked questions parents have as they have these conversations.
Lion’s Story has an upcoming racial literacy institute in August.
And Teaching Tolerance offers a slew of resources for talking about race and ethnicity—and other differences—on their site.