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Talking to Children About Racism

Talking about race can be a daunting endeavor and many parents struggle with where to begin.

Children are like sponges; they soak up information from everywhere. Kids pick up on cues from their friends, family, news headlines and social media. Although discussing race can seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be.

Parents often have anticipatory anxiety when it comes to these discussions. On the bright side, the fear of what could unfold is often much worse than the actual conversation that takes place.

Many parents have concerns about potentially “pointing out” race to their children due to fear of drawing attention to something kids may not notice yet. As much as we might want that sentiment to be true. Children are very perceptive and are already quite aware of differences in people. As an example, take height, weight, age, hair color, stature, style of dress, and many other attributes of a person’s presentation. Skin color is just one aspect of many that make up a person’s identity.

One consistent attribute of children is their exploration of the world in the form of questions. If they have seen protests on the streets or in the news, chances are they have already asked someone about them.

It’s important to have this discussion with kids because this historically taboo topic is not going away. Children are very vigilant and will directly observe how parents address the topic of race and racism in their own lives – or how they don’t. Instead of thinking of this discussion as terrifying, think of it as an opportunity to help your child become a more understanding, empathetic, and caring human being.

Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Be open

Children are curious by nature. They are going to ask you tough questions. And it’s ok to not have all the answers. If they ask you a question you don’t know how to answer, tell them that. By doing so you’re successfully modeling that adults don’t have all the answers all the time, and taking time to think about your response is ok.

2. Differences and commonalities

Children are much more likely to see the world through a lens of what makes people different from one another. It’s easier to conceptualize what is different, as opposed to what is similar, especially for younger children. For example, if your child asks why their skin color is different from another child’s, acknowledge that their observation is valid, and also acknowledge that although people are different they also have similarities. Share that while people may look different, we can still have many things in common.

3. Be curious

This is a stressful time and your children are likely to be feeling this too. Encourage them to talk to you about things they have on their mind, and to be curious about what is happening around them. If you don’t know how your child is managing with these stressors, ask them – chances are they have a lot to say but don’t know how to bring it up.

4. Explore

There are many fun and creative ways to bring diversity into your home. Try watching a foreign film and having a discussion about it at the end. Find a new recipe to try and help your kids research the country it came from and the people who live there. Exposing kids to different social groups helps improve cross-cultural communication, understanding and empathy.

5. Check in with yourself first

Children will look to the adults in their lives for guidance. If you’re not sure how you feel about what’s going on, take some time to think about it. Talk to people you trust, read and educate yourself on current events so you feel comfortable with the questions your kids might ask you.

Remember, your children don’t expect you to be perfect. And it’s ok to not have all the answers. This is a unique time in history, and presents an opportunity to talk to you children about racism, equality, kindness, empathy and respect.

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