Over the past few weeks, American families have witnessed a historic civil unrest following the brutal police killing of George Floyd (and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor). The protests that followed quickly spread nationwide and in over 60 countries internationally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
If you’ve been watching or listening to the news with your children around, or if your kids are older and on social media, there’s a good chance they’re aware of recent events. Many parents are wondering how to talk to your kids about race and racism, looking for the right words to start the conversations, and how to keep the conversations going. Although it can be a difficult, talking to your kids about race, racism, and prejudice early (and often) is important, especially for parents of non-Black children.
Here are some tips on how to talk to your kids about race and racism, and ways to start – and continue – those conversations.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Race And Racism
When is the right time?
How much you should talk to your children about George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement will depend on your child’s age and developmental readiness, and also on how much your child is asking. “If your 3-year-old hasn’t noticed what’s going on, they probably don’t need you to sit down and explain it to them in detail,” says Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, CEO Happiest Baby www.happiestbaby.com.
“For kids who are old enough to pick up on the scariness of the situation, it’s important to have direct conversations so that you can help shape that discussion and hear— and calm —their fears.”
Aren’t my kids too young?
Some parents might be afraid that their kids are too young to have these conversations, but they shouldn’t. “I think many parents of white children think they can and should shield their small children from racism that happens in our communities and in the national spotlight,” says Melissa Fore, PhD of Michigan State University’s James Madison College.
“What these parents need to know is that many Black parents discuss issues of racism with their children out of necessity—it can be a matter of life or death. If Black parents must have conversations with their children about the realities of racism in this country, then white parents should feel morally compelled to talk with their white children as well; indeed, hiding behind the shield of ‘protecting their innocence’ signals a profound indifference to the lives of Black children.”
Follow Your Child’s Lead – Younger Kids
So how do you begin the conversation with younger children? Dr. Karp suggests offering your children the opportunity to express what thoughts might be simmering already. “You can start by saying something like, ‘Sweetie you are so good at paying attention and you notice a lot of things. Did you see all the people on the TV who were yelling? I wonder why they are doing that. What did you see or hear? Why do you think they are doing that?’”
Dr. Kim Corson, developmental psychologist and parent coach, says that children begin stereotyping and excluding children from their play groups based upon racial differences as early as preschool. “School-aged children often work through their questions and emotions through play, so pay attention to their play and help teach them through play. They are able to place themselves into other people’s shoes more easily at this age.”
“They are also internalizing right vs wrong from parents and other authority figures, so again, remember to model respect, tolerance, and social justice. Help them to learn appropriate language for human differences, to form caring connections with others, to recognize unfairness (and to have language to describe unfairness), and to understand that unfairness hurts. Give them the tools and empowerment to speak up for others and to act against prejudice or discriminatory actions.”
Tweens & Teens
With teens and tweens, they are more in touch with what’s going on in the world thanks to their peers and social media. Because they’re tuned into their surroundings, they’re also more direct with their questions, and so parents can also be more direct with their responses. Parents can start by simply asking them if they’ve seen what’s going on in the news, and how they feel about it.
“Adolescents are often deeply impacted by images in media or other things they see and hear. They want developmentally appropriate ways to move from emotion to action. Teens can understand more complex dialogue, and sometimes that dialogue can get messy,” says Dr. Carson.
“Help them to communicate their feelings effectively, lead them towards research that can help (see resources below), and remember that teens are not just are future–they are our PRESENT. Much like their younger counterparts, they have voices and value and should be given opportunities to help and the tools to be allies.”
“In addition to talking about George Floyd’s death, you can point out how many people have been working to end racism for a very long time. And, how much progress has been made to make the world fairer and more just. How we are all brothers and sisters and that we must always practice the Golden Rule.” Dr. Karp
Keeping the conversation going and modeling activism.
Talk about race.
Talking to children about racism is important, but also talking about race in your home is important early on. It’s perfectly okay to notice skin colour, cultural differences, and diversity among our communities. Parents are role models to their children; what we say is important, and what we do will have a bigger impact.
“If you only talk about race when there is an instance of violence or upheaval, then children start to think that race is somehow associated with weirdness or awkwardness,” says Fore. “I am white-identified and I remember one time walking with my daughter, who is mixed-race, and a young girl said, ‘Is she adopted?’ to us. The mother of this child acted as if her child had physically assaulted us. ‘Stop that! You don’t say that!’, she said as the girl looked on in confusion. Think too of my daughter, who must have thought there was something totally wrong with the way we looked together. When children, both black and white, ask me this question, I answer them with very plain language and certainly with NO judgement. ‘Her Dad is from Nigeria and has very brown skin and I am light skinned and that is why she looks like a mix of both of us.’”
Look for teachable moments.
Expose your child to different cultural opportunities such as books, films, cultural events, festivals, etc., and discuss the experience afterwards. Also, point out the differences casually and positively.
“When you see other people being good allies, point it out. This is not a big lecture, just some casual comments on things you see people doing in books, on TV, or in real life. Don’t make too big a deal about it. This it works best when you casually notice, “Hmmm. Look at that. See how he helped that man get back up. Hmmm. That looks pretty good. I like that.” Dr. Karp
Be the example.
Parents are the greatest heroes to their kids, that’s why it’s important to be the example, and make your activism and anti-racism is visible to them.
“Make sure you speak up about racism and injustice around your child. Share stories about times you felt treated unfairly and stories of when you made sure you treated people with care. Let your kid see your activism and get in on the action…whether that looks like helping you make a protest sign or simply watching you fill out a ballot to vote,” says Dr. Karp.
“Broaden their perspectives by providing opportunities for your kids and teens to interact with a diverse peer group. Invite a candid discussion with your family and BIPOC families about racism,” says Dr. Carson.
Expand your book library.
Expand your book library where the main characters have diverse backgrounds. “All young children should also read books with BIPOC as the main characters when racial uplift or struggle is not the main focus of the text,” says Fore. “Too many times we focus on Messianic narratives about MLK Jr. or Rosa Parks and the entirety of black culture exists during the Civil Rights Movement for so many white children.”
See the book lists below.
Watch a movie together.
There are a lot of books and movies that teach about inclusion, diversity, and racism. Watch them together and allow the movie to prompt the conversation.
“For younger children, you can pause the TV show or movie and ask guiding questions about what they see and what they think the person should do next, what they would do, what is the right thing to do, etc.,” says Dr. Carson.
“With older teens, you can wait until after the movie since their attention spans are much more developed. You can ask them more abstract and complex questions about how it impacted them, about empathy, and about what it inspires them to do.”
See the film lists below.
Involve kids in helping others.
In terms of modeling, it’s never too early to involve children in ways to help others in the world. “There are many ways that children can be involved–volunteering, lobbying, letter writing, fundraising, researching, speaking out,” says Dr. Kim Carson.