How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism
Mama lions are about raising kind humans, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
Racism is a painful topic. Sometimes it’s painful because you or your family have suffered by it. Sometimes it’s painful to face our own biases or our silence. Sometimes it’s just hard to know what to say, and when to say it.
If recent events have taught us anything, though, it has to be this: We need to normalize conversations about race with our kids.
The truth is, our kids are developing their own biases, forming their own ideas, and coming to their own conclusions about race and racism. They’re hearing and seeing ideas, attitudes, and opinions from a myriad of other sources. They need to hear from us.
Don’t stay silent.
Whatever you do, determine to say something. Older children are being exposed to biases, and sometimes outright racism, online and at school, but even younger children are developing ideas and biases based on skin color and other ethnic features. By nine months old, babies demonstrate a preference for people who speak the language they are used to hearing, and have an easier time recognizing faces that look like their own.
Avoiding the topic of race, ethnic diversity, and racism does not keep children blissfully ignorant. And our silence, as parents, is loud.
It is very important to talk to our kids about systemic and structural racism not only for educational purposes but for cultural awareness. So whether it’s a black family having “the talk” with their 16 year old son about safety planning (engagement etiquette—in case he’s stopped by the police on his way home from school), or a mixed race or white family discussing allyship and effective ways to ... end racism, there are many reasons to dialogue with our kids at an early age.— Shericka Cunningham, MA, MFT (@Shericka_MFT), Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern
It makes sense that, if children learn in their first year to prefer people who look and sound like the ones they’re used to, that those children who are exposed to greater diversity tend to be more accepting of diverse people. (Those studies have also been done.)
You can’t pack up and move your family just to get into a more ethnically diverse neighborhood, but you can look for opportunities to expose your kids to age-appropriate cultural diversity and celebrations.
If you’re in or near a big city, there are probably lots of opportunities you’ve never noticed before. Take your family to holiday festivals in ethnic neighborhoods, for example, like a Lunar New Year celebration. You could also plan a family field trip to an African American art or history museum.
There are also countless ways to bring more diversity into your home:
Be open, honest, and safe.
This will look different for every family, especially depending on how old your kids are, but it’s important for all of our kids. Similar to talking to our kids about COVID-19, it’s important to be frank with them, because they really do see through you.
Share age-appropriate information in age-appropriate language (more on that below), but don’t try to hide the issues from them. Don’t make false promises or inflate one side of a story, and admit when you don’t have an answer.
Most importantly, don’t shut them down. Create a safe space between you, so your kids know that it’s okay to ask questions and talk about big topics.
Ask questions and listen.
The questions will change as they grow, of course, but every kid needs a parent’s help to create room for processing big ideas and difficult concepts.
With younger kids, it can be as simple as talking about a story or about something that happened on the playground. “Why do you think he said that? How would that make you feel? Is that a good way to react? What should she have done instead? What would you do if … ?” etc.
If your kids are older, you can start by asking what they know about the current situation and what they think about it. Have they seen or experienced racism at school? Online? How will they respond when they do?
Be the example.
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ― James Baldwin
The very best conversations fall flat if we don’t live them out ourselves. It’s as true with toddlers as it is with teenagers. Because talking to both is sometimes like talking to a brick wall, but they will both surprise you by unconsciously mimicking your speech or behavior months later.
So start by asking yourself if you’ve been living up to everything you want to talk to your kids about, and what you can do to start doing even more.
Modeled behaviors—good or bad—starts in the home. The behaviors we demonstrate in front of our children will determine how they will adapt, navigate, and interact with people from all walks of life. — Cunningham
Watch for teachable moments.
We do need to be intentional about creating space, and setting aside time, and organizing resources, but that doesn’t have to be every conversation we have with our kids about race and racism. Be conscious of teachable moments during your day.
We all encounter people of different shapes, colors, sizes, and sexual orientation on a daily basis. As appropriate, you can use an encounter with someone of a different race and simply say, for example, “Yes son, we look different than they do, but that’s simply because we are all made different in our own unique and special way …”
— Vanessa Hernandez (@vanessasfamilylab), Family Therapist
Train them in anti-racism.
Non-BIPOC parents, we need to teach our children how to be allies, and it starts young. Helping them understand how to treat people is the first step, but it can’t stop there. We need to be helping them understand why and how to defend and support people who don’t look like us.
The key element in racism is the ability to objectify and dehumanize a specific ethnic group, which—in the mind of the racist—makes hate and oppression justifiable: because their victims are not seen, or treated, as people. When talking to our children about racism, we need to teach them that social justice, equality, and basic human rights should not be luxuries for some, but a requirement for all!— Tristan A. Marsh (@marshmentalhealth),Therapist
If your kids are toddlers
We’ve seen that it starts young, but most professionals agree that raising kind toddlers and very young children is mostly about laying a good foundation. They might not have the capacity, yet, for a serious conversation about race and bias, but they are forming biases of their own.
Be sure to diversify their books, media, and—as much as possible—social circles.
It’s also appropriate to address a racially charged incident that they witness or experience. Ask what they think about the situation and remind them about appropriate behavior cues they’re already learning, such as using kind words.
If your kids are elementary-aged
You can have more meaningful conversations with elementary-aged children, but be direct and concise.
Starting around the age of five or six, kids really start to understand—and cling to—the concept of fairness. If you have kids this age, you know: Anything they don’t like is, “not fair.” (My five-year-old is working through a speech delay, but “fair” is one of the few words he both knows and wields with deadly accuracy.) That means that fairness is a great way to talk with your kids about racism.
There are also lots of opportunities to start supplementing what they’re learning at school with stories of BIPOC. This might be a good time to introduce them to Ruby Bridges, and talk about what her experience might have been like.
If your kids are teenagers
Middle school and high school kids are ready for dialogue, and—especially as they join the ranks of upperclassmen and start looking to their futures—they are cementing many of their ideas about the world and their role in it.
They’re also definitely aware of big social movements, experiencing racially charged comments or behavior, and developing their own ideas about it all.
An easy ice breaker is events in the news. Ask what they’ve heard, what kids at school are saying, what they think—and listen. If you have teenagers, you know very well that you can no longer tell them what to think (if you ever could).
Dialogue, share your opinion, and listen to theirs. Call out biased speech and behavior, but be ready to allow them to do the same.
Additionally, encourage and support any inclination they have toward what your family considers appropriate activism or social justice initiatives. Many teenagers want to act on their convictions, and we should definitely be nurturing those inclinations.
Some free resources to help you:
It’s never too early or too late
It’s never too early to start introducing and celebrating diversity with your kids. Our kids are learning about race and racism from their experiences (or their lack of experiences), their media, their friends, etc. They need to learn about it from us most of all.
If your kids are older and you’ve never, ever talked about it—it’s not too late. Ask what they think about recent events, and open the door to a safe, honest, and ongoing conversation.