Talking to Children about Racism
As parents, we are called to have difficult conversations with our children at various points in their lives. Most likely, you’ve already talked with your children about the pandemic, about the coronavirus, and about why our lives feel so different right now. We all knew that needed to happen. It wasn’t easy to have those talks because pandemics are scary stuff, but you did it and I’m sure you did a fine job.
And so now, I challenge you to have yet another difficult conversation, but this time we don’t get to end the talk with “we’re all in this together”. One look at the nightly news shows you that we are not all in this together, but we can be. . .only if we start teaching our children how to fight hate. So I want to give you a place to start. I hope that at the very least you will express these things to your children through your words and actions:
- People are inherently different.
- Those differences that we are born with make us incredibly special.
- Not a single one of those differences makes any person less valuable than another.
Probably earlier on in my life, that’s where my conversation would have ended. I had the “color-blind” mindset that differences shouldn’t matter. I still believe that back then I treated every person I met with the same respect and kindness, but now I know that wasn’t enough. You see, when I thought that differences didn’t matter, what that really meant was that differences didn’t matter for me (a Caucasian female). What I learned along the way is that differences actually matter a lot.
I was fortunate enough to work in a predominantly African-American school, and over my years there I saw how Black students were treated differently by the world, how their experiences in the world were completely unique from mine, how the news media would seemingly show up minutes after any incident that would reflect negatively on the school, and how, as a school, they had to work harder to establish a reputation for excellence. Those differences that I had thought were unimportant were, in fact, critically important to my Black students because the color of their skin changed the way they were treated in the world.
And so I’m asking that we all take the conversation a bit deeper than just the three main ideas above. Our children, no matter their race, need to understand what’s going on in our world in a developmentally appropriate way. Below are some general ideas, because every family is different and every child’s needs are different. I’ve also included a resource list that I hope can guide you as you work to have difficult and necessary conversations. I hope that instead of teaching our children to be blind to differences, we can teach them to appreciate differences, to be compassionate to others, and to advocate for the change that’s necessary in our world.
For kids under age 6:
The best thing you can do for our youngest children is to give them a life that includes people of different races and cultures. If your neighborhood or community doesn’t lend itself easily to this, there are so many great books for children that will help you introduce them to the important differences in people as well as some historical accounts of racism that are written in terms young children can comprehend. See the resources below for some great examples.
For kids older than age 6:
At this age, kids really begin to understand the concept of fairness. So it would make sense to them to hear something like: Not everyone believes that differences are good. In fact, some people purposefully treat others unfairly because of the color of their skin, and that is called racism. At this point you could read a children’s book about historical events involving racism.
For kids older than age 9:
In addition to the things above, at this age, children likely have been exposed to at least bits and pieces of the news through technology or their peers. Ask them what they’ve seen or heard. You will likely need to correct any wrong impressions that they have or incorrect ideas they’ve pieced together.
For tweens and teens:
In addition to the things above, as children begin to establish their own identities, it becomes very important to talk to your children about what they believe and to challenge any generalizations or stereotypes they might have. Helping your child become a compassionate, respectful human being is one of our greatest tasks as parents.
Some Resources to Consider:
Articles to Read:
Videos to watch and discuss with your kids:
I love My Hair 1:58
The Sneetches - Dr Seuss 12:10
Recycling bin analogy – 1:45