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How to Talk With Your Kids About Racism? Early and Often
Here are five ways for parents to prepare themselves for conversations about racism to help children become anti-racist.
By Nzinga Harrison, MD, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer, Eleanor Health
As the national conversation took a long overdue turn to racism and police brutality over the past month, many parents are wondering how they can bring that dialogue into their own homes to talk about racism with their kids.
No parent wants their children to grow up to be racist. But it takes work. It’s a lot different than teaching them to be color-blind, which is actually a dangerous concept. By attempting not to see color, we refuse to recognize that people are different and have different experiences. Our goal as parents should be to raise a child who is curious and excited about having friends who do not look like them.
To create a world where this diversity can flourish, it’s not enough simply to be not racist. Children need to learn how to be anti-racist. Building from the words of writer Ijeoma Oluo, anti-racist kids are children who don’t have to pretend to be free of racism but make the commitment to fight racism wherever they see it, including when they see it in themselves.
Whether your family has members who are White, Black or other persons of color, here are some tips for starting and sustaining these critical conversations with your children.
Research shows that babies start to develop a race preference for faces that are the same race as their caregivers by six months old. This doesn’t mean people are born to be racist – it’s just the way the brain works.
But this research does tell us that if we want our kids to develop a sense of security around other races, we have to help them see the faces of other races in a positive and nurturing way.
From infancy, children should be exposed to all kinds of diversity through books, TV shows, music, play dates and even the friends that parents socialize with, who hopefully don’t all look and sound like them. Kids are extensions of ourselves, soaking up unspoken lessons. Even before kids have developed language, they can connect the tone in our voices when we speak about people of different races and ethnicities to our beliefs about those people.
When children do develop language, be ready for the conversation. There are many great resources out there, like these from the Children’s Alliance, that can serve as a guide to talking about racism for parents and caregivers. Read this guide, make yourself an outline and practice what you’re going to say before the subject comes up – and it will.
Ask them their opinion
Many parents tend to open a conversation with a statement like, “Let me tell you something.” I recommend a different approach: ask your children to share their views. For children 9 and up, who are on social media and watch TV, you can ask them for their thoughts and feelings about the protests and events like the killing of George Floyd.
For younger children between 5 and 8 years old, you can start by talking about how people are different and how we value different people. A book on diversity that shows people of different backgrounds is helpful here. Even better, ask your children to think about a friend from school who is of a different race or ethnicity. Ask them if they’ve noticed if this friend has ever been treated differently. Why do they think this is? How do you think this makes this friend feel? Is this fair?
The goal of these questions is to build empathy for other people, and in turn, this empathy drives the motivation to become anti-racist and to act.
Some people might think that racism is not a topic for 5-year-olds. I’d say you’d be surprised how much kids understand at this age. And remember how important it is to start these conversations early in life.
The critical point is to be age-appropriate. When you discuss that the history of this country includes painful events for Black people, like slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism, vary how much detail you give depending on your child’s age.
The same goes with current events. I do not recommend showing your 7-year-old the video of George Floyd taking his last breath with the police officer’s knee on his neck. But I do recommend telling this same child that the police officer kneeled on this Black man’s neck and killed him – and that police brutality happens three times more often to Black men than people of other races. And once you’ve told them that, ask them to think about a friend who may be experiencing racism to help them build empathy.
Show them the way
Before you start talking to your kids about anti-racism, make sure you’re doing something about it or planning to do something about it. Kids will see your behaviors and hopefully ask what they can do, too.
That’s when you give your kids the tools and resources to act. This could be providing them with age-appropriate books or with strategies that can help them act in small ways. Maybe that’s speaking up for a friend at school or talking to a teacher. The important thing is that every single day, you can do something to be an anti-racist.
For families with Black children, who will experience discrimination and systemic racism in very personal ways, this preparation becomes even more important. Help these children understand how to safely get out of racially-charged situations and then make sure they know they have the full support of their families and communities behind them.
And for every family, know that all kids will experience racism either firsthand or secondhand. It’s our responsibility as parents to prepare them for these experiences. A single conversation won’t cut it. It’s only by consistently talking about racism – and acting to end it – long after this moment has passed that we can hope to make the changes we all need.
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey members have access to a large network of mental health providers, including Eleanor Health, for in-person or virtual visits. Find a doctor or therapist here.