How (and Why) to Talk to Kids About Race

How And Why To Talk To Kids About Race Header
Garica Sanford, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
By Garica Sanford, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist Nov 13, 2017

One piece of advice I often give parents is: you want your voice in the room. Whether we’re talking about a story in the news, an issue at school, or a big topic like race… you want your voice in the room. Children are constantly learning and making meaning of their world, whether it is coming from you or sources such as peers, social media or the television. Given this, it is best that the larger portion of the information they take in comes from you.  

Race is a topic that many parents shy away from. Some worry that it will make others uncomfortable, or they themselves are uncomfortable talking about the subject. Others may think that if they do not bring attention to it, it will be a non-issue. For most parents, they are unsure how to talk about race with kids so they avoid it altogether. However, parents must realize that when nothing is said about race, a lot is actually being communicated.  

When we don’t talk to children about race, we miss opportunities to help them understand the unique ethnic and cultural differences that exist and enrich our world.  The reality is kids notice race much earlier than most people realize. In fact, research has suggested children as young as 6 months old begin to notice differences in people’s skin tones, and gaze longer at unfamiliar faces of those of a different race than those who look racially similar. That’s right, as early as 6 months old! Additionally, it is believed that children begin to develop biases connected to race as early as 3 years old.

Given that observable differences, such as skin complexion, are the first way kids will begin to notice racial and ethnic differences, I think the best time to begin to have discussions is at the same time parents begin to teach their children about different colors. For most parents, this is pretty early and occurs even before kids fully develop language or start school. The integration of racial differences can be an extension of how you normally teach kids about colors when reading books or out at the park (red, like the flowers at the park; blue, like the sky; navy blue, like our car; brown, like your skin; peach, like your friend Lily’s skin; black, like Isaac’s hair; green, like the grass).

When kids start to verbalize their awareness of differences on their own, I encourage parents to lean in to their questions rather than shut down the conversation. As a person of color, sometimes kids will ask their parents questions about my skin color or my curly hair within my earshot. I often hear parents hush the child, perhaps in an effort to protect me, or perhaps embarrassed that the child has verbalized something they should not have said. If the parent doesn’t revisit the conversation later, the child may get the message that being curious about others is wrong or shouldn’t be discussed. For this child, race, skin color or differences between people become a taboo subject, and the child is left to form his/her opinions perhaps based solely on stereotypes or what he/she sees in the media. Instead, parents can validate curiosity by saying something like, “Yes, she has lots of curls, and you have straight hair.” Parents could then continue the conversation at home discussing similarities and differences between family members’ hair color and texture. The same can be done when children notice a person of a different race or ethnicity.

Many parents feel that pointing out differences in people’s race or other aspects of their cultural identities may lead a child to over focus on this and under focus on similarities we all share as human beings. This could not be further from the truth. Remember, research has identified that before infants can walk or talk, they notice differences about how people look. Therefore, by intentionally integrating it into conversations with children, we help them to make the right meaning about these differences.

Conversations about race will need to happen frequently and change as children grow.  As kids get older, the complexity of race can be explored further. Parents can begin to have discussions around race in relation to a child’s social group or school demographics. It is important that parents ask with curiosity and not with criticism. A parent can ask a child about who hangs out together at lunch, whether they have friends of different races, and about the racial tone of the school. It is also important that as children get older, the conversation should not only include recognition and value of cultural differences but also teach children about discrimination, prejudice, racism and racial inequity. It is important for children to have an understanding that there are people and institutions that treat people unfairly based solely on the color of their skin and/or their ethnic identity.

The best way to have conversations about race is to do it naturally using examples that children see in their environment. Ideally, a child will personally know people of different races and cultures, and parents can talk about this topic using real-life examples. However, that’s not always the case. Some families do not live in diverse communities or only know people from one or two ethnic groups. I encourage all parents to intentionally explore opportunities to give kids exposure to people of different cultural backgrounds. This can be done by visiting cultural centers and museums,  joining a recreation center in a different neighborhood, grocery shopping at a different store, or signing up for a summer camp in a different part of the city. Nevertheless, for some people, direct access to diversity may be challenging, particularly in some parts of the country where neighborhoods tend to be more racially divided, and in less urban settings. In this case, parents may need to rely on examples from books or other media. Listed below are some of my favorite books about this topic.

Often, parents of children of color talk about race earlier than parents of White children. In many cases, this is to prepare their children for the inevitable race-related experiences they will have. These conversations may focus on safety and how to interact with authority figures, such as police offers, given the existence of racial inequities within many of our systems. While awareness of these realities is critical, it also important for parents to be mindful to not communicate sweeping generalizations about groups of people, such as police. It’s valuable for children of color to understand that while some individuals may hold racial prejudices and biases, there are also a lot of people working as allies with communities of color to improve racial equity.

Similarly, White children who do not have exposure to diverse populations may form opinions of different cultures based on limited, and often misleading, information. Given this, it is important that parents dialogue about how their children see and make meaning of experiences and situations. Do they understand why the Arab woman wears a hijab? What meaning do they attach to the fact that all but one of the U.S. presidents have been White men? Have they ever witnessed a person of color be treated differently at school or other places, and if so, what do they think about what happened? Have they ever treated a person of color differently, and if so, what led to this decision? While for some parents these may be hard or uncomfortable questions, they create a space where talking about race and other difficult topics become less taboo, and communicate to children you are open to dialoguing about the “tough stuff.”   

In addition to providing information to children about race and engaging to understand how they make meaning of the world around them, parents can support children to take action. Empower children to identify ways they can appropriately stand up when they observe acts of discrimination. Expose them to role models who are actively seeking to increase racial equity in their community.

If while reading this post, you realize you have never or only rarely talked about race with your children, it’s not too late. It’s never too late to talk to kids about subjects that matter. Remember, when it comes down to it – you want your voice in the room. Race is one of the most complex subjects that children of all backgrounds will need to process through in their lifetime. And as they do, positive messages from trusted adults will carry a lot of weight.

Books:

Skin Again by Bell Hooks, Chris Raschka (Illustrator) 

Shades of people by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M.Kelly 

All the Colors we are: the story of how we get our skin color by Katie Kissinger

The Skin I’m In by Pat Thomas 

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña 

This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World by Matt Lamothe

Racism (Let’s Talk About) By Bruce Sanders 

©2017 Momentous Institute

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