By Pam Dewey • mental health, mental health care, racism, race, talking to kids about race, talking to children about racism, explaining racism to kids • May 27, 2021
For families of color, discussing racism isn’t an option. Parents must talk about it to prepare their children for what they will encounter in the world. But for white parents, discussing racism may not have been a family discussion topic before George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
White parents may have brushed aside a conversation about race by telling their children that race shouldn’t matter. But we know that race does matter — particularly in the U.S. The effects of racism can be deadly for Black, Indigenous, Asian Americans and other people of color. Talking about racism is how we move forward and start to eradicate the systematic inequalities it creates.
Here are some ideas to help you begin these conversations with your children.
Check-in with your kids
After watching or hearing the news, your children may have a mix of emotions: worry about getting hurt by the police, fear for your safety, or confusion about why people are protesting. Rather than assuming you know how your child is feeling, ask them questions. You could say, “How did you feel about what you saw on the news?”
If your child is worried, scared or confused, acknowledge those feelings, but also reassure them that you will take care of them and yourself. Try to explain in an age-appropriate way why people are being hurt and why protests are occurring.
Young children need guidance early
Young kids might not understand race, but they do notice differences. Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E Program, states, “The research continues to show that children recognize skin color differences at a very young age. As young as 3 months old, they may look differently at people who look like or don’t look like their primary caregivers.” Talking to your child early can help deflect unconscious bias toward others that forms in the vacuum of silence.
Pick one point and talk about it
Plan what you’re going to say to your kids. Racism is a big topic, and you aren’t going to cover everything from slavery to the civil rights movement to police violence in one conversation with your child. That’s simply too much for them to take in. Pick a particular topic and start there.
Explain it in a way they’ll understand
You can talk about things being unfair or unkind, which is simpler for kids to understand. But just be clear about who is being treated unfairly and why. Young kids especially can’t really read between the lines, so you’ll need to make sure they understand why some behavior is unacceptable, and protesting is a way to express anger about bad behavior. You might say something like, “People are protesting because a police officer hurt a Black person, and that isn’t right, so they’re upset.”
Point out race in everyday conversation
You could start the conversation by noticing race with your kids. Maybe you could say something like, “This is a great movie, but all the characters are white. What do you think about that?” Or when you’re reading a picture book with a mix of races, say, “Who would you want to be friends with?” Don’t get upset if your child doesn’t say what you want to hear. You’re just trying to figure out what ideas they already have about race and open a dialogue. Help your child understand how we should treat and feel about other races.
Let them ask questions, and do your best to answer
Kids will likely have a lot of questions. Talking about race and racism isn’t easy, and you may find your child’s questions difficult to answer. The Child Mind Institute recommends that if you feel uncomfortable, you should be honest about it. The organization states, “It’s also a chance to demonstrate that this isn’t about being right or being perfect — it’s about doing your best to understand a complex situation and fight injustice.” This teaches your child it’s okay to talk about scary things and learn from your mistakes.
It’s also okay to admit what you don’t know. If your child asks a question that you’re unsure about, turn it into a learning opportunity. You can say, “I’m not sure about the answer. Let’s look for it together.” The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has compiled helpful resources that explore race and mental health and discussing race and racism. Fraser has also created anti-racism resources for parents, including a list of children’s books dealing with race and racism.
Understand this is an ongoing conversation
Racism is a big topic, and unfortunately, there will likely be incidents that trigger further conversation. Let your child know that they should come to you whenever they have a question or concern, and that there are no wrong questions. Being curious and wanting to learn is a good thing, and you want to support that behavior. It’s also a good idea to check in with them periodically.
Talking with your children about racism is difficult. But having these conversations is important, so you can teach them the right way to treat people of other races and help them understand we must work together to create an anti-racist society.