Talking about Racism with Our Kids

August 15, 2017
multi-ethnic children playing together

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For the past few years, our media has covered racism and racists incidents more heavily.  As much as we want to protect and shelter our children from this, it is becoming part of their reality. In wake of the recent events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, WILL Education understands that talking about racism with your children may be uncomfortable.

Do you think your children are too young to talk about racism or understand what is going on? Experts would say that they are never too young to have dialogue about race and racism.  Today’s Parent spoke with Rachel Berman, graduate program director of the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and a researcher on a project called, Can We Talk About Race? Confronting Colour-Blindness in Early Childhood Settings. “Children need adults to help them develop respect for and acceptance of others,” she says. “Not talking about race and racism sends a message to children that this is a taboo topic, no matter what their age.” What’s more, she adds, kids who may be targets of racism may need help negotiating their feelings and figuring out how to respond to what they’re experiencing.”

With that being said, we understand that this conversation will be very different based on the age and maturity level of your children. Here are some tips to help guide that discussion with your children.

Early Childhood
When a baby is born, they have no feelings or opinions about people or their environment.  These are all learned behaviors. One thing we can do is to create an environment where they can learn about differences and similarities with people of various identities. Daniel Tiger songs are a great way to learn to appreciate our friends for who they are. The School Library Journal, shares a list of books that displays the different world around us for children under age five.

As our little ones grow into the pre-school age, they will begin to make statements or ask questions about the differences they notice among people. It is important to not shun or scold them for their comments or questions, but rather engage them in dialogue about what they noticed.  For example, if a young child points out that someone’s skin is darker than theirs is, use that as a springboard to have a conversation.  Acknowledge their statement and possibly say something to the effect of, “Why, yes, their skin is darker than yours.  If I hold my arm next to yours, your skin is darker/lighter than mine.” This helps them see and understand that even if we are family, we are all different in our own ways. This can also lead to a discussion about celebrating the many shades of people across America or around the world.

School-aged Kids
For most kids, when they start school is when they are first exposed to people who may look different than them. It is also at this age, that they start to pay closer attention to TV and movies, which influence our society greatly. Parents can take this time to ask probing questions about what their kids are seeing. Possible questions could be, “Are there certain groups of people who never get to be the hero in comic books and movies?” or “Who gets to be pretty?” These types of questions will get them thinking about what they see, and what they do not see.

This is the age to start helping our children understand that our society does not see everyone as the same. In order to begin this discussion, parents have to be honest with their children and tell them that some people are treated unfairly because of their different identities. It is important to use real-life stories and examples of how people advocated for change to help oppressed people. Of course, we have the familiar stories of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but there are so many more stories that can be shared. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton story highlights the work she did alongside Susan B. Anthony, co-founding the National Woman Suffrage Association, an organization dedicated to obtaining equal rights for women. By watching this short video, students can explore the need for social change and the challenges that come with it.

Lastly, it is important that we help our kids realize that racism and prejudice are not just things from the past. When talking about current events, it is important to tell them the truth but give them age-appropriate information. Keep in mind, they may not want to know all of the information related to a story out of fear.

Middle School-High School Kids

Older kids often will say that they want us to “keep it real.” What exactly does that mean?  They want us to tell them the truth. They want the facts, and the details. They also want to know how things will affect them and their peers. It is at this age where parents can begin to have more in-depth conversations about racism and prejudices. This is also the age where you can talk to them about becoming an Advocate and an Ally. An Ally is a person of a dominant or privileged identity who supports and seeks to further the causes of those who lack such privilege. An Advocate is a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. At this age you can discuss what is really happening to oppressed people and what we can do with our positionality (who we are, how we see and navigate this world, based on our identities) to help support them or change the circumstances.

Teens spend a lot of time online and on social media, which increases their risk of gathering incorrect facts. Make sure they understand the difference between facts and fake news stories or someone’s opinions. PBS has an excellent documentary, America After Ferguson: Audience Voices. During this town hall-style meeting, audience members express their thoughts on racism in America. Clips like this provide a glimpse at various perspectives and how one incident affects many.

As parents, we all have a different knowledge base and comfort level when talking about racism, prejudice, and injustices. The important thing is that we do not avoid these conversations with our kids and take these issues head-on, if we want to help change the world we live in.