Conversations about race and racism can be difficult for many parents. It is common for parents to avoid talking to children about race. As a parent, it is possible you have thought, “I’ll wait until they are older,” “They’re too young to understand,” or “If I mention the topic of race and racism, won’t that create problems?”
Research studies show that children start recognizing human faces between one to three months of age. By three months, infants have developed a preference for familiar and same-race faces. By nine months of age, babies can categorize faces by race. Toddlers as young as three years old can cognitively make negative associations about people from diverse groups. Around age four, children have been observed making race-based assumptions about wealth and education.
Skin color is a fixed biological feature, much like height and eye-color. Would you say to your child, “I didn’t notice their hair color?” No matter how well-intended, it is counterproductive to avoid conversations with kids about race and racism. If we say we do not see race, we merely heighten the tension around the important discussion of the topic. Remaining naïve to racial identity and avoiding constructive conversation about race and racism leaves children open to mixed messages, confusion, and misinterpretation.
Some children whose parents avoid discussing race often assume that their parents hold negative associations about different racial groups. Talking about race and racism with kids allows the topic to steer away from taboo territory. If we want to reduce the stigma around discussions of race and racism, we need to be able to talk about it openly and actively learn about it with our children.
“Reading educational materials with your child may be a good start for caregivers who may not know how to approach the topic of race and racism,” says Dr. Sharon Huff, Clinician at Diversus Health. “I suggest starting with several books that I have used in treatment and for educational purposes. These are materials that I share with adults and kids who want to understand what racism is and how it effects people of color on a daily basis.”
Educational Materials on Race & Racism
Hey Black Child by Useni Eugene Perkins (A poem for young children)
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles (A picture book)
All Different Now by Angela Johnson (A story about Juneteenth)
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (for older children)
Ludie’s Song by Dirlie Herlichy (for older children)
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (for older children)
The Talk (A video about Black parents sharing how they teach their children what to do when approached by police)
Black Parents Explain How to Deal with the Police (A video for children and adults to understand how Black children and Black adults feel)
Talking About Race & Racism with Children
There is more than one way to approach the topic of race and racism with children. Regardless of background or experience, all parents need to be able to speak about this topic. The first step to discussing race with your kids is to become comfortable discussing it yourself. Educate yourself using online resources, reading books, researching discussion forums, watching documentaries, talking with other adults, and seeking out information that allows you to familiarize yourself with discussion of race and racism. If you intend to have a formal conversation with your child about this topic, try to anticipate questions they may ask and think about your responses.
“It is important to educate, not lecture or blame,” says Dr. Huff. “People should talk about and share their fears and distorted beliefs about race and racism in America.”
Helping children to take a stand against racial injustice starts at home. One way to introduce race to young children is to identify, acknowledge, and celebrate differences in a non-judgmental approach. Children should learn that we all have differences and similarities and that that is okay.
As a parent, you can talk to your children about race and racism through the power of storytelling. Offer your child books, magazines, and pictures that feature multiracial and multicultural people. Educating children on the topic of race and racism using these methods has demonstrated improved problem-solving skills, enhanced behavior in school, and a greater ability to retain facts and information. Reading books and diving into materials that represent Black and African American families in everyday life can be racially affirming and can help support a positive racial identity.
Ultimately, be an advocate. Stand up to racism. Children are experts at observing the differences between what adults say and how they act. If you witness racially offensive actions in your child, acknowledge the behavior and correct them. By intervening or saying something in the moment, you will signal to your child that you do not accept that type of language or behavior. You can help your children by promoting developmentally age-appropriate advocacy of race inclusion, which can range from writing letters to legislators to making posters with inclusive messages.
If your child hears someone make a racially offensive remark, whether it is a friend or a relative, you can tell them directly, “I don’t want that type of language around my children.” Afterwards, talk to your child and ask them how they feel about what they heard or witnessed. This will empower your kids to speak up and use their voice in appropriate ways.
The world is constantly evolving and can be a scary place. While we cannot and should not shelter our children from the racial events and interactions that they encounter, it is important to be realistic about the problems of race and racism and do what we can to foster hope. Empower kids with hope for a more just world by talking about the stigmas and answering questions to help them understand.
*If you or someone you love needs help communicating with children, request an appointment with one of our professional mental health providers at Diversus Health today. If you need immediate assistance, call our crisis hotline at 844-493-8255, or text ‘TALK’ to 38255.