Starting conversations about race and racism with children can be challenging for parents and caregivers. Nonetheless, it's an essential discussion that can promote understanding, healing, affirmation, empathy, and inclusiveness from an early age. This guide offers strategies for parents and caregivers to effectively navigate these discussions. Although the strategies are applicable to all, we've included specific sections for white parents and parents of color to address unique considerations.
General Strategies for All Parents:
Children begin to notice racial differences early and quickly and learn to categorize people based on attributes like race, gender, and language. Research shows that by 3 months, infants prefer people of their own race. By 6 months, they show different associations with their own race versus others, for example, associating own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music. Around 6 to 8 months, infants start relying on adults of their own race for learning when uncertainty is present. By the age of 4, kids may already exhibit signs of racial bias.
It’s essential to start discussing race and racial differences early, emphasizing the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Engaging in age-appropriate discussions about race and ensuring that children understand the value of diversity from a young age, can lay a strong foundation for more complex conversations as they grow older.
Fostering an Environment of Curiosity and Open Dialogue
Encourage children to be inquisitive and observant about race, welcoming their questions and observations. Promote honest and open discussions about race and answer childrens’ questions. Utilize everyday scenarios, media content, and current events as starting points for discussions about race and racism. Remember, you don’t need to have all the answers; exploring and learning together is equally valuable. Creating a trusted space for dialogue can foster a deeper understanding and curiosity. Open conversations can demystify misconceptions and stereotypes and help children develop a respectful awareness of racial and cultural differences.
Modeling Through Action
Children are astute observers and often learn by observation. Your actions, such as your willingness to speak up and challenge racism when you encounter it, the diversity within your social circles or your participation in diverse cultural activities, speak louder than words. If racial and cultural diversity is lacking in their immediate environment, seek out extracurricular activities that expose them to varied cultures and perspectives. By modeling respectful and open-minded behavior, you are setting a positive example for kids to follow.
Confronting and Acknowledging Personal Biases
It’s crucial to recognize and address our own biases to prevent unconsciously passing them onto our children. By openly discussing your biases and the steps you’re taking to address them, you model a path of continuous personal growth and self-awareness for your child.
Educational Materials and Storytelling
In this journey of fostering a healthy understanding of race and racism, books that affirm the identities of all children are indispensable. These books serve as mirrors, reflecting the experiences of children from diverse backgrounds, and windows, providing insights into the experiences of others. They not only validate children’s experiences and identities, but also foster empathy, understanding, and respect for those with different experiences and identities. As such, it is vital for caregivers to be intentional about including and uplifting diverse and identity-affirming books, toys, and educational resources in kids’ environment to broaden their understanding and appreciation for different races and cultures. If you’re looking for some kid-affirming books to initiate conversations about race and racism, check out the ColorPop Let’s Talk About Race bundle.
Caregivers can talk to children about race and racism through storytelling and interactive play, where children can learn to appreciate the richness of a diverse world. Resources that reflect a variety of cultural experiences can help children to debunk stereotypes through developing a more well-rounded understanding of the world around them.
Celebrating Your Cultural Heritage
Engage children in conversations about your family’s cultural, ethnic, and racial histories and experiences, both the triumphs and the tribulations. Sharing stories of challenges and joy from your family’s past can instill a sense of pride and understanding in your child.
Highlighting Stories of Resistance
Every narrative of racial oppression also harbors stories of resistance and resilience. Ensure that the stories you share with children also spotlight those who have fought against racial injustice, including women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and young people, to provide a comprehensive view of historical and ongoing struggles.
Encouraging Active Participation
Guide children towards understanding their potential role in being agents of change. Connect your discussions about race and racism to tangible actions that can be taken to foster change, ensuring they understand that they too can make a difference. Share instances where young people have been instrumental in bringing about change.
Committing to Ongoing Conversations
Discussing race is not a one-time conversation, but a continuous dialogue that should evolve over time. Ensure that discussions about race and racism become a normal aspect of your communication, revisiting and expanding upon topics as your child grows and their understanding deepens.
For Parents of Color:
Affirm your child’s racial and cultural identity. Encouraging a sense of pride and understanding about their heritage can build a strong sense of self. Celebrate your family’s unique traditions and share the rich histories and contributions of your cultural heritage.
Have honest discussions about race and racism, including personal experiences, in a way that is age-appropriate. This will prepare kids for potential challenges they may face, while also teaching them to stand up against injustice. Honest conversations about our racialized experiences can also promote healing for children and parents alike.
Engage with your community and expose children to positive role models within your own and other racial and ethnic groups. This can provide a broader perspective and a supportive environment, helping to foster a sense of belonging and understanding.
For White Parents:
Avoid claiming not to see color. Instead, acknowledge and celebrate racial differences, and explain that different doesn’t mean inferior. Being colorblind can inadvertently dismiss the unique experiences and challenges faced by people of color. Encourage white children to see and name their white racial identity.
It's okay to make mistakes while discussing race. What's important is to learn from these mistakes, and to continue having these crucial conversations. Learning and growing from mistakes can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of racial dynamics. When mistakes are made, it is crucial to focus on the impact your actions had on others, not your intentions.
Before discussing race with your children, educate yourself about racial issues, biases, and privileges. Use books, documentaries, and other resources to build a solid understanding. Being well-informed and continually growing your racial literacy can provide a sound basis for answering your child’s questions and addressing their concerns.
Talking about race and racism with children is an ongoing process that requires patience, honesty, and a willingness to learn and grow together. By engaging in honest, open, and continuous dialogues, and by providing kids with resources that affirm and broaden their understanding of diverse identities, adults can help pave the way towards fostering a future generation that champions diversity, racial equity, and inclusion.
SourcesPsychology Today: How to Talk to Your Kids About Race and Racism
EmbraceRace: 10 tips for teaching and talking to kids about race
American SPCC: 10 Tips for Teaching and Talking to Kids About Race
Hilliard, L. J., Attaya, M. K., & Millben, M. (2021). Talking to Children About Race, Gender, and Social Issues: Review and Recommendations. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(2), 167-174. https://doi.org/10.1177/23727322211033876
Rebekah Gienapp: How to talk to kids about race: a guide for white parents
HuffPost: How White Parents Can Talk About Race With Their Children
NPR: NPR: Talking Race with Children
Parenting Science: 6 mistakes that white parents make about race
Yale: It’s never too early to talk with children about race
ORPARC: Talking About Race
NBC New York: How to Talk to Kids About Race and Racism
NPR: NPR:'I See These Conversations As Protective': Talking With Kids About Race