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Talking to your kids about race and racism

How To Talk To Your Kids About Racism

a sensitive but necessary conversation

Childhood is usually a blissful time, and you may feel hesitant to bring up the realities of topics such as racism and injustice with your kids. But experts say when we’re proactive about those subjects, we can help promote a society where true equality is more likely to exist.

Here are some tips on how to talk to your child—whether they’re a toddler or preparing to head off to college—about race and prejudice.

Preschoolers (Ages 2–5)

Your little one has really started taking notice of the world around them. During this stage of exploration and curiosity, it’s inevitable that they’ll start asking you more and more “why” and “how” questions. And sometimes those questions focus on other people who may be visibly different than them. How can you handle that situation?

“Be honest,” recommends Dana Williams, author of Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice. “Don’t encourage children not to ‘see’ color or tell children we are all the same. Rather, discuss differences openly.” It helps to choose toys, picture books and entertainment that feature diverse characters.

It’s important to acknowledge your little one’s questions about differences among people, even if it makes you uncomfortable. You can keep answers simple for this age group. If you get a skin color question, you could say something like, “Everyone’s skin is different, just like people have different color eyes or hair. But we’re alike in other ways.”

In light of current events, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you check in with children and let little ones know what you are doing to keep the family safe.

As your child continues on to elementary school, you can start introducing more complex topics. The AAP reminds moms and dads that they know their children—and what information the kids can handle—best. 

Elementary to Preteens (Ages 6–12)

These years mark a time for transition and change in your child’s life. As their world broadens, their exposure to prejudice, racism and hate speech will likely increase. It’s crucial to open up to your child about these topics before they’re faced with potential conflicts. 

On top of acknowledging and celebrating differences across races and cultures, now’s the time to acknowledge historical and current mistreatment of these differences. “Be honest about instances, historical and current, when people have been mistreated because of their differences,” explains Williams. 

School-age children respond well to practical examples. You may find teachable moments in TV shows and movies as well as in real life. That’s because the AAP notes that pre-teens may have already experienced mistreatment or racism or have been witness to it.

Don’t be afraid to ask them what they’ve seen and how they’re feeling. 

And if you notice intolerance or bias in your child, challenge them. Williams suggests that ignoring them or issuing a basic command like “Don’t say that!” won’t address the root issue. Ask them what prompted their comment or action. Then you can explain to your child why what they said is unacceptable and a form of prejudice.

We need to remind them that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.

The Teen Years (Ages 13–17)

It’s safe to assume your teenager knows about racism and its injustices. But it’s still important to continue the conversation. 

We’re in the digital age, and virtually all kids in this age group have their own devices where they stream music and other content. But you should still know the types of media your teen enjoys.

Williams notes that knowing the media your teen consumes can spark the discussion. For example, you can ask your teenager questions about what they enjoy and then talk about the messages those forms of media send. 

Older kids are likely aware of the riots and unrest as well as what prompted them. The AAP recommends watching news with your teen and discussing what you see. You can also ask if they’ve experienced discrimination and how they feel about it. Help them navigate those situations and develop possible solutions. Even as our children grow up, they look to us to give them tools to handle difficult circumstances. 

Addressing Your Biases

No matter how well we think we are doing when it comes to raising tolerant children, we all carry some level of prejudice and biases—even if we don’t intend to.

Think about your own implicit biases before you talk with your children about race. And when you do talk to your children, don’t make it a one-time conversation. We want to make tolerance, equality and justice a part of everyday life.

Have you talked with your kids about racism and prejudice? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at editorial@dfwchild.com.

Image courtesy of iStock.