Would you be horrified if your son was in this picture?
In talking with friends — and in my work with parents as a child psychologist — many parents of White children tell me that what they want most is for their child to be kind.
Many parents have told me that for their child to be racist, or bigoted, would be a tragedy to them.
I also know that many parents raising White children have not given much thought about how to raise a racially conscious child.
Why it’s necessary
This post is about how to talk to children about race.
Specifically, the information here is to help White parents talk to their White children about race.
These conversations are difficult and daunting, but necessary – now more than ever.
Our children are exposed to violence, hatred, and non-inclusive rhetoric.
As parents, we have a responsibility to help children process and understand what they are exposed to, and to counteract negative messages they may hear.
Many White parents avoid talking with their children about race in an effort to protect them from exposure to hate that exists in the world.
While children certainly need us to protect them, they also need us to be honest about the way the way the world is, and share with them information about the way we think it should be.
If we want to raise the next generation of children to be more inclusive and accepting, a powerful to do so is by controlling and initiating the conversation about race with White children.
Children are perceptive, they see what is happening around them, and when we do not acknowledge injustice that exists, it is confusing and can make children feel unsafe.
Further, children will learn about race and racism, and they will be better off if we are parents can manage and teach them in a constructive way.
For many parents, initiating these conversations feels paralyzing, and research suggests that many White parents rarely, if ever, discuss race with their child (which itself is a privilege unknown to children and parents of color).
The reasons for avoiding these conversations usually stem from fear of being seen as racist just by discussing race, wanting to protect children from feeling scared or feeling badly, or simply having no idea what to say or where to begin.
When White parents do talk to their children about race, it often only in a negative context, or when it is relevant to their lives specifically.
Otherwise, there is often a belief that simply telling their children ‘all people are the same and they should not see race’ is enough. It is not enough.
Talking about race is not racist
It is incredibly important, and necessary, if we want to raise inclusive, accepting, and racially conscious children.
When White parents tell their children that they should not see race, the intention is often to communicate that race shouldn’t matter in how people are treated.
The problem with this message is that it instead communicates that it doesn’t matter.
If we want to towards a racially just society, our children need to develop a deep understanding about race, and a specific set of skills to confront and manage racism and diversity.
This understanding and ability will not be developed through the silence of parents. We would not expect our children to become fluent and knowledgeable in other subject domains without explicit instruction, guidance, teaching, and skill building.
The ability to understand and discuss race is no different.
Here are a few tips, and some resources, to help begin this important conversation with your child.
When I suggest starting young, I mean immediately, and as soon as possible. Include books and toys for your child that are representative, and are diverse.
There are lots of great books (including board books for babies) that you can purchase or get from a library.
Some wonderful examples are: “Shades of People” by Sheila M. Kelly, “The Skin You Live In” by Michael Tyler and “A Rainbow of Friends,” by P K Hallinan.
Develop meaningful and authentic relationships with people that are different from you
Then encourage your children to do the same.
One of the most powerful ways to combat stereotypes and encourage acceptance, is to have meaningful relationships with people that are different from us. Personal connections are often the starting point for change.
Develop self-awareness about racist beliefs
This is a difficult one, but if we truly want our children to think deeply about the complexities of race and understand systematic bias that exists in our society, we have to first look at our own biases as parents.
We all carry incorrect information and stereotypes about people.
As parents, we need to examine our own behavior and ensure that we are acting as a model of inclusiveness.
This means examining how we interact with others, and thinking critically about the language we use.
Understand stereotypes and counter-narratives
As mentioned above, most of us carry stereotypes. Negative images in the media, and consistent exposure to stereotypes, forms the foundation for bias. The easiest way to counteract this is to identify stereotypes, and construct a counter-narrative. One powerful way to combat stereotypes is to share stories with your children about leaders and positive examples of diverse individuals.
Learn how to intervene
When some of us suffer or are treated unfairly, we all suffer. Show your children that antiracist action can be accomplished in many ways.
While many people don’t intervene out of fear, or because they fear their own safety, there are ways to stand up and instill important lessons.
You can take a stand against ethnic, racist, sexist, or other oppressive jokes or dialogue.
It can mean making volunteering or making a donation to a group with a mission of diversity and inclusiveness (and discussing it with your child. You might even bring them along).
It can mean speaking out publicly against injustice, or attending a demonstration against discrimination (again, with your children).
Talk to your children about different ways they can safely intervene and how to stand up and not be bystander to injustice.
Keep talking about it
There will come a time when you are at a loss for words. If you are caught off guard by a question your child asks, don’t be afraid to say, “let me think about that and get back to you” – but make absolutely sure you do just that. Don’t worry if you stumble or “mess up” (I do, too), bring it up again, revisit the conversation, and keep talking about race.
Talk about fairness and unfairness
This is a good place to start with kids. Many young children latch on, and deeply understand, the idea of something being “fair” (if you are a parent, no doubt you know this). When you witness discrimination, label it, and address it as being “unfair.” This is a great way to start the conversation.
Dr. Elizabeth Adams Costa is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with children and families in Washington, DC. She also provides online parent coaching – www.personalizedparenting.org.
More tips, resources