How To Talk To Your Kids About Race (We Can't Put It Off Anymore!)

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talking to kids about racism

Calling all parents: Have you ever panicked when your child asked a question about race? Have they ever asked you what “racism” means?

What was your reaction? Did you quiver in fear, rush to change the subject, or say something you hoped would help (but probably didn't)?  

We all want to believe that everything we say to and do with our kids is the exact right thing. 

We all want to set strong, positive examples for our children. But when it comes to talking to our kids about race and racism, sometimes our worries get the best of us, and our fears lead us to avoid saying the wrong thing by saying absolutely nothing at all.

Well, I want you know that you are not alone in struggling with this. Talking about race and racism with our kids is one of the hardest conversations we will ever have as parents.  

And doesn't it always seem like our kids bring the subject up at the worst time and place? In grocery store lines, at parties with your friends, or even during bath time, as they recount the moments in their day when someone was treated differently at recess, or in the classroom, or at the playground because of the color of their skin.

Perhaps you keep telling yourself that your child is still too young for such a heavy conversations as this. 

Well, studies reveal that even infants recognize racial differences. And I guarantee this isn’t something only researchers notice. 

I remember showing up at my very first babysitting job (at the tender age of 16) and the young child I was to watch came over to me, wiped my arm, turned to her mom and asked: “What’s wrong with her skin?” Her mother mumbled something unintelligible before rushing to change the topic. Meanwhile, I stood there on my first day of work heartbroken, having no idea how to explain my beautiful, brown skin.

So, let’s be completely honest about this: Kids are not only aware of racial differences, but they're ready to judge those differences pretty much from Day One.

And how parents react to this reality matters. 

Dr. Kristina R. Olson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Washington, explains that parents can be divided into two major groups: Those who think their children are "color blind" (not noticing any racial differences around them), or other parents, who clearly recall a moment they were left flapping in the breeze with their jaws on the floor after their children stated loudly (in front of others) what they really thought about someone with brown skin.

The impact of this reality is important to recognize not only for White parents of White children, but for Black and Brown parents of Black and Brown children who learn to internalize racist thinking in the blink of an eye. Don't think that happens?

This startling doll test will teach you everything you need to know about internalized racism in less than 10 minutes:

So, if we know that infants and young children clearly see race, when should we start talking to them candidly about it?

The answer: as soon as possible! 

And keep talking to them about it for as long as you can muster the courage to listen to what they have to say. Kids actually have a lot to teach us about race, and even more to teach us about the impact of racism on our world.

So take a moment here and join me for a little “thought experiment," if you will: 

Imagine a small child (your child, or someone else’s). This child is eager to talk to you about something really uncomfortable. Imagine they want to talk about where babies come from … or they're insisting that you help them get their divorced parents back to together.

Now ask yourself one simple question — How does this child successfully convince you to talk to them about this uncomfortable topic? What do they do to make you understand how important this conversation is to them, and how important it is to really put some thought into the arguments they’re presenting?

If your kids are like mine, I’m guessing they either: (a) encourage you to talk more by listening attentively to what you say, (b) they show non-stop curiosity that entices you to keep thinking through their arguments (no matter how awkward they become), or (c) they ask you to work alongside them to find a solution to their burning problem.

Why do I share this? Because, when it comes time to speak to your kids about race and racism, those three steps I just named are of critical importance.

If you learn to listen to them, learn to approach even the most uncomfortable topics with curiosity, and learn to work with kids (rather than lecture them), you and your children will be on your way to proactively addressing racism.

And being proactive is exactly what makes this world a better place because you create space for children to think about race while learning how to stand up against racism. It allows us to visualize what Racial Justice looks like in the world today. And it brings your children right beside you as you fight to make Racial Justice a reality in our shared society.

So here are these three steps again, stated simply. To discuss race and racism with your children:  

  • Prepare for active listening
  • Become (and remain!) inquisitive
  • Work together to make racial justice a reality

Fantastic — now that we have the basics covered, let's dive in and clarify how to navigate the conversation about race and racism once you start it:

1. Take care of yourself first:

Remember the rule when you’re on an airplane? The one about putting your oxygen mask on before you put on your child’s mask? Well the same is true here.

Check in to see how you're doing emotionally in light of the increase of images of racial violence in the media. Have you been feeling especially saddened by the growing list of Black and Brown casualties of racial violence? Are you feeling numbed by how quickly the list grows? How have you been coping during this time of blatant racism and racial unrest? What do you need for yourself to really speak with your kids about race and racism?

Some people turn to spiritually (I know I did). Others just need some time to talk to other like-minded adults who can help them process. And others know that despite their ability to keep on moving, having a discussion about race and racism with their children will require them to bring in reinforcements! That's OK. Ask trusted friends and community leaders for help, gather your tools, and start the conversation only after you’ve checked in with yourself first.

2. Carve out time to have an uninterrupted discussion:

You won’t make the connection you need to with your child if you're rushing off to do other things. And you won’t be able to properly finish the things you’re rushing off to do if, in the back of your mind, you're worried that you left this important conversation incomplete! So clear your schedule and settle in. Then, get ready to put your active listening skills to the test.

3. Approach the conversation with curiosity:

No matter what comes up in your conversation, and no matter how shocking it might be, it is essential that you remain curious. Ask your children how they arrived at the conclusions they've made, and where they learned about the ideas they're sharing with you.

Usually younger children are not afraid to let you know how they came to what they’re saying. But older kids might start off shy (especially if they're worried what they might say could get them into trouble. But if you hold on tight to that curiosity, asking questions that really aim to help you understand the ideas your children are grappling with, they just might let you in.

So ask them if they're worried, or scared, or if they need help understanding what they're hearing and seeing. Promise them (and honor that promise!) that you will withhold all judgment no matter what they say.

4. Be honest, be open and be real:

Yes, the conversation you’re planning to have might be difficult for children and adults, alike. One way to navigate the depth of emotions that these discussions hold is to share with your children language around the emotions you experience when you witness the rising racial tensions in today’s world. (Tip: The iGrok App can help you expand your vocabulary around emotions, and it is something you help your child to examine as well.)

Are you anxious? Are you frightened? Are you worried? Don’t be afraid to let your kids know. Once you open the door to your feelings with your children, they will start to do the same with you.

Use this time to remind your children that they're not alone and let them know who else they can talk to. Make a list of trusted people they can go to for emotional support. And if they indicate they need support but don’t know where to turn — let them know that you will do everything in your power to find them (and yourself) the support that you need.

5. Become the change that everyone’s looking for:

Racial justice will never be achieved if we don’t work to create it. In fact, that is the work groups like Black Lives Matter and the Black Liberation Collective are trying to bring about. The Indigenous Solidarity Network also operates using the same framework: A desire to make the world in which we live a better, more accepting and loving place by sharing the histories that are rarely, if ever, acknowledged.

Encourage your children to learn alternative histories and provide them with opportunities to learn alongside you. This reinforces for them that you're a team. And sharing your desire to actively participate in the building and supporting stronger communities built on racial justice is another important step in becoming the change we seek. Together we really can co-create the world that we have all been waiting for.

So, the next time your child asks a question about racism or asks you a question about race, don’t put the conversation off any longer.

It’s imperative that we gather our courage as parents to use age-appropriate language and resources to speak about the impact our words, thoughts and feelings about racial differences all have.

Bookmark the tips in this article, keep them saved on your phone to help empower you and your children to face the world with compassion and understanding.

P.S. I’ll be right here waiting if you need me!

Dr. Laura Mae Lindo is an author, parenting coach, success coach and the Founder and Director of Dr. Lindo Productions Inc. Contact her today to learn more about parenting during times of change.

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