How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism

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Racism has long been an issue in the U.S. Throughout history, people have been bullied, persecuted, harassed, and killed because of the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage. But racism isn’t always overt. It also affects the opportunities that marginalized people are offered. It affects how they are treated on a day-to-day basis; and it affects their mental health and physical well-being.

Talking about these issues, and coming up with concrete ways to address them, is long overdue. As a parent or caregiver, you may be wondering how to talk to your child about racism. You also may feel unsure exactly how to approach the topic or may feel concerned that you will say the wrong thing.

While these concerns are understandable, now is not the time to shy away from these conversations. The only way we can tackle the issue of racism is to turn toward it, not away from it. And that means having difficult conversations with our kids.

We talked to several experts for tips on how to navigate these sometimes challenging, but vitally important, conversations with our kids. Here is what you need to know about discussing racism with your children.

Why We Need to Talk to Our Kids About Racism

At this pivotal moment in history, the “racism talk” is not something you can skip with your children. Discussing instances of racial injustices as they come up in the news—and addressing the systemic issues that perpetuate them in the first place—has become a vital part of our children’s education.

“Given the current political situation, it’s crucial that parents educate themselves first about how to discuss racially-motivated police violence and the history of the criminal justice system, so they can talk with their children about these issues understanding the structural issues at stake,” says Anita Chari, PhD, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon and co-founder of Embodying Your Curriculum.

The fact is, racial issues are a part of all of our lives. They are a part of our communities, our schools, our places of worship, and more. And we are all responsible for making sure that each and every other member of our community is treated with respect. Making this a reality starts with the conversations we have with our children, from their very earliest ages.

Kids Know More Than You Think They Do

Even if we wanted to try to push the issues away, the fact is that our children have probably already heard about some of the divisive current events that have unfolded—so shielding them in some way may even not be possible.

Our kids’ access to social media, along with the fact that these topics are now part of the national conversation, means that our kids probably hear about these things before we even realize that they have. Even young children overhear what we listen to on the news, or the conversations we may have with each other.

“Children are not oblivious to what's happening in the world around them,” says 15-year-old Alejandra Stack, former NAACP Youth Council President and author of Activate Your Activism. “Kids get information from their phones and tablets, television stations, as well as overhearing conversations from adults.”

This information then gets spread around their peers and can turn into game of telephone, Stack says. In this case, it is better for your kids to know the whole story rather than only knowing what Tommy’s friend's cousin told them, she says.

How to Approach the Topic

When it comes to talking about racism, being clear and straightforward is your best bet. You may think that speaking in vague terms will make it easier for your child to understand or absorb the information, but kids can understand these issues easier than you may think.

“These discussions are basic for all,” says Stack. “There are ‘softer’ approaches to speak with kids of younger ages about racism and police violence; however, don't make it seem like it isn't as large of a problem as it is. Don’t try to ‘dumb it down’—simply find other things similar to these real life situations or use softer language.”

Being straightforward about what is happening from the onset means that these conversations will continue to be easier as time goes on. Like discussing sex or other difficult conversations you may have with your child, the conversation about racism is one that should be ongoing, starting when your child is young, and increasing in content as they get older. Having a clear, honest, and straightforward framework to work with will make each iteration of the conversation that much easier.

Deedee Cummings, MEd, LPCC, JD

Be open with your children. Tell them the full history of our country and why we still have so much to resolve.

— Deedee Cummings, MEd, LPCC, JD

“Be open with your children," says Deedee Cummings, MEd, LPCC, JD, a teacher, therapist, lawyer, and author. "Tell them the full history of our country and why we still have so much to resolve. Remember that it is OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Let’s learn about this together.’”

While it is tempting to skip these conversations in favor of letting "children be children," says Cummings, that it not realistic. Talking about issues and solving problems is a part of childhood and is an important part of healthy development.

“It’s also important to note that parents of color can’t be the only ones doing the heavy lifting by having these conversations,” says Sonia Smith-Kang, an AfroLatina mom of four and President of Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC). “We don’t have a choice to have these conversations with our children. What we also need is for everyone to be against racism and not see this as a Black issue. It’s all hands on-deck to help keep our Black brothers and sisters safe and alive.”

How to Talk About Difficult Current Events

Sometimes current events surrounding racism and racial injustice can feel difficult to discuss because they are full of upsetting and scary facts and images. Again, though, these are not topics we should shield our kids from, especially because they will likely hear about them on their own.

Having a grown-up to talk to them about these issues is vital. Cummings has a few steps she recommends you take as you begin to broach the subject of current racial events with your children. Here is what you need to know.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Ask your children what they already know about subjects like police brutality, or why people are protesting in the name of Black Lives Matter. Once you find out what they know—or what they think they know—you can correct any misinformation as well as clarify things or fill in the gaps.

Clarify Terms for Them

When talking with your child, you may discover that they may not know what “police brutality” is, but they may have heard about the fact that some Black people are afraid of being pulled over by the police. Define terms for them so that when they hear them in conversation or read them on social media, they have a factual definition of what they mean and can better understand the issues.

Admit That You Don’t Have All the Answers

If you don't know something, be honest with your child. Resist the urge to gloss over things or speculate rather than admitting you don't know. Instead, invite your child to find the answer with you. Show them how you go about learning—what resources you look to, and how you educate yourself. Researching together builds a foundation of learning as well as instills media literacy skills.

Reinforce the Concept of Racial Justice

All current events—no matter how difficult they are to talk about—highlight the need for us all to come together and to care for and respect each other. Make sure your child understands the importance of justice and teach them to stand up against things that are unfair. Provide them with practical ways they can make a difference.

Make a Plan of Action

Maybe your child wants to write their congressperson a letter. Or perhaps they want to attend a protest. Use these desires and goals as teachable moments. Help them formulate a plan on how they can be an ally and what they can do to change the world around them. While talking is important, it is even more beneficial to take action. Empower your kids to do something—especially when they express an interest in doing so.

How to Talk About Racism By Age

Talking to younger children about racism has different challenges than talking to older children. But that doesn’t mean that you can't begin having conversations about race from the earliest ages. Here is an age-by-age guide on how to talk to your kids about race.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

When talking about racism with very young children, Cummings recommends using simple language, and presenting the topic in ways young children can understand. Talk about the people in your neighborhood, in your family, and at preschool or daycare.

What makes people different? What makes them the same? Talk about the diversity that makes up our world, and how beautiful and important that is.

School-Age Children

In elementary school, the issues of race can be discussed using some of the many wonderful books out there on diversity. But even more important than that is exposing your child to diverse authors and books that contain diverse characters.

“Books with Black characters and toys with black or brown skin are not just for Black people,” says Cummings. “Your children should both read and play in a world that reflects the real world from a young age. Interact with your children so you can hear the things they say in role-play. This will be eye-opening. Children do not always know how to answer questions, but they know how to act out what they are learning.”

Cummings also encourages parents to make sure that their child's actual lives contain diversity as well. If you don’t live in a diverse neighborhood or attend a diverse school, you can still bring your child to places where more racial diversity is present. These little things plant a seed and help your child normalize the diversity that makes up our world.

Teens

Stack is an advocate for having blunt conversations with kids, especially as they get older. Try not to gloss over the facts or lessen the impact for fear of how they will feel or respond. Most kids appreciate honest conversations—even the ones that cover challenging topics.

“Although these conversations are difficult, they are 100% necessary,” she says. “I remember being in school and not being allowed to talk about what happened with Trayvon Martin. This sense of what is ‘appropriate’ for kids to talk about is absolutely ludicrous.”

Discussions about racism should be about education, about frank discussion, and about learning together as a family. But it’s also very much about action. This generation of teens is showing up in big ways when it comes to racial injustice. Many of the most impactful protests have been organized by teens, and multiple teens are attending them.

“Show your children how to be a change agent,” says Cummings. “There will be plenty of opportunities to talk with your child about things you would like to see done differently. Identify things you can do together. Going to a rally or peaceful protest together can be a powerful experience.”

A Word from Verywell

If this is your first time discussing race with your family, there are many resources out there for educating your child about the issues and about the history of racism in our country. There also are many opportunities for your family to become part of the fight toward ending racial injustice in the U.S.

Regardless of how you approach the topic, it is vital that you do the work, and that you do not try to ignore the issue. For too long, people have ignored the topic or glossed over it.

As upsetting as it can feel at times to realize the extent that racism is alive in this country, we can’t turn a blind eye to it. Talking to our kids about racism is the first of many steps we all need to take to address the inequities that continue to impact the lives of so many in our country.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.