How to Talk to Kids About Race and Cultural Diversity

Families having dinner

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Racial and cultural diversity is an important topic for kids at any time, but children of grade-school age are especially receptive to these conversations. During this period, they are forming lots of opinions about themselves and the people around them. This also is when their natural curiosity about differences in appearance and cultural backgrounds can peak.

Aside from being developmentally able to put cultural and racial differences into perspective, they also can learn to appreciate traits that make others different from themselves. Here is what you need to know about teaching your kids about race and cultural diversity.

Why These Conversations Are Important

Children notice race from an early age. They also notice and can understand injustices among people. But research indicates that not all parents and caregivers discuss race, identity, and racism with young children.

In one study, only 10% of parents indicated that they “often” discussed race. Yet, these conversations are so important. They help kids improve their understanding of and interactions with others, and they also help kids grow as people.

Embracing diversity and acceptance allows kids to absorb their world with curiosity, self-assurance, and kindness. It helps them learn to identify with individuals who are different from them, says Aliedjawon Peoples, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in North Carolina who specializes in race and cultural diversity, life transitions, family relationships, and more.

"Learning and discussing different cultures, values, and races teaches your child that it is OK to notice differences, and more importantly, it teaches them that it's good to talk about them," Peoples says.

Diversity and acceptance also improves a child's learning capacity, permitting them to appreciate various subjects from many different viewpoints, he says. It also teaches empathy and compassion for others.

"These discussions also teach kids how to speak up for themselves and others," adds Jaclyn Gulotta, PhD, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida who specializes in parenting, child development, and family relationships, as well as race and cultural diversity. "Showing them the difference between right and wrong can help them to identify their own attitudes and stay mindful of how they treat others."

How to Talk About Diversity

Here’s the beautiful thing about kids—most are born with a natural sense of justice and fairness. Unless they are taught to be hurtful and cruel, most children know that it is wrong to attack others either physically or with words.

As a parent or caregiver, it is important for you to nurture this natural love of people. Here are some things to keep in mind as you talk to your child about the value of differences.

Start By Examining Yourself

If you are uneasy or uncomfortable around people of different backgrounds, your child will pick up on it and emulate this in their interactions. Also, consider the way you talk about people or describe them. Do you mention their race first rather than other characteristics?

Think about the messages you are sending through your everyday words and actions. Be honest with yourself about where you need to improve. It is common for people to assume they are accepting, but then use words or actions that say something else.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Therapist Aliedjawon Peoples offers the following key questions to help parents evaluate their own beliefs and views related to race.

  • What implicit biases do I possess? 
  • What is exceptional about our family culture? 
  • How do we esteem and celebrate other cultures?
  • What kinds of variety do we possess in our family?
  • Who do we extend our home to for social gatherings?
  • Is our locality diverse and inclusive? (If not, why?)
  • What types of variety and acceptance are mirrored in our religious or ethical community?
  • Does my child see diversity in authority figures (e.g., teachers, coaches, healthcare providers, faith leaders, etc.)? If not, how can I support change?
  • Does the mass media we consume (books, shows, videos, games, etc.) portray diverse characters and narratives without stereotypes?
  • Do we utilize mass media as a chance to discuss diversity and inclusion?

Teach the Value of Racial and Cultural Diversity

School age kids will learn about other cultures, both past and present, in the classroom. They will likely have friends and classmates who come from different ethnic or racial backgrounds. These lessons and friendships are excellent opportunities to emphasize the value of racial and cultural diversity.

"Diversity education is an ongoing lesson that you teach your child through open conversations but it's also something you model by being tolerant and providing opportunities for your kids to be around people who are different from them," says Hailey Shafir, LCMHCS, LPCS, LCAS, CCS, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in family support, relationships, race and cultural diversity, and mental health for young people.

"The lesson that kids need to grasp is that 'different from' doesn't equal 'less than,'" says Shafir. In other words, kids need to understand that while people might look, think, speak, or act differently, that is a good thing. Even young children can grasp simple but important ideas about diversity like, "the world would be a pretty boring place if we were all the same."

Encourage Your Child to Ask Questions

If your child has questions about differences in physical characteristics or cultural practices, discuss them openly. A school-age child may ask about the color of someone's skin or why some people who are from different regions of the world might look different from each other. Children this age are expanding their knowledge of the world, and questions like these are normal.

"Parents should expect their children to ask questions about race when they enter grade school, and sometimes even sooner," says Shafir. "It's normal and natural for young children to notice differences and to want more information about what those differences mean."

Talking about different cultures, customs, and races as well as answering any questions they have, teaches your child that it is OK to notice differences. More importantly, it teaches them that it’s good to talk about these differences.

"Be open and honest with [your] kids about race, instead of trying to glaze over the topic, dodge it, or sweep it aside," Shafir says. "Keep in mind that when a child asks their parent a question, they are trying to get information to help them understand the way the world works."

When parents do not provide a clear answer to a child's question, they are likely to find answers to these questions from somewhere or someone else. For example, kids might look to their peers or to stereotypes they see online or on television to help them understand race.

See the Broader Value of Teaching Acceptance

Learning to appreciate all kinds of differences—not just racial and cultural but also differences in socioeconomic levels, gender, and abilities—is an important skill in today’s diverse society. Children should be taught to value others and treat everyone with kindness and compassion.

Additionally, when you show acceptance, your kids will also show acceptance, Dr. Gulotta says. Your kids are watching what you say and do and will likely emulate you.

"When parents lead with kindness and teach their children that everyone is different and that is a beautiful quality, their children will mimic these behaviors," she says. "Encourage [kids] to have an open mind and not to judge anyone before getting to know them."

Discuss Images in the Media

We live in an age where there is more diversity in the media—in movies, on television, in ads—practically everywhere we look. Some are less desirable than others. Take notice of what media you are exposing your children to.

"Starting a conversation around a topic from the media is a great way to show children the importance of what it looks like when people use hatred instead of respect," Dr. Gulotta says. "Showing them the negative outcomes can help them to understand the consequences of racism and hatred. You also can use this as an opportunity to ask your children, 'What would they do differently in this situation?'"

Discuss negative stereotypes and ask your grade-schooler why these are unfair or wrong. Talk about what racism is and how it can have a negative effect on our lives.

"Parents need to understand that kids and teens are constantly exposed to racialized information and content online, in school, and in the media," says Shafir. "Asking kids what they're learning, reading, or watching and initiating open conversations about what their views are is a good way to understand what they're being exposed to while also creating opportunities for teachable moments."

How to Put Words Into Action

Sometimes the best way to teach your kids about race and the importance of appreciating cultural diversity is to put your words into action. Peoples makes the recommends these ideas for actively teaching your kids about race and cultural diversity.

Host a Festive Evening

Once a month, Peoples suggests getting the family involved in a cultural immersion experience at home. Include food, music, and story-telling indicative of the chosen culture.

"Ask all family members to share something that they have learned or would like to learn about the particular culture," says Peoples.

Listen to Music From Another Culture

Select music from any world culture group that you are unfamiliar with and listen to it while driving your kids to school, doing homework, or cooking or eating dinner. Also, you can make your own music, Peoples says, like beating on African drums.

"Research suggests making music is a stimulating and exhilarating experience for all age groups," he says.

Discuss How Cultures Solve Problems

Talking about topics such as how homes are constructed and what type of eating utensils are used during meals can be intriguing for kids and show them that there is more than one way to do things.

It also helps them think about problem-solving in new ways. Talking about how things are done in other countries allows kids to delve into how other cultures deal with everyday problems, Peoples says.

A Word From Verywell

Our schools and communities are becoming increasingly diverse, giving kids a chance to interact with children and adults from other cultures and backgrounds. And while there is no doubt that we still have a long way to go, you can bridge the gap by having regular conversations that value race and cultural diversity.

Encourage your children's questions and foster an environment that accepts and celebrates everyone’s differences. Doing so will help your child become accepting, kind, and empathetic toward people that are different from them.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lingras KA. Talking with children about race and racism. J Health Serv Psychol. 2021;47(1):9-16. doi:10.1007/s42843-021-00027-4

Additional Reading

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.