During this time of racial unrest, parents are giving serious thought to how they should respond to kids’ questions—or whether or not to discuss topics such as race, inequality and white privilege at all. We consulted with a variety of experts who all agreed that parents shouldn’t shy away from discussing race. All confirmed that as parents, the behaviors we model for our children will have the biggest impact on our kids and the type of people they will become.
When discussing race, the goal isn’t to tell children to ignore the differences they see.
“In general, a goal for white parents should be to raise a child in a racially-conscious way,” says Devin English, PhD, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Public Health. “That is, noticing and celebrating racial diversity, while educating on racial injustice in the US and how children can be a part of working against that injustice.”
For non-Black parents, teaching kids to notice, understand, respect and appreciate differences is the best approach.
“A racially-conscious approach is in direct contrast to colorblind parenting,” he says. “That is, messages communicating that children should not see race, or that race does not matter. It does matter. This is really important for white children to understand because they will be growing up in a society that pushes them to be colorblind.”
English says it’s never too early for parents to start talking about race and racism with their kids. “The best approach is to discuss race and racism frequently with white children early in their lives,” he says. “One aspect of this can be exposing children to lots of different voices and experiences of people of color through books, music, art and through participation in racially diverse spaces, as long as participation is welcome.”
But the way you broach the subject with kids will depend on their age. Amna Husain, MD, a pediatrician and founder of Pure Direct Pediatrics in Marlboro, says that from a young age, children will have questions about racial differences and parents should be prepared to answer them.
“It’s important to understand that talking about race is not racist,” she says. “However, keep your child’s developmental readiness in mind.”
Toddler/Preschoolers: “At this age, your child may begin to notice and point out differences in the people around you. For example, while you are running errands or in the store,” says Husain. “If your child makes a comment about someone’s skin color, you can acknowledge it and state how we are all so different yet share so many similarities.”
Elementary School: “This is the age that is important to have open talks with your child about race, diversity and racism,” she says. “Discussing these topics will help your child see you as a trusted source of information on the topic, and your child can come to you with any questions. Point out stereotypes and racial bias in media and in books such as villains or ‘bad guys’ in movies.”
Tween/Teen: At this age, kids will have more thoughtful, serious questions regarding race. “Further the discussion with questions such as, ‘How do you feel about that?’ and ‘Why do you think that?’” suggests Husain. “This is also helpful if your child heard something insensitive or if your child experienced racial bias themselves. Before responding to his or her statement or question, figure out where it came from and what it means from his or her perspective.”
Husain says these conversations will lay the groundwork for your child to accept and respect everyone’s differences and similarities. “As children mature, the answers to questions will become more complex,” she says. “These are moments to learn what your child understands or is struggling to understand about racial bias.”
Deena Campbell, a senior lifestyle editor of Motherly, is a West Orange mom of two children, ages 3 and 1 (pictured), who knows firsthand why it’s so important to have these conversations.
“There’s a notion in the Black community called, ‘the talk’ and it alludes to the moment you tell your Black child that they are different from their white friends,” she says. “You explain that systemic racism is their reality and society, in general, has a disregard for their Black life. It is a painful discussion. And it is unfortunate, but it is an important conversation that’s necessary for survival.”
Campbell says she doesn’t know exactly when she and her husband will give “the talk” to their son, who’ll turn four this summer. “We celebrate him, we embrace his differences and above all, teach him that he is loved and accepted by us and God,” she says. “We don’t have an exact date or a specific occurrence that will trigger the talk, but it will mainly surround his maturity.”
“When discussing race to older Black kids, it’s important to tell them that they are important, they matter and are valued,” she says. “Help them understand that some people may not like them, but you are doing everything in your power to keep them safe and protected. When discussing race to older white children, it’s important to tell and show them how to be an ally. Discuss similarities that your family has with other races. The point is to normalize various races and debunk stereotypes.”
One thing all parents can do is enable their children to see people of color in a positive light. “[Those examples] can range from dolls to cartoons, action figures and biblical characters,” she says. “Ultimately, we want them to be proud of who they are as Black people and identify with the success of their ancestors, so that as they mature, they expect themselves to be valuable contributors to society as a whole.”
Resources for further reading:
Social Justice Books provides lists and reviews of racial justice books from Teaching for Change at socialjusticebooks.org.
Downtown Bookworks (dtbwpub.com) is a small children’s publisher with books that have themes of equality, diversity and activism. Current popular titles include: A Black Woman Did That, No! My First Book of Protest and Girl Activist.
Black-owned book stores in NJ include Source of Knowledge in Newark (sourceofknowledgebooks.com) and La Unique African American Books & Cultural Center in Camden (launiquebooks.net).