Article: How to Talk Honestly With Children About Racism

PBS Kids, June 9, 2020

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of protests around the country, we’re again left wondering what we should say to our children about racism in America. What is too much? What is not enough? What if they’re too young and we scare them? What if we’re scared, too?

“Children are never too young to be exposed to diversity,” says Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E Program within the Office of Child Development at University of Pittsburgh. “The research continues to show that children recognize skin color differences at a very young age. As young as 3 months old, they may look differently at people who look like or don’t look like their primary caregivers.”

At age 2-and-a-half, children can start developing and observing racial biases they see in the world around them. “Once they get to age 4 and 5, it’s a critical time when White children, for example, begin to exhibit obvious bias,” says Dr. White. “And Black children or children of color begin to feel discriminated against because of their skin color.”

In this moment, we must choose to have confidence in ourselves and in our children — that we, and they, can handle tough topics and tough situations. We must, as parents, understand that our role is to be honest, specific, and trustworthy as we raise the next generation to confront racial injustice. We must turn to the helpers — those who have been guiding anti-racist work for years and who can help guide us now.

Here are seven tips from Dr. White to help parents prepare for difficult conversations and start discussions, using picture books, activities, and asking questions of our children.

Practice what you want to say before you say it.

A big struggle we have when it comes to addressing racism with our children is that conversations about race can bring up fear, uncertainty and discomfort for us, too. “Have these conversations with another adult first,” says Dr. White. Calling up a friend, another parent from school, or a family member to practice will help you become comfortable with what you want to say. Try to imagine questions your child might ask, and be ready to answer those questions, as well.

Be aware of your own biases.

“Really what children pay attention to is adult behavior,” says Dr. White. “You can talk incessantly with your child, but if you behave in ways that demonstrate you are fearful of people of color, fearful of Black people, or if your children are growing up in an all White neighborhood and you don’t expose them to people of color — children do notice that. They notice your body language. And they listen to what’s being said around them.”

Dr. White points out that this is particularly important for parents of White children, as research shows that kids of all races begin to develop a “preference for whiteness” at young ages and carry that through adulthood. “White children are getting all these messages about white being preferred, being better, being ideal,” says Dr. White. “So parents have a huge challenge of countering that.” (“Hm, I see that all the people in this photo are White. What do you think about that? We’ve been talking about racism, remember? Do you think racism might make it harder for Black people to become important leaders? Is that fair?)

Use picture books.

Notice what your child might be learning about race from their favorite stories. If all the characters in a book look the same, ask what your child thinks about that. If the characters are diverse, ask something like, “which character would you want to be friends with?” Dr. White says you might be shocked by their answers, but try not to react with judgment. The goal is to understand what your child knows, doesn’t know, and what they might already think about race. Then you can help your child learn by asking more questions and preparing yourself for more conversations in the future.

Ask your child how they feel — directly.

It sounds so simple, but it’s an important step when children become aware of any kind of bad news. “Children might not always know how to tell their parents or the people close to them that they are worried about something,” says Dr. White.

You know your child best — so be aware of their emotions, then consider asking if there is anything they are worried about or afraid of. If your child is worried about being hurt, you can explain how you will protect them. And if they’re worried about you being harmed, let them know what steps you will take to stay safe. (“It’s important to me that I be a helper by going to the protest. I will hold my sign and be kind to others. If I think it’s not safe, I will leave and come home.”)

“Particularly for Black parents, it would be hard to say ‘well [what happened to George Floyd] will never happen to me.’ And sometimes you just have to be honest with children and say you will do everything you can to stay away from harm,” says Dr. White. “I would think that a child who has a Black mom, or Black dad, or Black brother would really be worried about them. And the only thing parents can really say to children is that it’s not very likely that will happen, and that we will do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Dr. White also suggests giving children hope by letting them know that the reason so many people are protesting around the country is to make moms, dads, brothers, and sisters safer.

Answer “Why does this keep happening?” with an activity.

We have been here before — something older children in particular will begin to notice, and something very hard for parents to explain. Dr. White recommends using a short activity she learned from Dr. Erin Winkler, Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee:

Take out some string and have your child wind and tie themselves up — maybe even looping your hands together with their hands. “Then, talk about the fact that racism and oppression and discrimintation has been building for a long time. It’s really tangled and layered,” just like your hands will look, says Dr. White. You can talk with your child about how long it will take to untangle the string and untangle racism. (“Even if we get one knot out, there will be more left, and we have to keep working at it.”)

Instill confidence in Black children through storytelling.

Dr. White says one of the most important things parents can do is make sure Black children hear from you and others they love that their skin, hair, and facial features are beautiful. This can help build confidence in the way they look.

Then, you can support that confidence with storytelling. This is core to the work of Dr. White and the P.R.I.D.E. Program. Simply surrounding your child at home with books, magazines, pictures, and cultural artifacts that feature Black people can lead to improved problem-solving skills, improved behavior in school, and a greater ability to remember facts and information. Reading books about Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges can help support a positive racial identity, says Dr. White. And diving into books that represent Black families in everyday life can be racially affirming, as well. (Try picture books like The Snowy Day or Peter’s Chair.)

Help children begin to understand how to be an ally.

With school-aged children, Dr. White says you can start to have conversations about standing up for your friends and classmates. She suggests an activity created by an educator in the P.R.I.D.E. Teacher Cohort:

Try reading IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, and ask your child what they would do if they saw characters in the book being made fun of, or called names, or bullied. At the end, you can have your child write out a sentence or draw a picture about how they can be an ally and who they can be an ally to. This can be “a step toward children thinking about what they can do as a young child who might not feel like they have a lot of power — but they do,” says Dr. White.

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