How To Talk To Kids About Racism & Race
Diversity, race, and racism are important topics you should discuss with your child. Regardless of your background, raising a child who is aware of these issues will help them navigate the world and become a well-adjusted adult.
Some topics like racism, privilege, or police violence can be difficult to discuss. By developing an awareness of race and racism at an early age, you can create an environment where you and your child can talk about these difficult issues openly.
Here’s how you can have meaningful conversations about racism and race with your child.
It’s never too early to start talking about differences. Young children won’t be able to grasp advanced concepts like institutional racism, but you can introduce the topic of race as early as two or three years old.
Studies suggest that children can notice race as early as three months of age  and show a preference for one group over another. Babies and toddlers can notice differences in skin tones and some three-year-olds can associate skin color with some negative traits.
Discussions about race can begin once your child observes differences in the people around her. You can normalize discussions about race and racism by acknowledging that people have different skin tones.
Keep the Discussion Age-Appropriate
There is no need to overwhelm your child with complex topics or historical facts. You can have meaningful conversations about race by taking an age-appropriate approach.
Preschoolers will understand race in the context of the differences they notice in the people around them. You can start discussing skin tones, different hair textures, and other differences your child notices.
A 5 or 6-year-old will start noticing differences at school and become aware that some things aren’t fair. You can introduce the concept of racism by using everyday examples.
Once your child turns 8 or 9, you can go deeper and talk about history, internalized bias, systemic racism, and other issues. Make sure to use terms your child will understand.
Pre-teens and teens can develop strong feelings about injustice. Encourage open conversations to find out about the things your child notices at school or in the news.
Don’t Be Color Blind
Color-blind parents might have good intentions, but this attitude doesn’t help children understand race and racism.
By refusing to see color, you’re sending a message that it’s not acceptable to discuss race and racism. Plus, color blindness can negate reality and encourage your child to overlook important truths about the struggles minorities experience.
Color blindness doesn’t teach your child to connect first-hand experiences to the broader picture. Failing to acknowledge that society treats people differently can result in a child who is unaware of what racism looks like and who perpetuates or ignores these dangerous behaviors.
Set an Example
Children can learn a lot by discussing race with you, but they also learn by watching what you do. You can set an example by pushing past your own bias and discomfort to encourage open conversations about difficult issues.
You can also set an example by acknowledging acts of racism you witness in everyday life and doing something about it.
Discussing how race, racism, or privilege has affected you throughout your life can help your child learn to recognize these important concepts.
Cultivating interracial friendships can set a positive example and result in a diverse social circle for your child.
Racism is a complex issue. It’s fine if you don’t have all the answers. Encourage your child to ask questions and don’t hesitate to say that you don’t have an answer to everything.
Take some time to educate yourself. You can learn about history, look up statistics, or read opinion pieces.
Learning more about race will help you see things from the perspective of another racial group, understand how racism has shaped major societal institutions, or how racism has led to inequalities in areas like access to education or health.
The better you understand these complex issues, the easier it will be to relate them to the things your child observes.
Encourage your child to learn about racism by presenting age-appropriate resources. Fostering curiosity will help raise children who are lifelong learners.
Talk About Fairness
Fairness is a concept that young children understand well. Studies suggest children learn to recognize fairness between the ages of 4 and 6 .
Even though their behavior isn’t always fair, they understand when a grownup or other child doesn’t treat them fairly and can feel deeply hurt.
Fairness is a concept that can help your child put a word on a feeling. Remind your child of a situation where someone didn’t treat them fairly to help them understand how their behavior can be hurtful to others.
Talking about fairness can be the first step to helping your child develop a sense of compassion. You can also help your child understand what racism is and how it affects people by relating this concept to the idea of fairness.
Unfortunately, children can be victims of racism. Discussing fairness can help them process this experience and teach them to advocate for themselves when someone doesn’t treat them fairly.
Expose Your Child to a Diverse Environment
Raising a child in a diverse environment can help them relate to others and become more accepting. It will also help them recognize differences and notice how ethnicity can influence how people treat each other.
Preschool will likely expose your child to a racially diverse environment, but you can go further by looking for activities that will allow your child to socialize with a diverse group.
Scheduling playdates can help your child forge interracial friendships. You can also find local activities through non-profits or children’s museums to give your child the opportunity to meet children and adults from different backgrounds.
Introduce Different Skin Tones
Skin tones are often one of the first differences a young child will notice. Since children are naturally curious, your child will probably ask ‘why’ questions.
Discussing different skin tones is a great way to normalize conversations about race. You can explain what melatonin is and explain how people have different origins.
Drawing a self-portrait or drawing friends and family members can help your child think about how skin tones can vary.
Make sure your child has access to art supplies they can use to represent different skin tones.
Use Children’s Books
Children’s books can be an educational introduction to race and racism. Reading stories that address these issues in an age-appropriate manner will encourage your child to think about race and diversity.
You can have a conversation after reading a book or encourage your child to connect the message of a book with their personal experiences and observations.
Plus, introducing a diverse selection of children’s books can help your child develop empathy toward others. Make sure your child has access to a wide selection of books that feature characters with different skin tones and backgrounds.
Here are a few titles you can use to talk about race and racism with your child:
- Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race by Megan Madison
- Someone New by Anne Sibley O’Brien
- Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller
- Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o
- The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
- The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena
- Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester
- Grandma’s Purse by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
- Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard
- Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano
Turn TV Into an Educational Resource
Did you know that American children spend an average of three hours a day watching TV ? The shows and movies your child watches can have a significant impact on their worldview, including how they perceive race.
Ask yourself how the shows your child watches address race and other issues. Do these shows reflect the values you want to teach your child?
There is a growing number of quality programs that discuss diversity in an open and positive manner. Examples include Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger, and Arthur.
Beyond sharing a positive message, TV shows can shape the way your child perceives race through representation.
For instance, shows like Doc McStuffins, Esme and Roy, or Reba to the Rescue can provide Black children with positive representation. If you’re looking for a show you can watch as a family, try Raising Dion or Black-ish.
Turn TV into an educational resource by encouraging conversations. Ask your child about what they see on TV and what they think about the characters and storylines. Find out if your child has experienced similar situations in real life or ask how they would react.
The Importance of Toys and Games
Toys and games are crucial for the development of your child. At a young age, your child will interact with toys to develop a wide range of motor and cognitive skills. As your child ages, toys become a tool for creating stories, expressing emotions, and more.
Giving your child access to toys that look like them will help them develop their identity. It can also boost their self-esteem.
Your child should have a diverse selection of toys with dolls, action figures, and other items that depict a wide range of skin tones and ethnicities. By incorporating these characters into their stories, your child will develop empathy and acceptance.
Board games like Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Rise Up: The Game of People and Power are fun to play and can lead to interesting discussions about history and racial justice.
As your child gets older, they will likely develop an interest in video games. As a parent, you should make sure your child has access to age-appropriate video games and watch out for games that perpetuate racial stereotypes.
Video games with diverse protagonists or games that allow your child to create a customized character that looks like them can have a positive effect on how your child perceives race.
Ask Your Child About Their Feelings and Experiences
Encourage open communication about race and injustice by asking your child about their own experiences. Once your child has a good grasp of what fairness and racism are, you can ask if they have ever experienced or witnessed these things in real life.
You can help your child by becoming an active listener. Ask questions, show interest, and encourage your child to think about their own feelings and reactions.
You might find that your child experienced racism when a store security guard followed them around, when a teacher consistently failed to pronounce their name correctly, or when another child uses a racial slur.
Talking about negative incidents can help your child process their negative emotions. You can also provide your child with tools for dealing with racism, such as calling out another person on their biased behavior, reaching out to their support network, or coping with stress.
Connect With Your Past and Culture
For POC families, celebrating your heritage at home can bring you closer together and help your child embrace their differences.
Connecting with your culture can be as simple as preparing traditional dishes at home, listening to some music, or spending time with your older relatives.
You can discuss your origins by visiting a museum, introducing your child to traditional art, or teaching them a foreign language.
Taking a DNA test can be a great way to learn more about your ancestry. You’ll find out more about where your family comes from, and you can research your origins as a family. This activity is a great way to show your child how rich and diverse their heritage is.
You can also create a family tree and encourage your child to reach out to your older relatives to learn more about their life stories.
Teach Your Child to Speak Up
As your child grows, she will become increasingly aware of injustice. Encourage your child to speak up and take action.
Set an example by advocating for yourself and others in your daily life. There are several strategies you and your child can use:
- Teach your child to look for concrete observations and put their feelings or past experiences aside when analyzing a new situation.
- It’s important to ask clarifying questions to avoid miscommunications. You can teach your child to use a statement like ‘Help me understand what you mean by that.’
- Use active listening to identify racism and internalized bias. Ask more questions and encourage open conversation.
- Identify your emotions and don’t be afraid to express them. By validating your child’s emotions at home, you’re giving them the confidence they need to let others know when they engage in hurtful behaviors.
- The best way to deal with overt racism or microaggressions is to explain why the behavior is problematic in a factual manner.
- Next, you can voice the desired outcome, such as asking for the behavior to stop.
You can teach your child to follow these steps by modeling them when you encounter racism. You can also use role-playing to give your child the confidence they need to speak up.
Note that these steps can be helpful in a wide range of situations. They can help you navigate relationships, set boundaries, and address negative behaviors other than racism. Incorporate these steps into the way you handle conflicts at home to teach your child about open communication.
Build Up on What Your Child Learns at School
Addressing race at school is a hotly debated issue. Your child’s experience can vary a lot depending on their teacher’s stance and on how your local school district handles the issue.
Find out more about the curriculum and what your child is learning. Is the teacher using hands-on activities to teach about race? Are there conversations in which the entire class can participate?
You should also ask how your child feels about learning about race in school. Do they feel comfortable enough to ask questions? Does the curriculum reflect your child’s personal experiences and feelings?
Build up on what your child learns at school by encouraging questions and showing interest in what your child is learning in the classroom.
Look for Role Model
Children need role models. Role models can inspire children, help them learn about positive values, and pick up good habits.
Your child probably has some role models in their direct social circle. A role model can be a parent, a teacher, or an older sibling. Discuss how these role models display qualities such as tolerance or compassion.
You can also turn to history to discuss race and racism through role models. Historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, or Harriet Tubman can inspire your child and help them understand the impact of racism.
For pre-teens and teens, discussing current public figures can lead to an in-depth conversation about race. Barack and Michelle Obama are excellent examples for discussing leadership.
Amariyanna Copeny, also known as ‘Little Miss Flint,’ is an amazing role model for young Black girls. This young activist is making a difference by raising funds to help children victims of the Flint Water Crisis.
Discuss Historical Topics
Children love stories. Listening to stories helps expose them to new ideas. Children can discover characters they relate to and process their feelings through a narrative that reflects how they feel.
Telling your child stories about the past will help them become aware of racial injustice and systemic racism. You can read books or listen to podcasts to learn more about history and turn your findings into age-appropriate stories for your children.
You can also learn about history together through children’s books or documentaries as your child gets older. Movies like 12 Years a Slave, Geronimo, or Judas and the Black Messiah can be engaging teaching tools for teens.
Examples of topics to discuss include:
- The treatment of Native tribes and the creation of reservations.
- Slavery, its abolition, and the civil War.
- Segregation and the Civil Rights era.
- Japanese internment camps.
- The Los Angeles riots.
- Recent examples of police violence.
You can also look outside U.S. history and discuss topics like the apartheid in South Africa or Nazi concentration camps.
Watch the News Together
It’s best to limit exposure to news coverage if you have young children. You should encourage questions and answer them honestly if your children are aware of a news story, but there is no reason for young kids to watch the news.
Children can start watching the news at seven or eight. They’re old enough to understand, and watching the news can help them learn about the world beyond their immediate circle.
Encourage your child to watch the news with you once they turn 10. As she matures, your child will naturally develop an interest in what is going on in the world.
Watching the news together creates opportunities for discussing what is happening in the world. You can clarify what your child sees in the news, find out how they feel about current topics, and discuss how the world is changing.
For parents of POC teens, keeping up with the news together can open the door for conversations about police violence, racial profiling, socio-economic inequalities, racial justice, and more.
It’s especially important to discuss the news if your child has access to the internet. Teach your child to recognize biased news sources and discuss the importance of seeking neutral reporting or considering different viewpoints.
As your child grows, they will become increasingly aware of social and financial topics. For instance, children might compare themselves to their friends.
You can discuss topics like material possessions, where you live, and what kind of future and opportunities you’re able to offer your child.
Discuss how race is creating obstacles as your child grows and encourage conversations about how your socio-economic situation is giving your child an advantage if applicable.
Talking about privilege isn’t about making your child feel bad about what others have or causing them to feel guilty for having an advantage, but it’s important to help your child become aware of privilege.
Support a Cause You Care About
Learning about racism can make children feel helpless and overwhelmed. You can help by giving them the tools they need to become compassionate adults who are not afraid to speak up, but you can also make a difference by taking action as a family.
It’s never too early to teach your child about activism and the importance of supporting others. There are different things you can do to take action as a family:
- Consider taking your children to protests and demonstrations once they’re old enough to understand the issues.
- Turn saving money into a game. Once the family has enough money aside, make a donation to the NAACP, the UNCF, or Stop AAPI Hate.
- When you buy things, choose brands with a positive mission and explain to your children why your choice as a consumer matters.
- Taking part in local food or toy drives can be a great way to discuss racial and socio-economic inequalities.
- Non-profits will often let teens volunteer. You can donate some of your time as a family by helping local nonprofits that support racial causes.
How To Talk To Kids About Race And Racism, Final Thoughts
As a parent, you can help your child become a happy and well-adjusted adult by playing an active role in their education, including when it comes to talking about race and racism.
It’s never too early to address these issues, but make sure you approach them in an age-appropriate manner. The best way to talk about race is to encourage open communication so your child feels comfortable about asking questions and expressing her feelings.
Talking about racial issues should be an ongoing conversation in your household, and it should include your child’s personal experiences as well as broader societal issues.
Remember to keep the conversation positive by focusing on how you and your child can make a difference!