How to Talk to Kids About Racism

As protests over racism engulf our country, knowing how to talk to our kids about race is vitally important. Here are tips by age. 

mother talking to child about racism

With America’s longstanding racial inequalities boiling over, knowing how to talk to our kids about racism and current events is both necessary and daunting. As the mom to two biracial children (I’m of European descent; my husband is Latino), in addition to being a developmentalist, this question has long been top of mind for me personally. There are no hard and fast rules about how best to discuss these challenging topics with our children, but understanding of their general cognitive development can help guide our decisions.

The following is a basic guideline of what kids typically can understand about race and racism at each level of development. That said, the pace of discussions may need to change based on your child’s proximity to racism and your child’s level of anxiety. Only you know best what your children are ready to hear and see at any point in their development.

Preschoolers

 

The once-popular notion that young kids are “colorblind” has been disproven time and again. Kids see and notice variations in skin color by six months of age. Soon after, they begin wondering what, if anything, those variations mean. According to EmbraceRace.org, kids begin showing signs of racial bias as early as four years of age.

This leads us to three key actions we can take with our preschoolers:

    • Exposure: If preschool children aren’t exposed to racial variations, they cannot develop positive associations with these variations at a key point in their development. Therefore, it’s vital to show kids an array of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds in their early years. If this is impossible in real life in your community, you can find multicultural depictions in books through the Diverse BookFinder and TV shows with diverse characters in this list by Common Sense Media.

    • Discussion: While discussions about race with kids four years of age and under will be limited, this is a key moment to help them know that A) talking about race is not only acceptable, it’s healthy, and B) that variations in skin tone are not indicators of attributes, motives, ways of thinking, or patterns of behavior.

    • Modeling: Kids learn much more by what we do than what we say. They are sponges for what psychologists call “observational learning,” so the way we approach race and racism impact our preschoolers’ beliefs and behaviors more than anything. That means that if we shy away from talking about race, avoid people of certain races, or ascribe characteristics to people from a certain race – even when we think we’re out of earshot – kids will pick up on our deep beliefs and carry them forward in their own actions.

5 to 8 year olds

 

As children enter and move through elementary school, conversations can shift from discussions of race to discussions of racism – the patterns of discrimination and prejudice directed at individuals due to their race. Children in this age group learn best through stories. That said, they tend to hyperfocus on violence and may miss the point of stories that involve deaths and brutality, like the George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor cases, among so many others. The contemporary and ongoing nature of these cases can also create an alarm response that may override the ability for kids in this age range to cognitively process what’s happening. Given this, stories of racism from the Civil Rights Movement can be a great place to start, such as from this list of books compiled by A Mighty Girl.

Direct talk about racism can also flow from the brief but powerful A Kids Book About Racism, written by Jelani Memory for kids 5 to 9 years of age. At the end, Memory offers this great advice to parents:  “Take their curiosity and make the most of it. I can promise you that you’re more afraid than they are to talk about racism…Kids are ready and willing to learn about tough things, if only the grownups present in their lives are willing to talk about them.”

9 to 12 year olds

 

Children in the late elementary and middle school years can sit with ambiguity better than younger children, opening the door for more complex and far-reaching conversations about race and racism. Invite your children to watch for and point out racial patterns, such as where people live, and to question the systems that encourage and perpetuate those patterns. You don’t need to have the answers to engage these conversations; instead, sit in the questions together.

In addition, while difficult, children in this age group can typically tolerate depictions of violence without hyperfocusing on the violence itself. They may well have come across the videos on their own, depending on their access to technology. If not, while providing context and offering plenty of space for conversation, offer up the contemporary cases of racism, whether just in words, or the more graphic images, depending on your child’s disposition and your preferences. Know that it’s normal if your child says little to nothing after learning of each case; kids often process privately before being able to articulate their many thoughts and feelings about intense topics.

Keep space open in the weeks that follow, inviting questions such as by asking in quiet moments, “Is there anything else you’d like to know about what’s going on in our country regarding racism right now?” Be willing to accept “no” as an answer, and know that this is not a reflection on either your parenting nor on your child’s concern about the issue. They’ll start asking questions when they’re ready, but you can continually do your part by laying the groundwork for the conversation, repeatedly.

13 years and up

 

Teenagers and young adults can sift through abstract ideas, increasingly sit with two opposing beliefs at the same time, and recognize and call out hypocrisy in action. These advanced cognitive abilities set the stage for deep and intensive consideration of racism and its structural sources.

Most importantly, children in this age range want to do more than talk – they want to act. The Anti-Defamation League offers a list of ten ways young people can get involved in activism, ranging from letter writing to public awareness campaigns to protests. Support their actions, and consider engaging alongside them.

Teens and young adults should also be made aware of implicit racial biases. These are biases that are below our level of consciousness but that affect our behavior, and that most if not all of us hold to some extent. Understanding that we may believe on the surface that we’re “not a racist” while actually harboring unconscious biases that subtly or intensely affect our choices – such as only inviting same-race classmates to a party, without realizing it – can help our kids be more mindful and questioning about their actions. This knowledge can begin a lifelong process of self-questioning why they do what they do, and how they can change their actions – an invaluable process for all of us.

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