The racial injustice and anguish we are witnessing in our communities and in the media every day has left many parents grappling with how to talk about racism, hate and inequality with their children — topics that adults often feel are uncomfortable and difficult to discuss even amongst themselves.
Especially with the ongoing news coverage, protests and unrest, these are important topics that parents should regularly be discussing with their children, say Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Jenna Glover, PhD, a child psychologist, and Brandi Freeman, MD, a general pediatrician and leader in diversity and inclusion. These topics impact a child’s health and well-being, the health and well-being of other children they’re interacting with, and how they view others in their community.
However uncomfortable parents may feel, and even if they feel like they don’t have all the answers, it’s important to start the conversation with kids of all ages.
Talking about race and racism with kids, by age group
The way parents and caregivers should approach this topic with their children depends largely on their child’s age. And importantly, these conversations are different for black and multiracial families, who have to talk with their kids about why there are people in their community, including some police officers, who might unfairly target them, and what to do if that happens.
Dr. Freeman and Dr. Glover say it’s important for white families to know about and take steps to understand that experience, and white parents should talk with black and multiracial families to learn more. Asking questions can help build all parents’ understanding of these situations, allowing them to more effectively talk about it with their kids.
Ways to talk with preschool and elementary school kids (ages 4 to 9)
Limit exposure to media
With 24-hour news coverage of tumultuous events, parents should consider limiting their young children’s access to the news. Even when they’re playing in the background while their parents watch the news, kids can pick up on what’s happening.
Parents should be intentional about what they let children watch. Then, they should proactively engage them and ask:
- What are you seeing?
- How are you feeling about what you’re seeing?
- What questions do you have?
Parents are likely to get a variety of questions in return, or even biased comments, as their children work to make sense of the news coverage. Bias is a natural response to our world, based on the information and experiences we have throughout our lives. Sometimes bias helps us make decisions to keep us safe, and sometimes bias causes us to judge people, places and situations as negative, even when we don’t have all of the necessary information. As we move throughout our communities, we must challenge our biases regularly and help others to do so as well.
“It’s really important for parents to be open to everything and not say, ‘Shhh, don’t say that,’ says Dr. Glover. “Kids need to know that it’s OK to talk about race and difference. If they’re not able to do that, they can become biased in the way they talk and act.”
Have open and honest conversations
Honesty matters, too. Even younger kids know everything isn’t fine, so parents shouldn’t tell them so. Rather, adults should acknowledge that their children are scared and anxious and list some of the things they’re doing to help keep them safe. Parents might also consider giving their children a simplified picture of what’s happening and why. Something like:
People are really angry that a person got hurt. There were people there who were supposed to help this person, but they didn’t, and they let something bad happen to him. Now, there are a lot of people who want us to know that it’s not OK for something like that to happen.
Parents can then help their children begin to empathize by asking questions like:
- How do you think those people who are out in the street are feeling?
- How would you feel if someone you love got hurt?
Dr. Glover says it’s also a good time to talk about diversity and difference. Parents can give children a simple, age-appropriate example using crayons:
How would you feel if all of your crayons were the same color? Would you be able to draw colorful pictures? Or would your pictures be really boring because you could only use one color? Having different colors is really good because it makes things creative and not the same. It shows us that all of our differences are what make the world a beautiful place.
Build a collection of inclusive books, movies and TV shows
Beyond helping children understand current events, Dr. Glover and Dr. Freeman recommend parents make sure the books, movies and shows that their children are consuming are racially diverse and represent positive portrayals of black and non-black people of color. Common Sense Media — a nonprofit organization that offers a media rating system to help parents — is a good place to start, especially this list of books with black and non-black characters of color.
Ways to talk with tweens and middle schoolers (ages 10 to 13)
Ask about what they’re seeing online
At this age, many kids already have technology in their pockets. It’s more difficult to limit their media consumption, which means they’re likely viewing disturbing images and getting information from a variety of sources. It can help for parents to have daily check-ins with their children and ask them:
- What did you see online today?
- Was anything surprising or upsetting?
- What do you know about what’s going on?
- What are your friends saying?
By checking in often, parents give their children a safe space to talk about what they’re seeing and hearing, and how their opinions might be different than a family member, friend or neighbor.
Acknowledge the experience is different based on race
“It’s also important to acknowledge that this is the age where some kids are going to be asking, ‘Why does this happen to people?’ and there are other kids who are going to be asking, ‘Why does this happen to me or people like me?’” says Dr. Glover.
Many black and multiracial families address this issue by having what’s called “the talk:” an extremely hard conversation about how they are more likely to be unfairly stopped and questioned by people of authority than a white person. White families can have this conversation, too.
Parents should be upfront that sometimes people act differently around those they don’t have a lot of experience with. In this case, someone lost their life because of it, and as a community, we can’t allow that to happen again. Parents should help their children understand this and connect why it’s important to get to know black people and people of all races and backgrounds.
Supplement history lessons with information from credible sources
“Middle school is often when children start to learn more about history including slavery and the civil rights movement,” says Dr. Freeman. “But that may not be enough. Children may need additional help connecting what they’re learning with what’s happening right now and why it’s happening.”
She suggests that parents supplement what their children are learning in school with books and documentaries such as 13th, which provides a powerful exploration of the history of racial inequality in the United States.
Help tweens become respectful advocates
Additionally, parents should talk to tweens about why and how their children should speak up if they see discrimination taking place. Dr. Glover recommends connecting it to personal examples and asking children things like:
- Have you ever seen someone who was treated differently because of their skin color or something else that was different?
- If that were to happen again, what are some ways you can speak up?
Parents can help their children develop a plan of action that they are comfortable with, including vocally acknowledging that whatever is happening is unkind or wrong. And practice. Dr. Glover recommends addressing a biased comment by saying something like:
What you said is hurtful. That is an unkind thing to say, and I disagree.
Ways to talk with teenagers and young adults (ages 14 to 21)
Check in frequently
Even younger teens have a much higher level of understanding about current events. In fact, most teens have probably developed their own opinions and have found a way to express them, likely through social media. Even so, Dr. Freeman says parents should continue to have in-depth conversations with their teen about what they’re reading and seeing and how it might make them feel.
Remind teens to be aware of disinformation
Many teens have learned that some of the information they come across online might be “disinformation,” or information that isn’t entirely truthful, designed to make the reader angrier. Although many teens already know this, says Dr. Freeman, parents should remind them why it’s important to fact check what they’re reading to make sure they’re consuming and sharing accurate information.
Common Sense Media has a list of fact-checking tools for teens to help them verify facts as they scan their ever-updating feed of news, memes, satire and political posts.
Teach teens how to get involved, safely
Teens may also want to get involved in the protests or other demonstrations by themselves or with others. Parents should talk about how they can create space for their teen to have that experience while also ensuring their safety. This could include going to the protest as a family. It could also include finding a protest to join that’s closer to home — many smaller communities and neighborhoods are organizing their own events, some just for families.
Thoughts for everyone to keep in mind
As you continue conversations about racism and social injustice with your family, it can be helpful to consider the following:
- Create a safe space to have conversations about inequality: Designate an appropriate time and place to initiate these discussions, such as keeping conversations amongst close family members and friends with whom your children feel comfortable. Likewise, encourage kids to think about who their “safe people” are and who they can trust to be respectful and genuine when they have questions. Sometimes it’s easier to have these conversations while you’re in the car or on a walk.
- Don’t shut kids down: Children are naturally curious, and parents shouldn’t shy away from potentially uncomfortable topics or questions. Avoiding difficult discussions about race can perpetuate stereotypes and make important societal issues taboo.
- Meet kids where they are: Start by listening so you can understand your child’s perspective and where they are coming from. Ask clarifying questions to understand their concerns, and try not to assume what they know or feel. When adults base their responses on what their child shares, kids feel they are being heard and are more likely to relate and understand. This two-way dialogue also gives parents the opportunity to relate the topic to family values, and to teach caring and kindness with real-world examples.
- Look inward: This is a time when everyone – including adults – can take time to examine and challenge their own beliefs and actions as they relate to racism and bias. Think about your own assumptions about black and multiracial people, and try to observe your own behavior.
- Take care of yourself: In tumultuous times, it’s important to acknowledge our own stress, anxiety and discomfort. In order to take the best care of kids, adults need to care for themselves, too. Take time to rest and recharge. Check in with friends and other parents to learn how they are feeling and coping.
- Seek opportunities to learn from others: Look for opportunities to engage in safe and respectful dialogue with black and multiracial people and other people who are different from you. Seek diversity of thought within groups and do your best to listen and remain open-minded. There are many groups providing forums for respectful conversation; look for safe spaces at local churches, universities, schools and other institutions that engage in civil discourse.
Commit to action
The bottom line, both Dr. Freeman and Dr. Glover say, is that no matter how young or old your child is, it’s never too early or too late to start helping them understand racism and its impact. And that’s true of parents, too.
Parents can begin by educating themselves using the following resources, although there are many more available:
- Racial Equity Tools
- Teaching for Change: Teaching Young Children about Race
- Take a ‘Race’ and ‘Skin-tone’ Test to Better Understand Your Own Self-Awareness
- Teaching Children to Honor the Differences in Others
- A Conversation on Race: A Series of Short Films About Identity in America
- Best News Sources for Kids
Using these resources as a starting place, parents can challenge their own personal beliefs and implicit biases and help their kids do the same. At the same time, families should expand their social circles and actively seek to learn about experiences that are different from their own.
Dr. Glover says it’s less about having the right answers and more about helping everyone, especially kids, start the conversation – and keep it going. It isn’t too late.