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PEP Blog

09|01

Talking to Kids About Race and Racism

By Bridget G. Edwards and Lynne Ticknor

It’s never too early to start talking to kids about race and racism. Babies as young as 3 months old can recognize racial differences, and just a few years later, they begin to show biases for or against different racial groups. You might want to say, “My children don’t see color,” but scientific research shows that they do notice skin tone just like they notice other characteristics like hair color and body build. Experts also encourage the acknowledgment, celebration and acceptance of such differences.

Why is it necessary?

Young children are very good observers, like little scientists watching everything that happens around them. When it comes to race, they start assigning value to skin color by watching how Black, Indigenous and other people of color are treated. Children learn this from subtle messages they receive from family members, neighbors, teachers, the media and from a country plagued by systemic racism. When parents don’t discuss race and racism, their children learn that it’s not important. Discussing racism teaches children that it still presents a threat to people of color today.

Why is it so hard?

Conversations about difficult topics like race will be different depending upon the racial and ethnic makeup of your family. For white parents raising white children, the topic of white privilege – the advantages white people share because they are not treated unfairly because of the color of their skin – can be an enlightening and ongoing topic of conversation. Children of color learn about racism from experiences in their everyday lives. It is painful and difficult to talk about. Black families in particular have the task of teaching “social self-defense” – instructing their children on how to react to racial slurs from other children and adults, and how to stay safe when dealing with police or others in authority. Such conversations rarely exist in all-white families.

When/How do we start?

Many parents say they want to have these discussions with their children but are intimidated by the topic. Questions like, “What if I say something wrong?” “How can I describe acts of racism?” and “What if my child asks a question that I don’t know the answer to?” swirl around in the heads of well-intentioned parents. The first part is educating yourself (see list of resources for adults, at the end).

Have the difficult conversations

Since young children can only process simple, age-appropriate information delivered in small chunks, you don’t need to have all the answers. There is no need to feel your comments must be perfect. Starting with basic observations that all people have different shades of skin is a start. If your child asks questions that you don’t know how to answer, it’s fine to tell them that you don’t know, but that you’ll find out the answer and get back to them. With older children, suggest that they investigate with you. You can use this as a time of connecting and learning together.

Select books that show racial, cultural & ethnic diversity

According to School Readiness Consulting, an advisory group in Silver Spring, Maryland, “Books should feature a variety of racial and social characteristics that allow children to see themselves and others represented in an affirming way.” Seek books that have characters of color acting in non-stereotypical roles, as well as books that have same-gender, multi-generational and other nontraditional families represented. Within the pages of these books, children will gain awareness of others and connect with a world that is consistent with what they are experiencing in real life and on screens.

Get comfortable with your own racial identity

Every family has a history, often with rich, long-standing traditions. It is important for us as parents to do the internal work to determine what our own concerns and struggles may be about our origins. Then we can decide what we wish to pass on, in terms of culture and attitudes, to our children. People of color have historically been made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. However, families – of all races – can strengthen themselves from within by acknowledging not only contributions to society made by others among our group, but the positive attributes and contributions of family members. Our lives are not happenstance. We have a purpose, and we help our children tremendously by being comfortable with who they are.

Know your own biases

We all have biases. Karen Steinhauser, an attorney and law professor, conducts workshops for businesses and groups on implicit and unconscious bias. In her article “Everyone Is a Little Bit Biased,” Steinhauser states, “Having a bias doesn’t make you a bad person, however, and not every bias is negative or hurtful. It’s not recognizing biases that can lead to bad decisions at work, in life and in relationships.” And even though everyone has both explicit and implicit biases, the implicit ones are more dangerous because these are stereotypes and attitudes that we are comfortable with.

Prepare for a marathon (be in it for the long haul)

In this modern age, many of us are driven by “lists” – “5 tips on how to stop whining,” “10 ways to get cooperation with chores” and the lists go on! It can give us a false sense of, “When I get this list completed, I’ll have success – it will be done!” The reality is that the art of parenting is recognizing the long game. And parents grow and learn at every phase of the marathon, along with their children. Guiding our children through the obstacles of racism and its effects will take intentional effort and can reduce our own stress. We’re in this together. And when our children know that we are there for them, learning and sharing what we know – and most importantly, modeling the encouraging, positive behaviors and attitudes we want them to internalize – they will trust our guidance as they mature into adults.

Suggested Books for White Parents

  • “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” by Robin DiAngelo
  • “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum

Suggested Books for BIPOC Parents

  • “The ABC’s of Survival” created in partnership with the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) abcsofsurvival.com/#book
  • “Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America” by Nefertiti Austin
  • “The Brown Mama Mindset: A Blueprint for Black Moms on Life, Love and Home” by Muffy Mendoza

Suggested Books for Kids

  • “My Papi Has a Motorcycle” by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña
  • “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family” by Ibtihaj Muhammad, illustrated by S. K. Ali Hatem Aly
  • “Are Your Stars Like My Stars?” by Leslie Helakoski, illustrated by Heidi Woodward Sheffield
  • “¿Qué haces con Paleta?” (“What Can You Do with Paleta?”) by Carmen Tafolla, illustrated by Magaly Morales
  • “Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
  • “All Kinds of People” by Shelley Rotner
  • “Shades of People” by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly
  • “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners” by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho
  • “Eyes That Speak to the Star” by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho
  • “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal
  • “We Are Water Protectors” by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
  • “Skin Like Mine” by LaTashia M. Perry
  • “Love Makes a Family” by Sophie Beer

This article appears in the September 2022 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

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