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How to Talk to Your Kids About Race

There’s never been a better time to talk to your children about racism, the actions of the police, and what BLM is doing to effect lasting change

The scene is a familiar one: A teenager, a brand new driver’s license and dreams of the open road greet most parents around the time their child turns 16. But for Black parents in America, it marks a turning point in their child’s life. Known colloquially as “The Talk,” this conversation is usually what most young Black teenagers, especially boys, mark as the end of their childhood. In it, their parents must explain that with their skin color comes an added burden, and with it, an added script in case of a police officer. The phrases are common enough: “Yes sir. No sir.” “Keep your hands visible.” “Keep your license where you can reach it.” “Keep your music down.” “Never speed.” “Always pull over immediately.” 

As a teen in a Southern state and the youngest of three, this was an annoying talk at best. I was aware, but sure my parents were being overly cautious. It took the experiences of my brothers, my friends and my own to realize that their concerns were all too true. Being Black is not easy. I’m not sure it will ever be. But the prevalence of “The Talk” and experiences like the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have proven to be catalysts for an important discussion. Black Lives Matter and the protests surrounding the movement have become more than nightly news stories — they’re visceral, personal, and at their very core, impossible to ignore.

But while a majority of Black parents already talk about race to their children, for white parents of young kids, this newfound reality has forced them to reckon with a difficult subject: How do they do the same? A better question to ask, though, is, why are white parents only talking about race now? And what would a world look like where these discussions take place even after the protests leave our front doors? 

The Expert Advice

Onnie Rogers, psychology professor at Northwestern University: Do kids see race? Can they distinguish different people that have skin colors? Yes, and they can do that from infancy. So, in some ways, kids come into the world capable of seeing and noticing differences. By the time kids are 18 months, they’ve already started to absorb our current notions of gender and started to perform those. So, by the time kids are three, they’re certainly picking up on status differences on the basis of race, and we’re able to have meaningful conversations about it.

We often say that kids are statisticians. They’re taking data in. And kids very early on pick up on, “Well, why are you treating this person that way?” “Why is that this way?” They’re making associations. That’s not the bad thing — the bad thing is to not provide them with true explanations of history and inequality and racism. Because kids are sponges, because they’re engaging in the world, the sooner we provide them with an alternative narrative to the stereotypes, the better. So, certainly, kids are paying attention to the spaces in which their existence is accepted and encouraged and the settings in which it’s shut down. As parents, as educators, it’s an ongoing, proactive process.

The one thing I often tell parents who say, “I don’t feel qualified,” or, “I don’t think I know enough to answer these questions, I need an expert” — yes, there’s an important education component. We need to know history. We need to know the truth about inequality. But more than anything, we need to tap into our own sense of humanity and empathy and be honest with our kids. The more we can give them to help them maintain what they already know about equality, justice and fairness, the better prepared they are when they encounter the racism they inevitably will face in society. So if you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know and then go find out. Just be genuine with your kids. Kids are forgiving, so they will make space for that. 

Ethan Campbell and Alice Yu, protesters and parents of two young kids:
Ethan: We have one girl, Maddie (6) and one boy, Jonah (10). Alice (my wife) is Chinese American, so our first discussions with them about race from an early age were about their own identities and their Chinese heritage. We’ve been increasingly concerned about it as incidents of anti-Chinese racism have risen in response to the coronavirus, though of course we haven’t left the apartment often since March.

The first thing our son said as we were getting ready to attend the Breonna Taylor vigil was, “I’m worried that the police will shoot pepper spray at us,” which might give you an idea of how young kids are perceiving the cops these days. When we look over the crowds, I like to point out signs like, “Imagine What Isn’t Being Filmed,” or a chart showing the police budget relative to health care and education, and ask if he understands what they mean. In general, I told them both to pay close attention to everything, since this is an important moment in history and they will want to remember it years from now. 

The good thing for parents talking about race and racism with their kids is that they don’t have to do it alone. The elementary school our kids attend makes a point of teaching about racism and civil rights, reading books about it and doing class activities like reenacting Rosa Parks’ ride on the bus in Montgomery. This past fall, my son’s fourth grade class read the novel Holes, and I read it along with him. And last weekend, we all watched the CNN Sesame Street special on racism, which was really well done.

Alice: At this point, their understanding is surface level. They understand that people are protesting against racism and that police are treating Black people unfairly, but the deeper understanding of what this means will hopefully develop as they mature, as we have more conversations, and through their own experience.

Jacqueline Douge, pediatrician and family blogger: Do it in an age-appropriate way. Meet your kids where they are and also engage in questions. I love books, and I think they’re an extremely helpful medium. Don’t shy away from the topic. Our kids are already much more aware of situations than we give them credit for, either through observations of parents’ reactions to certain situations or hearing it from friends or other family members. More than anything, it’s important for parents to talk about the impact of racism. Not just having it in conversation, but also modeling the way for them to make some positive changes. 

Race is at the root of all of our societal issues. Our country was set up on the premise of determining racial groups to set priorities and to set privilege. If we talk about race and acknowledge it, especially for communities of color, it affirms them. As people of color, especially Black people in the U.S., it sort of grounds the conversation and gives you an opportunity to then create this tapestry that provides cultural context. 

For kids, it’s important to show that we have triumphed, that there are hard-fought battles that have been won: “This is who you are. This is how you identify.” And it grounds kids, if they understand who they are and how people perceive them, but that they can also make a difference, and be themselves as well. 

Each family is going to have their unique discussions about their cultural identities, their racial identities. It does change by age, right? Because you’re going to talk differently to a three-year-old than you are a teenager, there’s abstract versus concrete thinking. But across the board, there’s a commonality in the conversation for each racial group, however you identify, because all parents want their kids to be compassionate, kind and fair. And in doing that, it sets the groundwork that even though other people look different, we’re all similar.

Jemar Tisby, historian, PHD candidate and author of The Color of Compromise: Parents always have to navigate this tension, especially parents of Black children, of wanting them to have time to be kids and be innocent, and not have to worry about how other people are perceiving them and not develop this idea that, “My body is a problem for people.” At the same time, you don’t want them to be caught off guard, especially in a dangerous situation. And raising a young Black boy, data shows us that in two to three years, he’s going to be perceived as several years older than he is, and therefore, perceived as a greater threat. You wanna prepare your kids for that reality. 

We navigate that, but we tend to err on the side of more information than less. One of the things we’re careful about, we don’t show him any images, any graphic images. As he gets older, he’ll probably run across it in his schooling, but we’re very careful about it. I also did a short video with The Atlantic about how to talk to kids about race.  

Most of our conversations are on-the-go. We’re eating, we’re in the car. But when we stop and make everything still and say something, for him it comes across as more important, because whatever the context of that moment, we’re making space for it. That’s sort of a social cue, a conversation cue, that what I’m about to say is important. You may not understand all of it, but daddy really means it. 

I’m also a PHD candidate at the University of Mississippi and I’m a teaching assistant in freshman history courses with 18- and 19-year-olds, and I can tell you with great certainty that a lot of parents are not having these conversations, or at least they’re not having them well. And these are teenagers. People always wanna say that these racial problems are generational: “Let the older people die off and this younger generation is gonna have this fresh new perspective to race.” No. Bad ideas about race get passed down way more often than good ones. 

It’s a big responsibility for white parents to proactively educate their children, which is going to require white parents to proactively educate themselves. It really just struck me that the movie, The Help, was number #1 on streaming platforms. That shows a very shallow understanding about race. And so, until this generation of parents who are raising kids that are still at home get a lot more savvy about discussing race, we’re gonna have a lot of deconstructing to do.

Jennifer Keitt, behavioral consultant and author of Strong Kids: My kids grew up in a very pro-Black home. And I’m saying these words very carefully because I wanted to ensure that they all knew they were beautiful, they were loved, they were esteemed. So we always had conversations about who they were, what they are and what that means, especially in conversations when they got older. 

I’ve been doing a lot of specific research about the toxic stress associated with racism, how that’s internalized, and then how it’s experienced by our children. There is a lot that we can’t shield them from, so I believe that parents need to be uber in tune with what they’re feeling, and why they’re feeling what they’re feeling. The research clearly says that great parents parent themselves first, have an understanding of their mental condition first, before they begin to help their children become self-aware. 

Emotional intelligence centers on four key concepts. First, I’ve gotta be aware: Aware that I’m feeling something. I think for many white Americans, especially in this go-around, they realize they are feeling something. Then I’ve got to name appropriately what I’m feeling, have a vocabulary. The third step is really being able to express my emotions appropriately. Laughing, crying, walking, protesting, creating policy, creating change to get to that place where I can express what I’m feeling in a way that validates my feeling but that’s an appropriate addition to the discourse. Then, and only then, am I able to manage my emotions effectively. That four-tiered process needs to be taught immediately: What are you thinking? What are you feeling? How do those two connect? And what can we do to express ourselves in an appropriate way?

Louise Derman-Sparks, life-long activist and anti-bias educator: I got started in the 1980s specifically around doing anti-bias work, but it was really because of my adopted son, who is of mixed race parentage. I’d also say that by the time my son was 10 or 11, he absolutely needed “the talk.” The message we were trying to give him was that he had to be careful around police, that some people in this country didn’t like African Americans, that it wasn’t his fault and that there were people, like us, who were trying to change it. Which is kind of ironic, since we’re still talking 40 years later. 

The starting place is that parents have to really listen to their kids and try to be honest while also paying attention to what age the child is. You don’t want to scare the kids too much, but you also want to tell them the truth. And depending on where you live and who you are, telling the truth may not be fun. Often, the truth is hard. It’s painful. But you can’t tell young children of color that the police are their friends. 

Silence is the worst thing that white parents can do, especially if they think that racism is wrong. Your children are picking up on what’s happening from a very early age. But if you leave children alone to face all these issues, they create their own theories and confusions and fears. 

Parents don’t have to have all the answers either. They just have to role model caring about this, acknowledging it, facing it and learning about racism. The last piece is that we must also teach our kids about the movements of social justice, and let them know that there were white people who have participated and are still participating. That’s what was important to me: That when I taught about the white role in racism, I also pointed out that there are people who spent their entire lives fighting to change this, so kids don’t feel immobilized by it. For me, you have a responsibility to change what’s going on in the world. So as an 80-year-old activist, it’s been remarkable to watch this.