How to Talk to Your Kids, Tweens and Teens about Racism

June 09, 2020

Most parents have two instincts: to protect their child always, and to teach them right from wrong. Recent events, including the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and subsequent international protests against racism, have brought to the forefront those two parenting aspirations, forcing many parents to question how best to teach and talk to children about racism, discrimination and civil unrest.

Conversations about racism between parents and children should start early and continue frequently. Children hear about the horrific events like George’s Floyd’s killing, violence and discrimination in their communities and around the country. Parents should help them understand what is happening before they see it on social media, overhear a conversation or watch the news.

First and foremost, Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, Lurie Children’s pediatrician and Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Minority Health, Equity and Inclusion Committee, stresses that parents take care of themselves first. Parents must navigate their own feelings and emotions before they help navigate their child’s. Having these important conversations with your children and facilitating a dialogue is critical to the change we need to progress forward together.

“It’s never too early to talk to children about race and racism,” Dr. Heard-Garris says.

Infants

Race-based differences and bias can begin as early as six months of age. To fight systemic racism, it’s important that early on children see brown and black kids in a positive light.  One way to do so is by reading books to your child that include multi-racial characters.  Books and toys can be good tools to help recognize and celebrate differences. Dr. Heard-Garris recommends "Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness" and "Something Happened in Our Town."

"There's also a website called the Brown Bookshelf," Dr.  Heard-Garris says. "These are books that have brown and black protagonists who deal at times with tough issues. I think books are really, really fundamental, especially for younger kids.”

Preschool and Elementary Children

Younger and school-aged children are more aware of the world around them, yet might not fully understand what they see on the news or overhear in conversations. They tend to pick up more on the tone and the fear illustrated on television rather than the meaning of what is happening or why.

This is the age, however, that kids’ natural curiosity blossoms and flourishes. The frequent question, “Why?” is all too familiar to parents at this age. Experts share that parents shouldn’t stray away from answering their child’s questions, even if they might not understand how to answer. Parents should validate their child’s question and feelings. Ask them questions in return about how they are feeling and why. “Why do you think that’s unfair?” Ask them about what they know.  Additionally, limit the amount of television young children watch. Offer them a controlled environment for sharing emotions and asking questions openly.

Don’t be silent. Racism is not something to shy away from addressing with your child. "Children are looking to their parents to filter the world for them. It's the parents' responsibility to make sense of the world — and the world can be a big and scary place without somebody to help. To have a long lasting and enduring, nurturing relationship with your kids being honest is really important, " Dr. Heard-Garris says.

Middle School

Tweens and teens are very connected with their peers. Many kids this age have their own smartphones and are frequently on social media.  They are watching and learning about police brutality, racism, protests and civil unrest on their own. It’s important for parents to be part of that learning, but to let them lead the conversation when appropriate.

At this age, kids may start to discuss their own views about racism, protests and societal inequalities. They might be compelled to participate in activism and be more outspoken about their feelings. "Other teens, especially those that are white, are educating themselves about why this is happening, what's the history of our country, what's happening right now,” Dr. Heard-Garris says. “Intellectualizing the issues has been helpful for them to understand this is not just a today problem, this has been going on for years.”

Movies and documentaries that educate teens on the history of discrimination can be helpful to parents to jumpstart meaningful conversations with their youth. Common Sense Media has lists of movies that discuss racism or inspire kids to "change the world."

High School

Continuing the conversation as your child gets older and more independent is still important. Just because they know about current events doesn’t mean you should shy away from hard and honest conversations. Allow them to feel comfortable about asking questions. Continue to check in with them about what they’ve seen or heard and how they are feeling. Encourage them to share their voice.

Dr. Heard-Garris says, “The best advice I can give parents is to be models for the attitudes, behavior and values that they wish to see in their children.”

For all ages, Dr. Heard-Garris says to keep the following tips in mind: check in with your child often, watch for changes in their behavior, limit what your child sees in media, be aware of your own emotions, use this teachable moment and rely on resources to help. Talking about race, racism and protesting injustices shouldn’t just be a one-time conversation.

"Talking about this early and often is really important," Dr. Heard-Garris says. "It's an ongoing conversation. It should not be a one off. To really get to that better world, that more equitable world, we need to strive to be anti-racist. If we are not even willing to name the names and label of racism for what it is we will never get there."