Recent events are an all-too unsettling reminder of the overt and also insidious presence of racism in our country. Many may be experiencing feelings of outrage, sadness, and pain. As a community, we are committed to embracing diversity and to affirming the humanity of all people, regardless of background. How do we teach our children these values? How can we discuss such a deep and often painful topic with our youngest ones? And why is it so important that we speak with our children about racism?
The “why” and “how” we speak to children about racism are both layered and multidimensional. Having these conversations with children enables a deeper understanding of systemic racism, its history and perpetuation, along with providing opportunities for dialogue around the need for change. While some may be hesitant to discuss such weighty issues with children, consider the implicit message that is sent when we don’t have these dialogues. When we don’t open discussions about certain topics such as racism, we inadvertently send a message that this is not something to be talked about, or that it is irrelevant and unimportant. We are passively reinforcing the status quo.
The question of how we engage with young people in conversations about racism is one that requires sensitivity and intentionality. Like other topics, engaging your child in a developmentally appropriate way is important. Doing so ensures that we are meeting our children where they are, having in mind where they currently stand along their developmental trajectory, from a cognitive and social-emotional perspective.
Children of early childhood age are already noticing differences amongst people, such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture. In fact, research shows that babies as young as 3 months are able to notice differences, and that racial bias can develop as early as 2 years of age. If your child makes a comment about someone’s skin tone or other physical features, use that as an opportunity to celebrate these differences. You might say something like, “Isn’t it amazing and wonderful that we are all so different?” It is okay to acknowledge differences in physical appearance, so long as we are not ascribing meaning to those differences (i.e. because you look a certain way, you should be treated differently). Use literature and other media sources that include and celebrate characters with diverse backgrounds.
Children of elementary school age can be engaged even more directly in conversations about racism. The goal is to engage them in a developmentally appropriate manner, adding details, context, and information over time. Children over time will learn about the history of slavery and segregation in our country, and the longstanding impact that has had on the Black community. You may point out racial bias in the media and in books (e.g. who is commonly casted as the “bad guy” or villain?). You may also have conversations about times they were excluded or treated differently, and how that may have felt. Continue the conversation by generating ideas of how we all want to be treated, and some ways in which we can change our words and our actions to approach those ideals.
Finally, it is important that we balance the message about the reality of racism, with the empowering messages about the possibility for change. We have the power to model inclusivity and teach compassion to our children and acknowledge when we might be struggling in these areas ourselves.