How do you talk to children about racism?
The death of George Floyd in the US and the following protests and riots have made talking about racism front and centre. Children might overhear a news story or their friends talking, which means it’s key for you to have a plan of action for discussing racism with your children. Teaching children to recognise and challenge structures and practices that fuel inequality and cause harm will not only change society for the better, but it will empower your children, too.
The most important thing you can give your child? Yourself. Children need a trusted adult they can talk to during rough times, whether it be a discussion on racism or something else.
But what should you say? According to DR SANVEEN KANG, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Psych Connect, the way a parent approaches the topic of racism should depend on the age of the child.
Talking about racism with younger children
#1 Be honest
Don’t encourage children not to “see” colour or tell children we are all the same. Rather, discuss differences openly and highlight diversity by choosing picture books, toys, games and videos that feature diverse characters in positive, non-stereotypical roles.
#2 Embrace curiosity
Be careful not to ignore or discourage your child’s questions about differences among people, even if the questions make you uncomfortable. Not being open to such questions sends the message that difference is negative.
#3 Foster pride
Talk to your child about your family heritage to encourage self-knowledge and a positive self-concept.
#4 Lead by example
Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.
Talking about racism with older children and pre-adolescents
As children move into older childhood and pre-adolescence, take a firmer stance.
#1 Model it
Talking about racism with your child and discussing the importance of embracing difference and treating others with respect is essential, but it’s not enough. Your actions, both subtle and overt, are what your child will emulate.
#2 Acknowledge differences
Rather than teaching children that we are all the same, acknowledge the many ways people are different, and emphasise some of the positive aspects of our differences — language diversity and various music and cooking styles, for example. Likewise, be honest about instances — both historical and current — when people have been mistreated because of their differences. Encourage your child not only to talk about what makes them different, but also to discuss ways that may have helped or hurt them at times. After that, finding similarities becomes even more powerful, creating a sense of common ground.
#3 Challenge intolerance
If your child says or does something indicating bias or prejudice, don’t meet the action with silence. Silence indicates acceptance, and a simple command such as “Don’t say that” is not enough. First, try to find the root of the action or comment: “What made you say that about Sam?” Then, explain why the action or comment was unacceptable.
#4 Seize teachable moments
Look for everyday activities that can serve as springboards for discussion. School-age children respond better to lessons that involve real-life examples than to artificial or staged discussions about issues. For example, if you’re watching TV together, talk about why certain groups often are portrayed in stereotypical roles.
#5 Emphasise the positive
Just as you should challenge your child’s actions if they indicate bias or prejudice, it’s important to praise them for behaviour that shows respect and empathy for others. Catch your child treating people kindly, let your chld know you noticed, and discuss why it’s a desirable behaviour.
Talking about racism with teenagers
Teenagers are able to have more intense conversations, so focus on keeping the conversation going.
#1 Use current issues from the news as a springboard for discussion
Ask your teen what they think about the issues.
#2 Stay involved
Ask your teen about the group or groups they most identify with at school. Discuss the labels or stereotypes that are associated with such groups.
#3 Live congruently
Discussing the importance of valuing difference is essential, but modelling this message is even more vital. Evaluate your own circle of friends or the beliefs you hold about certain groups of people. Do your actions match the values you discuss with your teen? Teens are more likely to be influenced by what you do than what you say, so it’s important for your words and behaviors to be congruent.
#4 Broaden opportunities
It may be natural for teens to stick to groups they feel most comfortable with during the school day. These often are the people they identify as being most like themselves. Provide other opportunities for your teen to interact with peers from different backgrounds. So, suggest volunteer, extracurricular and work opportunities that will broaden your teen’s social circle.
#5 Encourage activism
Promote healthy ways for your teen to get involved in causes they care about. When young people know they have a voice in their community, they’re empowered to help resolve issues.
Here is a great list of kid-friendly movies to help build a conversation about racism.
The New York Times recommends the following books about racism:
Connect with Dr Kang here. She also offers virtual counselling sessions.
Intersted to know more? Then read on to discover how stress affects children.