White parents often feel under-prepared for conversations about race because most of us did not have these kinds of conversations with our own parents. Many parents don’t know where to start and worry they will say the wrong thing, and so conclude that it is better to say nothing at all than risk saying the wrong thing. As we discussed in our previous article, the first step is for parents to engage in personal reflection and information-gathering. The second step is simply to start the conversation, accepting that it might be a bit messy and certainly won’t be perfect.
As you begin these conversations with your children, it is helpful to keep in mind some guiding principles. First, it is never too early to start. Children begin noticing and responding differently to race as early as six months and begin to express racial bias by age three. But on the flip side, if you haven’t yet spoken to your children about these issues, it is never too late to start!
Regardless of the child's age, conversations should be developmentally appropriate. Young children are very literal, so be clear in both the language you use and the messages you’re delivering. As children get older, you can begin to add greater nuance to your discussions. If this is the first time you’ve had conversations about race, it can be helpful to begin by asking questions to gauge what your child already knows and what they may have heard from friends, other family, or the media. It is important to correct any misinformation. It is also important to address stereotypes or other harmful ideas or language. If you are not sure how to correct something in the moment, it’s fine to take some time to figure out how you want to respond — just be sure not to let it go unaddressed.
Finally, admit when you don’t know something. It is important you not shut down the conversation when your child asks a difficult question. This can reinforce that talking about race is taboo and shameful. You do not have to be an expert on race or racism to discuss these topics with children. In fact, it can be powerful modeling to admit when you don’t know something and then work together with your child to find out the answer. Be open to learning from your children, at any age.
Recommendations by age
- The goal at this stage is to get children comfortable talking about race and to dispel common racial myths. Children are starting to become aware of differences at this age, which is why taking a “colorblind” approach is not only confusing to children but harmful in that it teaches them that discussing race or difference is inappropriate. Instead, offer books, toys, and media that feature a diversity of people and comment on the differences that you notice. As attention spans can be short, it is best to engage in short, frequent conversations.
- Young children are concrete in their thinking, and may draw incorrect conclusions about race unless they are explicitly addressed. For example, preschool-aged children may assume Black people are treated poorly because they are “bad.” Leverage preschoolers’ developing sense of fairness to emphasize the unfair ways that Black people have been treated. It is not uncommon for children at this age to assume that people have darker skin because they are “dirty.” This can be clarified with a foundational-level conversation about melanin and clear statements like “people come in all different shades” and “all skin colors are beautiful.”
- For children in grade school, conversations can begin to shift to discrimination, slavery, and effective ways to intervene when one witnesses injustice. Books can be a helpful tool in introducing difficult concepts. These topics should be balanced with examples of Black inventors, scientists, artists, intellectuals, leaders, and heroes as well as celebrations of Black culture and Black joy. Introduce your children to books and films that feature Black protagonists, both historical figures and average fictional children. The latter will help them build their empathy.
- Elementary-aged children are more likely to be aware of protests and discussions about policing. When discussing protests, emphasize both safety and empathy. Helpful phrases include: “We will keep you safe;” “People are more important than property;” “Have you ever felt so passionate about something that you wanted to take action?” Avoid the “one bad apple” idea when talking about police and instead begin to introduce ideas of structural and systemic racism in simple terms. Finally, empower your child to intervene when they see something unfair happening. Provide them with the language to use with peers and a plan for seeking help from an adult.
Middle and high school children
- These discussions will be more complex and are likely to include more learning together. Talk with older children about structural racism and systems of privilege and prejudice. Examples in education are likely to resonate with children this age. Discuss ways in which your own education often privileged white voices and the gaps in knowledge you have as a result and allow that to lead into discussion about access to education. Look to concrete historical and contemporary examples of injustice. Encourage kids at this age to engage in critical thinking about race. Ask your children if there are topics or authors that they would like to explore in more depth. Media literacy is an important skill, so talk about the role the media plays in framing conversations about racism.
- As you discuss privilege, be prepared for your children to express feelings of guilt and sadness. Examine the privileges your family has and why, and then brainstorm ways in which you can use your privilege to make positive change. Children of this age may be interested in participating in protests and/or engaging in online protest or activism. Be prepared to talk together about how your child might engage in both, physically and virtually. Remember that there are many ways to act.
Finally, keep in mind that actions truly speak louder than words. Conversations are crucial, but our children pay more attention to the choices we make. If you witness something unjust, remember that your children are watching how you respond. This may be as simple as speaking up when you overhear a stereotype or biased language on the playground. For more complex issues like a racist practice or policy at school, discuss with your child how you want to address it and allow them to be a part of the solution. Together as a family, decide what steps you will take to promote racial justice on an ongoing basis and follow through.
Jessica Wilen, PhD is an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, where she manages the Viola W. Bernard Fund for Innovation in Mental Health Care, focused on promoting health equity and access for vulnerable children and their families. She is also the mom of a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.
Anna Warbelow, PhD is Director of Equity and Inclusion at Whitfield School, an independent middle and high school in St. Louis, MO and the mother of two young children.