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Babies as young as three months start to process ideas about race. We owe it to our kids to talk about it.
It can be uncomfortable to talk about race with anyone, let alone figure out a way to distill an explanation of race and our country's legacy of racism against Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) to a level that a kid can understand.
As a result, a lot of families — especially white families — are not having conversations about race, and certainly not about racism and power, says Margaret Hagerman, Ph.D., author of White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America. "White kids in my research learn about race as a result of interpreting patterns they observe related to where they live, where they go to school, the media they consume, their peers, and even where they travel," she tells Good Housekeeping. "How parents choose to set up their kids’ lives has serious consequences for the lessons kids interpret and the cues they pick up on from that environment."
This might stem from the idea that race is a subject too taboo to talk about. "We're coming off a real 'colorblind' generation, where we weren't supposed to talk about race and a lot of us — especially but not exclusively white people — didn't talk about it growing up," says Melissa Giraud, co-founder of Embrace Race, an organization that seeks to support parents and caregivers with the tools they need to raise kids who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. "Many parents are still afraid to talk about it now, because you might get called out, or say the wrong thing. It's really fraught for people. But it's important to realize that there are some very persistent and destructive narratives about what race signifies, and it's our job as parents to counter them starting very early on, and to continue that discussion, with increasing nuance as they get older.”
In reality, kids aren't colorblind. Oft-cited research says by 3 months of age, babies are already more comfortable with adults who have the same skin color as their parents. "Other studies show that by age 2 and 4, kids can already internalize racial bias," says Natalie Weder, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. "As parents we might love for our kid to be colorblind, but that's not something that actually happens. Children notice. If we don't have these conversations with our kids ourselves, they will happen, and they will happen in ways that we might not want them to."
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Sachi Feris is a co-founder of Raising Race-Conscious Children, which holds anti-racist workshops for parents. She says one of the assumptions the workshops have to push back against is the idea that noticing and talking about race reinforces racism. In fact, the opposite is true: Refusing to talk about it ultimately upholds the status quo. "Race was invented to give power to some and less to others," she says. "If we can't talk about it, and name it, and honor experience of oppression, discrimination, and racism that people without white privilege have to face, we can't get anywhere. We can't move the needle forward."
Talking about racism, on the other hand, works to counter it. "We've learned that kids who are taught about racism at an early age become more respectful, more aware, and, in general, have fewer racial biases as they get older," Dr. Weder says.
When children are toddlers and preschoolers, you can point out the ways skin tone varies among the members of your family, or validate the differences your child notices between the skin tones of the kids at the playground. "At this age, racial and ethnic differences are not bad or good, they just are," says Kim Parker, LCSW, author of East Meets West: Parenting From the Best of Both Worlds.
Toddlers have a natural tendency to point out differences, anyway — often loudly, and in public. ("Mommy, look! That person has poofy hair! I want to touch it!") While it's a good idea to teach kids not to point or talk about people behind their backs — or touch someone without consent — the embarrassment you feel in those situations may cause you to react in a way that closes the conversation down entirely. ("Shhh! That's not nice!") That may send a message to kids that there are negative feelings around whatever differences they noticed.
While emphasizing that it's not polite to point or grab, try to keep a positive spin on things. "It's not shameful when a kid notes other’s skin color: 'You are white. I am Black. Juan is brown.' Or 'she’s dark-skinned, and I’m light-skinned,'" Parker says. "Still, take care to not let your kids get in the habit of labeling someone as 'the Asian kid' or 'the Black kid,' since that can be dehumanizing."
Instead, use it as an opening for more conversation when you get home. "This is such a great opportunity to learn together," says Candice Nicole Hargons, Ph.D., the founding director of the Center for Healing Racial Trauma at the University of Kentucky. "If your toddler says, 'Look, that person has different hair,' say, 'Yes, your hair is different than their hair — let's learn about new types and textures of hair today.'"
It's also a good idea to build a library of kids' books with diverse main characters. "As you're reading together, say simple things like, 'look at this smart kid' or 'look at that happy person' while pointing to pictures of the BIPOC," she adds. "Your language should be actively countering stereotypes about people from marginalized racial backgrounds, while simultaneously affirming your child for being uniquely who they are."
In addition to books, you can take your children to different cultural events, buy dolls and toys that represent a variety of races, try out foods from different communities, and talk about different people you admire from different backgrounds. "When you talk about heroes, mention heroes from all different communities," Dr. Weder says. "There's so many amazing artists, amazing writers, scientists, and athletes."
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As kids get older, it's important not to just talk about race, but racism specifically. Work ideas of anti-racism into a context kids already understand. "A child in elementary school has a strong bias towards 'fair' and 'unfair' behaviors," says Shelli Dry, ODT, a pediatric therapist and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child. "To work on developing awareness of social injustice, parents can use this strong sense of fairness in their conversations with the child. This is a good time to start working on a knowledge of basic human rights."
"At this age, it's also important to talk about history," Dr. Weder says. "Explain that racism didn't just start yesterday, and that it's been going on for hundreds of years. Expose them to books about racism, and have open conversations."
Explain to them that racism isn't something that can be solved by being nice to everybody — that it's present in every facet of the way we've set up our society. "Our conversations with kids about race have to go beyond kindness and talk about power," Giraud says. "Who makes the rules? Are they fair to all people or do they advantage some over others? What are we going to do about that? Kindness won't solve racism, so kids need to understand that more action is needed to change things."
Leave space for it to be a two-way discussion, Giraud says, since kids are going to have a lot of questions. "With young people, it's important to ask a lot of questions, and not be too talky," she adds. "We have to realize that there's a lot in the culture and a lot of it is pretty confusing, because race actually doesn't make a lot of sense. We have to keep asking our kids questions to get down at their level to try to understand their logic and how they're experience something."
Older elementary schoolers and middle school students start to develop viewpoints that are different from their parents, so they'll start to deal with these issues on their own or with friends. "By age 12, kids start to have very strong opinions," says Dr. Weder. "It's an age when kids start to have independence, and they might challenge their parents' views and values just to become more independent. And they're also heavily influenced by peers. It's not so much what we tell our children at this age, but how we act."
"They now receive messages from schools, peers, religious environments, and media about race," says Dr. Hargons. "If their environments are predominantly white, they are likely receiving racist messages. Kids start trying to fit in, and social hierarchies begin to form. Some kids use racism as a way to align with whomever they see as powerful. This is where you see bullying begin." Show them that racist jokes are never funny or acceptable — and follow through by not making any racist comments yourself.
Encourage your kids to step in when they see injustices. "Teach them to speak up — if they see something that are unfair, they need to act," Dr. Weder says. "It's important that kids of color are protected and feel as valued and as proud in their communities. We must teach them that it's never okay to discriminate, and they practice living that way so it just becomes the way they live their lives." You can also get kids volunteering, fundraising, and attending rallies or marches to help fight injustice, if they haven't been doing so already.
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If school isn't connecting the dots for kids about how the racism they learn about in history affects how we all live today, you can make those connections for them. "Teach them about the history of racial oppression and how racism is bigger than people having stereotypes or prejudices — it's about a system of power and is built into our laws, institutions, policies, and so forth," says Dr. Hagerman. "This might mean that parents need to do some learning in this area, and families can do this learning together."
You might also need to go back and correct the record regarding the way the school teaches history. (What's the school's teaching on the First Thanksgiving, for example?) "Introducing kids to less sanitized, less mythical stories about white people in the United States is core to their anti-racist development — and yours, too," Dr. Hargons says. "For example, the Tulsa massacres and lynchingsare important to understanding economic and social disparities. Discussing the white resistance to school desegregation is important to understanding educational disparities." Help them understand how these events are connected to what they're seeing in the news.
And take ownership of your own, too. "One of the most important things white parents can do is to let your children know how to accept responsibility when they inevitably do or say something racist," Dr. Hargons says. "Anyone with privilege will make oppressive mistakes throughout their lives — white people, straight people, able-bodied people, and so on — and becoming anti-racist is an ongoing journey. The key to that journey is to own when you mess up and seek to repair the harm done, rather than to minimize, deflect, or defend against the discomfort of knowing you've done harm."
And now is the perfect time to start. "This is not the time to feel shame and let that paralyze you," Dr. Hargons adds. "This is the time to express remorse and accountability through action. This is a new, useful energy you can mobilize to transform your family, community, and the nation. "