It’s Time to Talk About Race 

Disclosure :: This post is sponsored by The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

It’s Time to Talk About Race

The recent tragic and unjust events have brought us to another turning point that we as parents must acknowledge; an opportunity to have an impact that creates a better future for all children…

As our news and social media channels continue to be filled with stories of protests across our country, parents may be wondering how to talk to their kids about race – and it’s time to talk about it!

From a young age, children notice differences – Black children, White children, Brown children, and everything in between. People have believed that talking about race meant calling attention to it and, consequently, teaching children to notice differences. But it is natural for children to notice differences, starting at a very young age – as young as six months. If parents and teachers want to guide children in establishing respect for differences, “being nice” is not enough.

It is time to have the tough conversations, recognize and adjust our own inherent biases as parents or caregivers, to talk to our children about what is right, and to celebrate inclusiveness and equality for all humankind.

Babies and Toddlers

In the first few years of life, babies begin constructing personal and social identities – before they can even talk about them. They pay more attention to faces that look like that of their caregiver and begin to show preferences based on what is familiar. Be aware of how you talk to people and be aware of the impact not talking may have.

When they can talk, toddlers will notice and comment on differences. When they are hushed, the message that there is something wrong with differences begins. Instead, help children by recognizing the things they notice and giving them the language to understand what they are seeing or hearing. Expand their exposure to differences through books and toys, music and other sounds, and experiences. Begin the lifelong conversation about differences by recognizing ways people are alike and ways they are different – giving value to both. Focusing on all the ways we are similar is important. Did you know that the sound of children laughing and playing is the same across all races, nationalities, religions, and geographies?

Preschool to School Age

3-year-olds are naturally curious and will ask questions. Let’s use that to help them ask the right questions and start a conversation. By this age children have begun to assign characteristics to certain groups and are curious to know more. They become more interested in peers and are developmentally prone to favor their own groups. They may begin to identify with other people who are like them, especially with respect to race and gender. A four-year-old, for example, may say that boys are stronger or those who look like him are better because he identifies with his group and because of implicit biases he is exposed to that he can now put into words. By the start of kindergarten, without intentional and systemic change, children begin to show implicit racial attitudes that our culture holds.

The reality is that racism is part of American society today and children will be exposed to racial stereotypes. As parents, it is not enough to teach them that racism is bad, we have to show them from a young age how to be anti-racist. We have to put our words into action.

Children in this stage of concrete thinking are quick to interpret the messages they see around them. They amplify the messages they learn at home, in their communities, and through literary and media messaging. Make sure your children see you reach out to what is different or new, show curiosity and learn from new ideas.

Children in this age group are also very interested in the idea of fairness. When your children see something that is unfair, help them express what that may feel like and what can be done in response. By giving children the language and the freedom to express what they see, you start a conversation that can continue throughout their development.

By the time children are in elementary school, they are aware of the different ways people are grouped and identified. They have learned to associate some groups with higher status and others with limitations. Early elementary age children are ready for discussions about differences and attitudes that challenge the inherent biases they have experienced.

Encourage children to think critically and to confront bias. Start with a question: “What would you do to make sure people are not treated differently because of how they look?” or “How do you think the people on TV are feeling?” “Do you know why they are angry?”

When your child asks a question or makes an assumption, make sure he or she has good information. Talk about how skin color is passed on the same way other physical traits are passed on. When there is something you don’t know, find out. For example, people often group race and ethnicity together, basing both on shared physical traits. Ethnicity is the identification of a group based on a shared heritage, nationality, and, often, language. Race is a social construct based on physical appearance, like skin color, hair, and bone structure, that has been used to categorize people and, historically, to rank groups. So people who are categorized in America as Black may be from very different ethnic backgrounds.

Next, give your child some age appropriate things to think about, like, “How are you and your friend Charlotte alike, and how are you different,” “I wonder what it’s like for Craig to be the only African American boy on the soccer team?” or “What have you seen in your social media about the protests? How does this make you feel?”

Move Beyond What is Comfortable

Early awareness of differences is part of early social emotional development. Studies have also shown the early development of race preference. Children of all races are vulnerable to messages that favor lighter skinned people. It is not enough to depend on multicultural materials and experiences, and it is inappropriate to appropriate from other cultures or to recognize people of different races and ethnicities only during celebrations. Bias and prejudice will also not be eliminated – and will instead be perpetuated – using a “colorblind” or “we are all equal” approach.

Children need adults to talk about race the same way we talk about other differences – gender, religion, neighborhood, size, and so on. Help children learn respect and consideration by treating them with such and modeling that with others; prioritize family values that treat all people with consideration. Understand that, especially in White families, your discomfort talking about race may reflect your own bias and take some time to learn more about implicit bias and the part it plays in current, inequitable systems.

When something is confusing, look for your own trusted sources. There are no quick answers to this very old problem but there is a lot to think about. When you see bias and prejudice, name it. When adults brush issues away out of disregard or discomfort, they lose the opportunity to be a trusted source. It is okay to be uncomfortable in a conversation. This is a hard topic – but it is too important to leave to someone else.

Creating a better world for our children does not include a future filled with racism or violence.

The time for conversation and change is now.

Tips for Parents

  • Answer questions openly and honestly. Remember that if you show shame or discomfort children are less likely to ask questions and may get their information from other sources.
  • Be aware of the social identities in your and your child’s world. Think about your family, your community, the media your child sees. What is helpful? Harmful?
  • Challenge your own perceptions and, especially, negative associations.
  • Listen to yourself. Do you use words like “normal”, “them”, and “other?” How?
  • Step out of the comfort zone you have grown into. By growing your world a little, you give your child a bigger start!

Resources For More Information:


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