How to talk with your kids about racism

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Be a positive role model as you discuss racism and inequality with your kids. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Racism. Inequality. Protests. If you and your family have access to a radio, TV, or mobile devices, your kids have likely heard or seen these topics discussed after the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Racism is not an easy topic, and if you’re having a hard time knowing how and when to discuss these issues with your kids, you’re not alone. Many parents feel confused about how much to share, especially with younger children. For some tips, we turned to Dr. Kevin Simon, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Educate yourself

As a parent, it’s important to understand the concepts of structural inequity and systemic racism before trying to talk with your child about these ideas. Dr. Simon says if you perceive you have never experienced racism firsthand or haven’t recognized the privileges that are given to certain communities, it’s important to do so before attempting to talk with your child.

“One way to do that with your child is to find age-appropriate books that talk about the experience,” he says. “Reading them together is a good way to go through the learning process with your child, and it allows kids to have their own set of questions that you can talk about together.”

A few book titles Dr. Simon recommends:
“Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice”
“The Day You Begin”
“Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation”
“Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History”
“Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story”
“The Whispering Town”
“Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down”
“That’s not fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice”
“Antiracist Baby”

Make it age-appropriate

Because kids understand the world around them based on their age and developmental level, it’s important to keep this in mind as you bring up concepts like racism and inequality.

“Preschool kids are likely aware something is happening, but racism is an abstract concept for them,” says Dr. Simon. “So you want to talk about it in terms they likely can understand, such as good and bad and fairness in the world. These are concepts that are relatable.”

As your kids start going to school and interacting with different kinds of people, he says you can begin to add more layers of nuance to your conversations. “While the concept of racism is still difficult for 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds, you can explain that sometimes people may not be fair to people with different shades of skin color. This is something they can understand. For example, you can ask them, ‘Would it be fair if you always got more ice cream than someone else just because of the color of your skin?’ That’s a real-world example that kids can understand and can help them begin the process of learning to be fair with people. Then you can explain that this is the reason so many people are really upset, because some people are not being treated fairly because of their skin color.”

As kids enter middle school, Dr. Simon says it’s important to begin to introduce actual words related to racism and structural inequality. If you’re not sure how to bring it up, start the conversation while watching a TV show or the news. Allow your kids to ask questions, and really listen to what they have to say.

Dr. Simon says middle school is also the time when parents of black and brown children should begin having direct conversations with their children about how other people may perceive them. “It’s very important for parents to validate and fortify their kids at this age, as they are out in the world more and may start to run into more people with different views about them because of their beautiful skin tone,” says Dr. Simon. “Be sure to tell them that they are beautiful and smart just the way they are.”

He says it’s also the time to begin to talk about how to engage with a person of authority if they are stopped for any reason. “We have seen what can happen, so it’s important to have this discussion with your kids ahead of time.”

Let kids participate

With everything going on right now, your children may want to express their own feelings about racism. “One good way for younger kids to participate in peaceful protest is to join a local ‘chalk walk,’” says Dr. Simon. This is where kids can make chalk drawings that represent their feelings on their own sidewalk, such as drawing faces of different colors or hearts or peace signs. “It’s a safe way for kids to show their solidarity and feel like they are part of the community.”

Be a positive role model

Though it may not always feel that way, your kids look up to you. When you model fairness and justice, they will learn this behavior from you. “It’s important for parents to model behavior they want their kids to have,” says Dr. Simon. “Be an advocate for justice and equality. When parents who are not in the minority use their voices to be strong advocates for other parents and children, it is tangible and meaningful.”

He says it’s also important to invite friends from different backgrounds to your home or Zoom calls, so your kids see that your social circle includes a diverse group of people. When you have friends of different ethnicities and colors, it’s more likely your child will feel comfortable around all kinds of people.

If, for whatever reason, your social network is not diverse, Dr. Simon says you can use books or toys to introduce positive ideas about people with different skin colors. “For example, buy a doll for your child that doesn’t have the same skin tone, and then talk about how all of the dolls are equally beautiful. Or read a book where the hero is a person of a different color.”

Get more answers about Boston Children’s.

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