Over the past few months, our world has changed in profound ways. The effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching and are now occurring in tandem with the quest for racial justice. The convergence of these events has made our jobs as parents even more challenging.
Parents are now grappling with questions related to racism, violence, and injustice. The parents I’m speaking to simply want to know: What do I say to my children about racism and the recent social unrest?
These conversations are rarely easy. I offer four tips to parents who want to engage the topic of racism with their children in a meaningful way.
Tip # 1: Find out what your child knows and how they feel about race.
As parents, we’re often faced with having to engage in tough conversations with our children at much earlier ages than we anticipate or desire. With regard to racism, we may be processing our own thoughts and feelings and it may be difficult to know exactly what to say to our children.
Depending on the age of your child, he or she will have some level of awareness about what’s currently going on in the world. Children are very perceptive. If the news has been bothering you, it’s likely bothering them too. So, initiate the conversation by inquiring about what they do know and how they feel.
Acknowledge whatever emotions arise. Emotions can manifest differently for every child depending on their age, temperament, and experiences. Your child might be afraid of the images of buildings on fire, or they might be afraid of you being hurt or being hurt themselves. Your teen may be confused about why racism is still a significant issue or may express the desire to join the protests in some way. Listen and validate their emotions, and be honest with them about your own.
Tip # 2: Be direct and honest about racism and racial justice.
The age to talk to children about racism is now. Studies like these, and the studies mentioned in articles like these, suggest awareness of racial differences develop as early as infancy and that by the age of 4, many children are already assigning positive traits to people of their own ethnic group and negative traits to people who look differently from them. As parents, we’re our children’s earliest teachers and we can start early to shape the ways in which our children embrace those differences or we risk leaving it to chance. So, be proactive—discuss race in a positive way, using developmentally appropriate language.
When discussing racism and racial justice, use simple terms like fairness and equality. Be direct and unequivocal. One example is to state, “Some people mistreat others because of the color of their skin, and that’s not okay. That’s not what we as a family believe in. It’s not okay to treat people any differently based on what they look like.”
For younger children, books can be an instrumental resource to encourage conversations about race. While books providing historical context are great, ensure that your child is also reading books that include multi-racial characters simply engaging in fun adventures that your child might also find interesting. Toys and films also offer an opportunity to introduce multi-racial characters into your child’s life. The objective is not to always make race a focal point, but to highlight children of all races in positive and affirming ways. Currently, my children love the animated show Motown Magic that features multi-racial characters who frequently break out into Motown era hit songs (a plus!).
For older children who may or may not have some exposure to the topic of racial justice, begin by asking about their concerns and what they’re experiencing. They’ll be making sense of it in their own way and, as parents, it’s important that we guide them. Do more listening and reflect back any emotion that he or she expresses. For youth at any age, be sure to leave the door open for future conversations.
Tip # 3: Be okay with not knowing all the answers.
For many non-minority parents, these are new conversations. Anything new can provoke anxiety and potentially be messy. Prepare yourself for questions to which you might not have all of the answers—but have the conversation anyway. The truth is that there’s no “right” way, but we know that conversations with significant adults help children begin to make sense of the chaotic world around them. You will likely not know the answers, but the key is to encourage the questions. By doing so, you’re teaching your child that race and racism are topics that should be broached and discussed openly.
If needed, commit to doing some research in order to educate yourself and deepen your own cultural understandings. However, more importantly than seeking the answers is demonstrating that you have the patience and the desire to lean in, listen, and help your child develop and nurture the values of compassion and humanity.
Tip #4: Take advantage of the opportunity.
Many children are expressing sadness, fear, and confusion about the tragic events, riots, and the social unrest our country is experiencing. The images on TV can be very frightening. When discussing violent behavior, be clear that violence is never the answer, and emphasize that the most effective way towards change is through peaceful measures. Highlight to your children the different hues, races, and backgrounds of the peaceful protesters all over the world. Like many of you, I’m encouraged by how multicultural and multi-generational the peaceful protests have been, and I’m awed that they’re being led by young people! It’s such a display of courage that has quickly led to laws being changed! Share with your child that change is possible through peaceful means and . . . through relationships.
Similar to our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, this season in our nation offers us the opportunity to pause, reflect, and demonstrate the love of God. As parents, this is the perfect time to live out our faith by modeling love for all of our neighbors. And remember, modeling anti-racist behaviors begins in relationships. Immerse your family in diverse environments. Beyond multi-cultural book characters, there’s nothing like experiencing genuine relationships with people whose skin color differs from our own.
In conclusion, my prayer is that as parents, our courage will continue to grow exponentially as we navigate these challenging—but necessary—conversations.