I live a privileged life.
I’m a white woman, married to a white man, and have 3 white daughters. I never worry if my husband or my children will make it home at the end of the day.
I take that for granted.
I also don’t spend enough time talking to, or teaching, our kids about racism or discrimination.
We avoided discussing racism with our kids for years because we thought they were too young and I was convinced they didn’t see color. Their school is very diverse, so much so they sometimes looked like a minority. We have had conversations about how everyone’s skin is a different color but we never discussed discrimination because of the color of someone’s skin. I thought if they didn’t see racism then I didn’t need to point it out to them. I know a lot of other parents who think the same way and this is a huge disservice to our kids. It hurts more than it helps.
It’s important to teach all children (of any age) to see color and all differences. It’s important for them to learn some people are discriminated for their characteristics and to know what to do when it happens. I want to raise kids who are advocates for others and who learn how to respect everyone. We continually talk to our kids, who are 9, 8, and 6 years old, about how every person deserves the same respect, patience, and opportunities as everyone else.
On our way to swim team practice this morning I asked them if they have ever seen a person not be allowed to do something because of the color of their skin. They looked at me like I was crazy.
This was our discussion:
Me: Girls, have you ever seen someone who wasn’t able or allowed to do something because of the color of the skin? Like someone saying someone else can’t do something because of it?
Kid A: Why would someone even say that?
Kid B: Uh, no.
Kid C: Is this a trick question?
Me: Have you ever seen someone treated differently because of the color of their skin?
All 3 kids: No.
Me: Have you ever seen someone who has dark skin treated unfairly?
Kid A: Why would someone be treated differently because of their skin?
Kid B: No.
Kid C: What’s going on, Mommy? Why are you asking us ridiculous questions?
My kids are so far removed from racism that they don’t even realize it’s a possibility. THIS IS DANGEROUS. They can’t be an advocate for others or even ensure fairness if they aren’t aware of racism and discrimination.
Our conversation continued:
Me: Some people are treated differently or unfairly because of the color of their skin. In some parts of the country right now a lot of people are arguing and disagreeing about whether or not they’re being treated fairly. It’s getting dangerous and some people are getting hurt. (I didn’t see the need to tell them people have died at this point. We’ll work on talking about that later.)
Kid A: Why can’t everyone just be nice to everyone else? Didn’t this already happen a long time ago? Did these people not learn the lesson the last time? All people should be treated the same!
Me: Yes, this has happened in the past and while it’s gotten better, it’s not all better yet. We have to work hard to help it get better.
Kid B: Why does this only happen with people with black skin? Does this ever happen with people with white skin or light brown skin?
Me: This does happen to people with other colors of skin too, however, it happens a lot more to people with dark skin. It’s a big problem because every single person is important and no one person is more important than another.
Kid B: Except God. God is most important.
Kid C: Why in the world would people treat others differently for their skin color? It’s not like we can pick it! We’re just born with the skin we have.
Me: I know and I agree with you but not everyone feels that way.
Kid C: Well, those people aren’t too smart then.
Me: I want you to know that if you ever see anyone not being treated fairly, you need to say something.
My kids are so wise. They’re smarter than I give them credit for and I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long to discuss this with them.
This is where we arrived at swim team practice. This conversation was short – which is the way it needs to be with kids. There needs to be a series of conversations that are no longer than 5-10 minutes so they stay engaged. We’ll finish this conversation later this morning with some role playing of what they can say to people.
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How can you help teach your kids about race and racism?
1. Start with a short conversation.
Start by asking your child questions. Depending on how old your child is will depend on what kind of questions you can ask. What do they know? Keep these conversations short. No more than 5-10 minutes unless your child is really engaged in the conversation and keeps asking questions. Kids need time to process so they may come back later and ask you other questions that come to mind. These talks need to be a series of conversations. If the conversation is ongoing, your child is more likely to feel welcome to ask you more questions as they think of them.
Here are some questions you can start with:
- Have you ever seen someone treated differently because of what they look like?
- Have you ever seen someone treated differently because of what they do?
- Have you ever seen someone treated differently because of what they wear?
- Can you think of a time that you were not treated fairly?
(Kids have the easiest time remembering transgressions against them. This will also allow them to develop empathy for others because they’re recalling how they felt.
Kids are more apt to see differences of things that matter to them. Skin color doesn’t matter to them but discrimination between boys and girls do and they are also more apt to notice physical disabilities.
2. Watch a video
For our own kids, we started with watching the movie Malala. I wouldn’t recommend the movie for toddlers or preschoolers (this Malala book is good for them). School age kids would be fine watching the movie, unless they are really sensitive. It is more violent in parts (not violent in today’s television standards but more violent than I’d normally let my kids watch) but Rebecca, who is 6, didn’t sit and watch the movie like she would a Sofia the First video. She played while she watched so she looked away a lot at any part that was more serious.
Katherine (9) and Caroline (8) are normally not a fan of anything scary (they won’t even watch Merida) but were riveted to the television. When I say riveted, I mean they wouldn’t turn their heads away from the movie for even a second. I’ve never seen them so invested and enthralled in watching a movie. The fact that it showed discrimination between boys and girls being able to learn and attend school really hit home for them. They realized how privileged and “lucky” (their word) they are to go to school every day. This was a good place to introduce discrimination to them.
For younger kids, toddlers, and preschoolers, especially, you can start with Season 4, Episode 3 of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood about differences. The kids meet a girl who has a physical disability and learn that she can do everything they can. It’s a much more relatable lesson for young kids.
After watching any of these or other movies, talk to your child. Point out the injustice in treating people differently and talk about how important each person is.
3. Draw a picture.
Have your child pick one color marker and draw circles all over a sheet of paper. Talk about how all the circles look alike.
Then have your child use all the markers in their pack to draw different colored circles all over another sheet of paper. Compare the two pictures. Talk about what the world would be like if all people were the same and how by being different the world is a much better place.
I did this activity with Rebecca and videotaped it. She had no idea what we were doing and her answers were totally her own.
This is what this looks like:
4. Make sure your family interacts with people different than them.
It’s easy to talk about different races and the differences between people but it’s a whole other ballgame when our kids get to be with them. Not only does it help them focus on similarities, it allows them to see their culture and family dynamic, as well. It also provides a great opportunity for your kids to ask any questions about race and racism to your friends.
Whenever our kids have a question I can’t answer, I have them go to the source. I haven’t met anyone, of any race, that wasn’t willing to take the time to answer a child’s (or adult’s) question on race, racism, or discrimination.
5. Let your child know they can ask you anything.
This may seem obvious but it’s not. Often parents tell children they can ask anything but parents don’t always make the time to put everything aside and listen and give a response. If you always give your child your full attention when they have important questions, you’ll be the authority on every subject and they’ll always feel welcome to come to you. This is something you’re going to want in the teenage years so set up the dynamic for it now.
6. Have your kids list the differences and similarities between family members or friends
Make a chart or click below to download this ours. Keep your child’s train of thought engaged and focused by doing the writing while they make the list verbally.
List the things that are different about each family member. Chances are they’ll start with hair color, gender, height, etc first. Those are the things that are most visible to them. Guide them to see differences that run deeper than the obvious, like shades of skin color (even people of the same race have different skin tones), eye color, and birthmarks.
Talk about how you all love each other even though you are all different. Focus on how you all treat each other with love and respect and include everyone.
7. Role play
Have your child act out what they would say to someone who is treating others differently.
Depending on their age, they may have no idea how to do this so you may have to guide them with a script.
“You can’t talk to my friend that way!”
“You’re not being kind.”
“You need to treat everyone fairly.”
As your child gets older you can teach them to be more specific with their words. Have them practice using a louder, stern voice (probably the one they use with a sibling or close friend) but keeping their voice calm so they don’t aggravate the other person.
My friend Michelle told me her son “has been repeatedly told that if he’s ever in a situation that feels uncomfortable with one of his friends who is black that he is to stay right by his side. That includes someone picking on them, saying anything racial, or speaking to a police officer.” I love that she’s teaching him to be an advocate, especially at an age when it can be difficult for kids to know what to do in a scary situation.
8. Learn about history together.
History plays an important part in learning about race and racism. Study people like Ruby Bridges, Harriett Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Shirley Chisholm. Learn about events like the Woolworth counter in Greensboro, NC, Loving vs. Virginia, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Underground Railroad, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the “I have a dream” speech. I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of key people and events but these are the ones I’ve read the most about or taught the most in the classroom.
Let your child know racism isn’t just about people of color. Racism also affects people who are Jewish, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Middle Eastern,
Have you heard of the Jane Elliott’s Brown Eyes vs Blue Eyes experiment? I remember learning about it when I studied child development in college. I remember thinking it was powerful but I also wondered how it made the kids feel and whether or not it confused them. This video is interesting because it has footage, commentary, and interviews with the students 15 years later.
Here are some additional resources that have been recommended to me:
Because I’m white, I’m not always going to get conversations about race and racism right with my own kids. It’s my priority to constantly learn and grow so I can help them be better and create a better world. I’m going to keep reading what I can to learn and keep talking to our kids.
Discussing racism with your kids is crucial if we ever want it to end.
Here are some books I can recommend for your children:
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