How to Talk to Your Young Child About Racism:
Black Lives Matter. The recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, David McAtee, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are symptoms of a systemic problem. They are not individual incidents, but the byproduct of how our current society, government, and authoritative bodies are set up. Quite frankly, the system is broken and we need to fix it. Now. I know many of us are eager to fix this system as fast as we can, and it can be hard to know where to start. Especially when one has young children at home. My first suggestion is to donate. Do your research on what speaks most to your heart whether it is local, national, or to a specific person. My second suggestion is to call your representatives. My last suggestion is what we are going to spend a little time talking about now. I don’t know if I have the right words to say exactly what needs to be said on this topic, or know how to say it in the best ways that respect everyone involved. However, I won’t stay silent anymore so I am going to try. I will warn you that this is long, as it should be. This topic deserves more than a few paragraphs.
Systemic changes need to happen and it will require many moving parts to achieve it. One of those moving parts happens to be in your home now. Probably moving all around at the moment, building legos, jumping off the couch, running down the hallway or spinning in circles. Your small perpetual motion machine is one of the most important parts of creating a new system that values tolerance, compassion, and equity. Young children are much more aware than we give them credit for. They pick up on what is going on and can handle many conversations that sometimes we are apt to shy away from for fear of it being uncomfortable or too advanced for them. The concept of race and inequality is one of those conversations. The thing is, this conversation is crucial to start at age 4 versus age 14.
When I was growing up I was taught the concept of color blindness as were many of my peers born in the 80s. It seemed like a good idea in theory. Give out a blanket statement that everyone is equal and then everyone will be treated equal. The thought was that pointing out differences would lead to racism. In practice it has created a generation that are quick to sweep racial inequality under the rug and individualize acts of racism. Individualism means thinking the specific person or specific instance is what caused the outcome as a way of denying the greater issue. When getting my Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education ten years ago I took a course that focused on the importance of teaching about race, culture and racism to young children. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I did not get it at first. In fact I’m a bit horrified at some of my initial thoughts during the class. I thought racism was in the past and that this class was outdated. I was deeply rooted in the color blind and individualism ways of thinking. I was wrong. I know more now and I am working better to do better now. This class opened my eyes to the fact that we need to proactively teach anti-racism to our young children. If we are to teach anti-racism it means we first need to admit that there is systemic racism in our country. I didn’t want there to be racism, and I didn’t feel racist myself, so it was convenient to pretend like there wasn’t racism. The current system relies on there being enough people who turn a blind eye in order to function as it does. By pretending there wasn’t a problem, I was part of the problem. I made the first big step, to acknowledge and start truly seeing systemic racism. It was then easy for me to see why teaching anti-racism to young children is vital.
Even with taking a Masters Degree level class on how to teach anti-racism to young children I have admittedly fumbled through this with my own. My children are 4.5 years old and 2.5 years old. I made conscious choices to have books and toys with varying skin tones, but that was the easy part. The harder part has been the conversations. My older son started a preschool right at age four that had a diverse environment. It has allowed some conversations to naturally come up as he has questions. From my education I learned that answering the questions that come up isn’t sufficient. I learned that I needed to take a more proactive role in order to make the needed impact. I made the conscious choice to be on the lookout for where I can segue into talking about cultures, race and racism, not only when he brought it up.
In total truth, sometimes I feel uncomfortable when I talk about race and racism with my son. I bring this up for a very important reason. The suggestions I am giving you today might not feel comfortable to talk about at first. Especially if you are like me and were brought up being taught color blindness as this is the exact opposite of that. All growth comes with its own pains and this type of growth is no different. When I start to feel uncomfortable I check those feelings and realize that I would rather be uncomfortable and have these conversations, than to not do my part. My slight discomfort is nothing compared to the ongoing discomfort of people of color in this country.
I have compiled a few ways in which you can start having, or continue, talks about race with your children. You want change. You want to be part of that change. Educating your child on the broken system and what they can do to be part of a better system creates empowered children who do better and bring about change. The main points I make are inspired from themes mentioned throughout the book “Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A practical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural education, and staff development” Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart, & Margo Okazawa-Rey
Go beyond basic facts and information: Basic facts and information are part of the process, just make sure that they are not the only part. I have taught my 4 year old all about the mechanics of how skin color works. He knows that different skin colors contain different levels of melanin and how evolutionarily that came about. He knows about other cultures and the ways in which culture and race intertwine. Teaching him all of this was comfortable. To effectively teach anti-racism to young children it is crucial to move beyond these basic facts and into less comfortable topics. In order to teach anti-racism you need to understand that racism exists. In order to learn anti-racism your child needs to know that racism and inequality exist. And not just as something that happened in the past. The big events that happen in the news are important to discuss as children pick up on conversations adults are having, or what they may overhear on the news. They need a space to hear on an age appropriate level these big topics so they can be aware and process. Assuming that your child is so young that they don’t know what is going on is selling their intelligence and compassion short. The big events are important and so are the small ones. Discussing only the big events can lead to thinking along the lines of racism as an individual problem not as the systemic issue that it is. These conversations do not, and should not, be big sit down lectures. This should become part of frequent conversations held on car rides, while baking, while playing or out on walks. Give small bits of information at a time and then leave space for questions. Answers the questions as honestly as you can. Let the conversation stay for as long or as short as the child has interest in it. As they get older the conversations will naturally get longer. Do not mistake a young child’s non response for not listening or learning. They are taking it in, in their own way.
Equity vs Equality: If you haven’t seen the little cartoon of three people of varying heights trying to see over a fence, go ahead and google equality vs equity. Equality is when everyone is given the same size crate to try to see over the fence. The tall person sees extra well with the crate. The middle height person can see ok with the crate. The shorter person still can’t see over the wall, even with the crate. With equity each person is given a different sized crate so all can see over the wall at the same level. Instead of teaching that all people are equal, we need to teach our children that we all haven’t started equal, so it doesn’t end up equal in the end. This means we do need to try harder and do more to support people of color. This is why the movement is Black Lives Matter not, as some people are quick to chime in, all lives matter. Black lives need a larger crate. They need a movement. There are two activities that you can do with your child to get the ball rolling on understanding the concept of equity. The first way is to use dolls or stuffed animals to act out the scene described above with the crates and the fence. Let your child participate and give them space to come to their own conclusions before discussing further. You might be surprised at how quickly they put it together on their own. The second activity works well for younger and older children. While at the table for a meal or snack time put a cookie on your plate, or if you have an older child and more than one child, put a cookie on one child’s plate and not the other. Wait for the child without a cookie to notice and ask for one. Declare that cookies are a great idea and that everyone should get one. Give everyone, including yourself or the other child, a cookie. This means that now one person at the table has two cookies, as they had started with one already, and everyone else only has one. When it is pointed out as unfair, state that what you had done was equal, that everyone got one and it wasn’t your fault that there was already a cookie out. Segue into talking about equity from there.
Tolerance vs Transformation: This is a place where you might be sitting now, as I feel like this is where I am too. I am educated about racism, I am admitting that there is systemic racism in this country. I am all for equity instead of equality. I am outraged by what is currently allowed to go on in our country. But what have I really done to try to change anything? I have tolerance, but what I need, and what my kids need, is to learn how to make the transformation of becoming an active agent of change. Children are young humans who learn to be adult humans through watching the actions of the adults around them. It has to start with you, and me. And our kids need to see us doing it. Let your children in on any ways that you have become an agent of change so they can see what that looks like. The old adage “do as I say, not as I do” does not apply here. Your children will do what you do, so make sure that you are doing something and that they can see it. You can also help guide them on how to be agents of change themselves. Help them figure out a way to earn money to donate. Pick a few different possible places to donate too and tell your child a little bit about each one. Print out a picture to go with each choice if you can. Let your child pick where the money goes and listen closely to why they chose that specific organization. Another way to encourage them to be an agent of change is to have your own peaceful protest. Make signs and stand in your yard to wave at cars as they go by. Let them decide what they want their sign to say. Give them an opportunity to develop their own voice against racism, as you want to teach them how to think for themselves so they can carry on being an agent of change even when not under your roof.
Discuss Cultural Appropriation: Cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture takes pieces of a minority culture and uses them for essentially, entertainment. One example is Halloween costumes of other cultures' forms of dress. I had a conversation recently with someone about cultural appropriation and they said to me that they aren’t doing it to be offensive and don’t see how it is a big deal. I feel good about the answer I gave to them. I feel less ok with how long it took me to first understand this, but as I have said before, now that I know better, I can do better. I responded that “it doesn’t matter what my intentions are or if I think it should be a big deal for someone of another culture or not. If they say that this is hurtful to them then I need to respect how they feel. What is more important, my joke or my halloween costume? Or respecting that others know their own feelings and cultures better than I do”. With teaching this to children we start out by acknowledging that cultural appropriation is a valid thing and that it is hurtful to others. When you see it in a television show or in real life, point it out and talk about it. It can even be a comment as small as, “what is happening in that tv show is not ok. People used to say/do those things and we don’t anymore since we know better and now can do better”. Let them know that it’s important to keep striving to know better and do better. That it isn’t a one time jump, but a fluid course that requires them to constantly learn, grow and evaluate their own biases.
Talk About White Privilege: If you and your children are white and you are not familiar with the term white privilege other than hearing it here or there in the news, now is a great time to explore it as a family. The younger your children are when you first start discussing white privilege, and the frequency at which you talk about it, the better they will be able to hear what you are saying and understand it. This should become a talking point that comes up as you encounter it in life. The way you can discuss this with children in a way that they understand is to first focus on things in their immediate interests. Point out when you see that most of the dolls in the store are white. Point out that most of the books on the shelves are about white children. Point out that most of the shows on the tv are about white people. Point it out where you see it. Then ask your children how they would feel if there weren’t many books that represented their race while there were so many that represented another race. Ask them questions about equity. Do we need to start making an equal amount of books that cover all races now? Or do we need to make more books about people of color than white people now so we can even out the options that children can choose from. Once you start pointing out to your child areas of white privilege, encourage them to spot instances on their own. In order to be agents of change, they need to be aware of where inequalities lie. This is also an amazing practice of empathy. In order to have empathy as a teen and an adult children need to be learning it from a young age. Presenting them opportunities to look at uncomfortable situations and asking them how they might feel if they were in that situation is a great way to start.
Be Honest About Your Shortcomings: It is important to let our children know that we didn’t know better before. Or that we should have talked about this with them before. Or that we are learning as they are. Show your children that it is ok to change your opinions if you find out you have been wrong. Show them that it’s ok to not know everything. As parents we want to be that strong force in our children’s lives that always know what to say and do and know what is right and wrong. What our children need most from us is an example of someone who is willing to admit they are wrong in order to shed old beliefs, thought patterns, and actions and form new ones. This goes for all areas of life, not just teaching about racism. In the context of racism bring them on your journey through stories. I have shared some of my story here on how I didn’t always think the way I do now. Those little clips of moments are what my children need to hear. I have stories of times that I didn’t speak up where I wish I had. Two years ago while on a flight with my very young children I witnessed an older white man say very inappropriate and racist things to the Puerto Rican woman sitting next to him. I didn’t say anything. I wanted to say something to the man, but I was scared. The incident escalated and upon landing the police showed up and escorted the man off the plane. I said something to the flight attendant about what I had witnessed. I said sorry to the woman that she had been treated that way. I even went up to the police upon exiting the plane and I told them what I had witnessed and heard. I did something, but I didn’t do what I wish I had. I wish I had said something to the man right when he started. My kids need to know that story. They need to know that I had a chance to say something and I stayed silent and how I regret it. They need to know because someday, I’m sure sooner than I hope, they will be in a situation where they can sit by and do nothing, or be an agent of change. I want them to remember my story and my regrets and have a bit more tools in their box to make the choice to stand up. Because that is the first step towards them changing the system.
If this cause has been heavy on your heart lately and you don’t know where to start. This is where. Be uncomfortable, fumble, be imperfect, try a little, then try harder. I know I’m not perfect, and that I don’t have all of the answers. What I do know is that if you have read this far then hopefully you have picked up at least one thing that you will talk with your child about. If so then it was well worth the vulnerability and honesty that it took to write this. Change starts with what you empower your children with today.