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Children's Wisconsin Talking about race

How to talk to kids about race and racism

As a child and family therapist, I’ve received questions from parents wanting to talk to their kids about race and help explain the events they’re seeing in our community and on the news — the good, bad and ugly. 

It’s important to have these conversations with your child because we know that by the age of 12 years, kids are already set in their values and beliefs. Not to say their values and beliefs can’t evolve, but they’re a little more challenging to change as they’ve been developed over years by what they’ve seen and heard. This is why we encourage having important conversations like these with children while they’re younger and then continue to build from there as they grow up. 

As parents, we want to be able to have conversations with our kids about everything. However, sometimes we might struggle to know where to start with the tough conversations, like those about race and racism. It’s not easy and know that you’re not alone. Looking for resources and preparing for that conversation is a great first step.

Here are some tips to help parents begin to have the conversation about race and racism.

Address your own bias. As parents, sometimes it might be challenging for us to see the unconscious bias we might have toward a group of people. Begin by asking yourself the deep questions like — How do I respond when I’m in a space with a certain group of people? What are the first things that come to mind about this group? How do I choose to interact with that group? Being able to address your own bias and keeping it in mind allows more genuine conversation to be had with your child. Regardless of what we might say to our kids, they are heavily watching our actions.

Allow your child to share. As parents, we often want to tell our kids what to think or even how to behave. However, with these kinds of conversations, it is okay to allow your child the opportunity to share their feelings and thoughts without interrupting. If your child shares something that you don’t agree with it, let them continue speaking and explore that, and when they are done, revisit those conversation pieces.

Use books/resources to help. Books are a great way to educate kids, especially younger ones. Incorporate books with multicultural characters displayed in a positive light to help reiterate the point that because others may not look like you doesn’t mean they are bad. We know that by the age of 4 years old kids are already aware of racial bias. For tips about choosing books, EmbraceRace has a great list of resources.

Ask open ended questions. One way to start is to ask your child what have they heard or what have they seen. You can even make the conversation more relatable by asking them if they have ever had a time when they felt something wasn’t fair and how did that make them feel. This helps the child better connect the inequality that another group of people face in real time to their own experience.

It’s okay to come back to something. As parents, we don’t have to pretend to have all the answers. If your child asks a question that you’re not sure how to answer, be honest and let your child know that you will come back to the question. It’s important to remember there is no one way to have the race conversation. However, don’t forget to come back to that question when you are able to better address it and complete the conversation.

This is an ongoing conversation. Keep in mind this conversation about race and racism is an ongoing one and avoid looking at it as a one-time conversation. Our children will continue to go through life experiences in different environments and will always have questions or thoughts. 

Ask for help. It’s okay to seek professional help with having these tough conversations. A professional like a therapist, or even a family member or trusted friend, can help give you some techniques and tips. Being able to ask for help about these conversations shows you are willing to learn something new yourself. 

For even more tips for talking to kids about race, consider watching CNN and Sesame Street’s Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism, a town hall for kids and families.

As with any area of your child’s health, if you have concerns about these conversations or your child’s mental health, your pediatrician and the therapists at Children’s Wisconsin can help. Don’t hesitate to give them a call.

For more tips, read these additional blog posts:

How to talk to kids about trauma

Let’s talk: Talking to your child about tough topics and behavioral health