How Do I Speak With My Child About Race?

June 12, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Lauren Kaczka-Weiss, D.O. contributes to topics such as Parenting, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Meera Wells, M.D. contributes to topics such as Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Parenting.

By: Sarah Edenbaum

The process to observe, understand, accept and appreciate differences in race, religion, gender and sexuality varies tremendously between people. The two factors that are universal for all journeys, however, are:

  • How influential parents are when developing biases, and
  • How early the process begins for all people (with some studies citing as early as 4 months old).

Meera Wells, M.D. and Lauren Kaczka-Weiss, D.O., child and adolescent psychiatrists with K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital at Jersey Shore University Medical Center offered insights and answers for parents/caregivers on how to address race with their child. “Depending on the child’s age, parents/caregivers can approach race from different perspectives. In all cases, the child’s caregivers are important role models and will influence the way children understand privilege, respect others, and how to make a positive difference,” said Dr. Wells.

In order to be a positive role model, it is imperative that parents/caregivers identify, confront and correct their own racial biases. Remember that to create an environment where diversity feels commonplace, and fosters healthy and positive discussions, consider:

  • Building a culturally diverse social network, which includes traveling and exposing children to other communities.
  • Enrolling kids in activities with socially diverse groups.
  • Exposing children to TV shows, museums, festivals, and books from/of diverse cultures.

It is important to be mindful of generalizing, and be aware of stereotypes that influence your language because parents are being constantly observed by their children. Consider how you speak about the police and protesters so your child’s perception does not generalize it to all police and all protesters.

Basing your approach on their age

“A feeling of safety is so critical for children,” said Dr. Kaczka-Weiss. “It’s essential to repeat that even if terrible things are seen and happening the child (and those they love) are still safe and protected.”

Preschool age children and younger

For children younger than elementary school age, they begin to notice and vocalize differences in people they observe around them. They also have a basic understanding of good and bad, therefore the focus of the conversation can be about kindness. It is important to discuss any differences in a positive manner. For example, if your child asks about someone’s skin color, you can state, “We are all different, which is what makes us all special.”

Elementary school age

For children of elementary age, their emotional development gives them a strong understanding of what is fair and unfair, therefore the focus of the conversation can explore privilege, observing when there are differences and how to react. The lesson to encourage kindness should now evolve into being inclusive to all.

For example, if asked, “What is happening?” it is okay to be honest, framing it in a structure that a child would understand (to demonstrate disparity). You can say, “There are times when people are treated badly because of something they can’t control or change. Other times people are treated better because of something they can’t control or change. Both situations are unfair. People should be treated equally at all times—whatever they look like.” If your child has a difficult time understanding the concept, you can use media (books, television, movies) and point out stereotypes and racial bias.

Teenager

At this point in your child’s development, the vast exposure to information (via television, the internet, social media and their friends) has made it nearly impossible for parents to limit exposure to negative or fear-inducing world news. Parents need to take a step from directing the conversation, and instead ask more questions on what the child is seeing, feeling and thinking. “Talking to a teen about social injustice and racial inequality isn’t just one and done. This is an ever-evolving discussion to feel comfortable to talk about race, and to learn when and how to intervene,” said Dr. Kaczka-Weiss.

How do I address disturbing visuals or phrases my child might see?

There is a lot of emotionally charged meaning behind important phrases like ‘I can’t breathe’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’. You might even observe your child change by bringing these phrases into their communication. It is important to ask them what they have heard and what questions they have. If this happens, welcome these changes, keep the conversation direct and straightforward, but most importantly, be sure to listen.

“Listening helps a parent navigate how a child is processing the world around them and gives the child an opportunity to release any angst,” says Dr. Wells. If your child sees something traumatic or is using language they are seeing on television, ask them what they saw, how it made them feel, and be sure to remind them they are safe.

Is it OK to bring my child to a peaceful rally?

If safe, COVID-19 related practices are being upheld, such as social distancing and mask wearing, attending peaceful rallies can be a good experience for children to be involved in social activism. However, this is not an absolute truth. Some children can also become overstimulated by large crowds, sounds, emotions and chants of the day—so be mindful that rallies may not be a fit for all children.

Resources and Next Steps:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.