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What You're Probably Getting Wrong When You Talk To Your Kids About Race

Never "hush" a kid on this topic.

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Children are witnessing and hearing more about race and racism than parents might think. Between protests for racial justice and incidents of racism in the news and on social media, there’s really no shielding children from these conversations; and that's actually a good thing, because they matter. Being open to discussing the concept of race with children is the first step. Moving beyond that, however, requires examining what you’re probably getting wrong when you talk to your kids about race and racism — because the next generation needs us to get it right.

The very fact that racism is pervasive and systemic means that it’s oftentimes “perpetuated inadvertently and unknowingly,” says Chrishane N. Cunningham, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist at The Family Institute At Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “This is why it’s important to make sure that we are having conversations about race and racism with family members of all ages. Children are like sponges and they soak up much of their knowledge and make meaning of the world from listening and watching the adults in their lives.” Unfortunately, conversations about race and racism with kids aren’t happening enough. According to a July 2020 survey by TED, 27% of white parents never talk to their kids about racial equality, 15 % said they rarely do, and 34% said they have only occasionally talked to their kids about race.

A lot of white people and even non-Black people of color often revert to declaring they’re a colorblind family, which essentially erases everyone else.

What Does It Mean To Be "Colorblind"?

A common obstacle for white parents in discussing race is grappling with the actual meaning of the concept. Race is a social construct, meaning it’s defined by society and not necessarily biology, explains Cunningham. “Overly simplified, that means race is debatable. Racism, however, is not,” she says. Kids understand differences in skin color as young as 6 months old and even begin to prefer faces that are physically similar to the ones of their caregivers. This natural behavior can quickly turn into bias if parents are unaware. But to tackle the race conversation in a helpful way, parents should avoid the temptation to default to a colorblind approach.

“A lot of white people and even non-Black people of color often revert to declaring they’re a colorblind family, which essentially erases everyone else,” says Dr. Kiarra King, racial equity advocate and board-certified OB-GYN in the Chicago metropolitan area. “If you don’t 'see my color, you don’t see me and all of my potential, and you don’t know my struggle as a Black person in America.”

The Danger Of "Hushing"

The tendency to prefer a colorblind approach — even if parents wouldn’t call it that — often leads parents to what King calls “hushing” when kids are simply curious about what they see in the world. “When kids make observations, they haven't necessarily attributed a negative or positive connotation to a culture or race or ethnicity,” says King. “It’s not until the people around them who are older who are shaping them attribute those things to something that kids do.”

When children comment on the color of a peer’s skin, the texture of their hair, or other attributes adults associate with race or ethnicity and parents “hush” them, that hushing not only attaches a negative connotation to whatever they were observing, but it leaves kids to learn about these concepts from outside sources, she says. King says such “innocent observations” are actually the perfect starting point for parents to affirm that people are in fact different and those differences are beautiful.

Children can see each other's differences, and there's nothing wrong with that. Getty Images

Cunningham agrees that silencing children’s observations leaves them vulnerable. “Especially given the current state of our country, children of all ages can experience racism and be exposed to racist ideologies, and it can be a very confusing and hurtful experience,” she says.

Listening and engaging instead of being reactionary is key, says King. “Give children the benefit of the doubt,” she says. When children point out, for example, that brown skin is the color of dirt, don’t react strongly. Calmly and matter-of-factly respond only to what’s on the surface. “Yes, dirt is brown. People have darker skin because of a special chemical in their skin,” King suggests. “Don’t respond punitively or make them feel ashamed for their observations,” she says. Step back from adult triggers and assumptions and engage the curiosity kids naturally have.

There's No Need To Wait To Have The Race Conversation

Waiting until kids are “old” enough to understand or talk about racism is another common mistake. In fact, Cunningham says part of the conversation about race is non-verbal and starts before children can even speak. “You can begin the more nuanced part of the conversation by making sure that your children have toys that are diverse,” she says. “This means buying your children action figures, dolls, and books with characters from all races, cultures, and ethnicities. It’s important to make sure their toys reflect various backgrounds so that children are able to celebrate and appreciate the beauty in differences among their communities.”

It’s our job to make sure that our children are exposed to a curriculum that is rich with diverse stories grounded in truth and taught with intentionality.

Parents also tend to underestimate what ideas children can understand. Kids begin to understand concepts such as fairness at a young age. Cunningham says to gauge what’s age-appropriate for your child by asking simple questions such as, “Has there ever been a time where you felt treated unfairly?” and, “Did anyone help you? If not, what did that feel like?” and going from there. “Questions like those can help your child gain empathy and a framework to understand race and racism,” she says.

You're Not Their Only Source Of Information

Education is another often forgotten component of the conversation about race. Cunningham says parents might not consider the impact of what their children are being taught at school on their understanding of race and racism. “School curriculums are often taught from a very Eurocentric perspective of the world,” she says. For example, the valuable contributions and rich history of racial minority groups in the U.S. are usually a footnote or whitewashed to minimize the oppression these groups have and continue to face. Parents who stay aware of what their children are learning at school can fill in those gaps.

“If they are learning about Thanksgiving, do not minimize or leave out the genocide of the Indigenous people who were on this land first. Do your best to find age-appropriate contextual ways to have these conversations,” says Cunningham. Shows, movies, and books are good resources, she says. “It’s our job to make sure that our children are exposed to a curriculum that is rich with diverse stories grounded in truth and taught with intentionality.”

Parents tend to think of the conversion about race as “one and done,” King says, but it’s an ongoing conversation with levels. “As white children get older, help them to recognize their privilege and how they can use it to affect great change in their own lives, the future, and the lives of their friends and people of color,” she says.

Cunningham suggests keeping a free-flowing dialogue and having “honest conversations about race and racism early and frequently” with kids. And always work to get the conversation right. “Although these conversations and learning objectives can be painful, they can be equally if not more powerful,” says Cunningham. “It is important that youth of all ages learn the importance of their voice and the impact they can have on their communities.”

This article is the result of a collaboration between Romper and March Of Dimes. Join Chrishane N. Cunningham and Dr. Kiarra King, along with moderator Michelle Relerford of NBC News, Chicago, for Talking To Your Children About Race, a panel conversation airing Tues., November 10 at 12 noon CST. The panel is part of the March of Dimes’ It Starts With Mom Live virtual events series, of which Romper is proud to be the national media partner.

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