How to Talk to Kids About Race and Racism

Recent protests denouncing racism have taken place around the world. As parents, our initial reaction may be to shield our children from this news. But kids are sponges. They’ll pick up on conversations about racism and its relationship to current events. And they’ll have difficulty processing these conversations alone.

Sheltering children from topics of race and racism can lead to untaught assumptions. Instead, we must see this moment as a critical opportunity for learning. We must engage culture at home as we do while abroad. Navigating these topics can feel challenging, though. Especially for parents struggling to understand these issues themselves. Some of us come from backgrounds where these topics were rarely, if ever, explored.

Fortunately, there are fantastic resources available to help us engage in conversations about race and racism with our children. Here are a few suggestions.

Race and Racism in American Culture

In the past few months, scary news cycles have inundated us. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed us in social and economic situations we likely never thought possible. And we’ve all wondered what effect these events will have on our children.

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the unprecedented events of 2020. It’s only natural that we want to shelter our children from topics that may further excite already charged emotions. Yet, we have a critical opportunity to engage our children when it comes to American culture.

Yes, it might feel tempting to turn off the TV and remain silent. But as parents, we must have meaningful, age-appropriate conversations about what’s going on and why. Otherwise, our children will gain their understanding and information elsewhere. I think we can agree that there are troubling sources of information out there. So, we must guide our children through this time. It requires having “tough” conversations about race and racism. It’s okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers. But staying silent is not an option.

Teaching our children about racism doesn’t mean we need
to have all the explanations figured out ahead of time.

How to Talk to Kids about Racism

When talking to our kids, we mustn’t make the mistake of underestimating their ability to comprehend injustice and race. Children as young as three years old have questions about skin color and race. They aren’t afraid to ask them. Unfortunately, the way we respond can have unintended negative repercussions.

For example, when a small child calls attention to the color of an individual’s skin, we may scold or hush them to avoid an “awkward” conversation. Yet, acknowledging these differences is not inherently racist.

Rebuking or silencing children for such questions can lead to negative associations. We may inadvertently excite feelings of shame, confusion, worry, and negativity. These feelings can leave an indelible, unintended impression on our kids. An unwillingness to acknowledge your children’s observations can send the wrong message.


how to talk to kids about racism
© DisobeyArt | Shutterstock

When we follow our children’s lead,
we also have to try to respect children’s language and understanding. 

Opportunities for Growth and Learning

Instead, we need to look at such moments as opportunities for learning and growth. Both for our children and ourselves.

As parents, we also need to be aware of statements that link race with value judgements. These can prove insidious and dangerous. Yet, knowing how to address them can feel difficult. Again, silencing our children is not the answer.

When children say things that sound racist or stereotype others, we should explore the root of their assumptions. Start by asking non-judgmental questions to understand why they’ve made such a statement. Once you know where their assumption began, you can have a conversation about stereotypes and their dangers. Illustrating your point with examples remains a powerful way to break down stereotypes.

how to talk to kids about race
©Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock

Encouraging New Perspectives at Home and Abroad

Besides engaging our children when questions and statements about race and racism emerge, we must proactively engage in diverse explorations of American culture. This exploration starts with the movies, books, and television shows that our children watch. Look for media that introduces children to different notions of what a neighbor, friend, or hero looks like.

Find children’s storybooks and other media that celebrate diversity and expose kids to new perspectives. Meaningful media will enhance your child’s understanding of themselves and others. When you find exceptional books, consider buying an extra copy and donating it to your school’s library. For children to embrace antiracist views, they must gain exposure to people who are different from them.

Media can help with this. So can working to diversify your children’s circle of friends. Use this opportunity to create a vibrant social network of friends from different backgrounds, religions, and abilities. This approach will teach your children that different is good and will have a massive impact as they move through life.

As you increase the diversity of your circle of friends, it may involve identifying why you’ve tended to stay within a specific demographic in the past. It may also include investing time and resources in extracurricular activities and networking that will take you and your kids outside your comfort zone. The ultimate goal? Looking for friends and activities that expose kids to new perspectives. It’s ultimately why we travel. But that doesn’t mean our work is done when we return home.

When we stay engaged, we teach our children to do the same.
We are not trying to hand them all the right answers to racism. 

Teaching Children about Race and Racism

There are many excellent resources to help parents surround children with more diverse storybooks and other media. They include organizations like We Need Diverse Books, In This Together Media, and Showing Up for Racial Justice.

For children of color, issues of race and racism arise at a very early age. There’s no way to avoid the topic. For white children, however, some parents remain silent about race because they feel uncomfortable broaching the subject. Jennifer Harvey’s book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America provides valuable information on how to discuss racially-charged issues with kids.

teaching children about race and racism
© fizkes | Shutterstock

More Anti-Racism Resources

Other excellent educational resources include the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Talking About Race portal and Pretty Good’s resource roundup. The New York Times recently published this list for kids on racism and protest. Finally, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has created this reading list for adults to help them better engage with American culture and current events. If we use this moment for learning, positive change will occur in the spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation.

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Quotes are from Jennifer Harvey’s Book, Raising White Kids.

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