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How and why to talk to children about racism

Stacy Drasen, MD

Talking with our children in an age-appropriate way about race and the realities of racism is one of the most powerful approaches we have for building a better future. Learning to look for and challenge racist beliefs and systems takes all of us. Preventing racist ideas from being passed to the next generation is a key piece of eliminating injustice.

An individual’s race can have a dramatic impact on their quality of education, job prospects, safety, and physical and mental health. What’s more, when injustices go unchecked, our communities and country lose out on the talents and contributions of people of color. When lines divide us we may miss out on incredible relationships in our lives. The complicated web of racism and racial bias will take time to dismantle, however there are some key things we parents can do:

For younger children

  • Discuss how differences make us stronger. Children notice differences in skin color from the time they are very young babies and start to internalize biases as early as their preschool years. At this age, it is important to reinforce that everyone is unique and to explain why that’s a good thing.
  • Welcome people of various races into our friend communities. Developing meaningful friendships with people of different ethnicities gives kids a model to follow in school and as they grow older.
  • Offer books and toys that show diversity. Make sure toys and books represent a range of skin colors, hair types, and backgrounds. Try to choose stories that show people of color performing a variety of roles in the community—mayor, doctor, firefighter, etc.
  • Examine our own biases. Children are very aware of our behavior as parents and we must examine our own biases to ensure we are not passing on negative ideas that we may have learned.

For older children

  • Address negative stereotypes. During the grade school years it is essential to continue to explain the importance of diversity in our communities and resist stereotypes. By the time children enter middle school they have more firmly set ideas and beliefs about race and racism.
  • Offer empowering examples of people of color. Expose children to images and stories of people of color who are champions in their fields or making a difference in their community today. While we want to acknowledge the ways that people of color have been harmed or victimized, it’s just as important to show all the ways people of color succeed.
  • Model respect. We must model the respectful means by which we communicate with people of various races and ethnicities, and expect our personal and professional communities to live up to these ideals.

For some parents, talking with kids about what’s going on in the news can feel overwhelming. When the littlest kids ask questions, it’s best to help them feel safe and explain simply what happened, sparing them the graphic details. Let their curiosity guide the conversation and address any ideas or biases that come up.

Grade school children also require honesty, even if it causes some anxiety. Offer only as much information as they are interested in hearing and be prepared to address some difficult questions. It can be heartbreaking to walk a child through the bitter realities that exist in the world.

These are painful issues and helping our children process their feelings can be powerful and healing—and even solidify their commitment to positive change. I encourage you to listen with your children to the “I have a dream” speech or “Mountaintop” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the words are inspiring and help us to empathize with those who experience racism and racial bias. It is up to all of us to be part of the solution and to create a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Stacy Drasen is a pediatrician at Vancouver Clinic. She loves caring for kids of all ages. She has a special interest in helping first-time parents adjust to life with a baby and serving adolescents.