How to talk to kids about racism: An age-by-age guide

Explaining race and racism to kids can feel like a minefield for parents, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s our age-by-age guide to handling this topic.

Have you talked to your kids about race and racism? Maybe you think they’re still too young or that a specific conversation isn’t really necessary?

They’re never too young, and an ongoing dialogue about race and racism is a really good idea, says Rachel Berman, graduate program director of the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and a researcher on a project called Can We Talk About Race? Confronting Colour-Blindness in Early Childhood Settings. “Children need adults to help them develop respect for and acceptance of others,” she says. “Not talking about race and racism sends a message to children that this is a taboo topic, no matter what their age.” What’s more, she adds, kids who may be targets of racism may need help negotiating their feelings and figuring out how to respond to what they’re experiencing.

But how do you start the conversation? Each age group has different needs. Read on for ways to broach the subject with your child.

Infants and toddlers
Babies are born blank slates, but studies show that they react differently to racial differences, even by six months of age, notes Berman. “The idea that talking openly to children about race and racism isn’t appropriate because children are too young and innocent or because it will ‘create racism’ (or perhaps you’ll say the wrong thing) is just not the case,” she explains.

To counteract any prejudicial messages kids might receive, create an environment where they can learn about the differences and similarities between people of different races, cultures and religions at an early age, says Karen Mock, an educational psychologist and human rights consultant in Toronto. Read them picture books and show them TV shows and movies that celebrate kids of all colours, cultures and religions, but include examples of these kids doing everyday things so that they won’t see difference as exotic. Role-model interracial and interfaith interactions, and actively seek out diverse playgroups and child care, says Annette Henry, the David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education and a professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia.

Also, be ready to answer questions. “Children as young as two or three may start asking about differences, such as disabilities, gender and physical characteristics like skin colour and hair,” explains Berman. What’s the best way to respond to their curiosity? Henry recalls an experience that left her impressed with the mother’s response to her daughter’s observation. “I was at a supermarket and this little girl, who must have been about three years old, said to her mom, ‘Mommy, look at the brown lady.’ They were white. Her mom said, ‘Oh, yes, and isn’t she beautiful?’ I thought, that’s a smart mom, celebrating difference instead of calling it out and saying ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we’re all different?’”

Preschoolers
At around age three, kids start to use race, among other things, to make decisions about who to play with, says Berman. They do so thanks to biases they’ve unconsciously developed or because they reason that people who look like them are more like them. Kids this age may also make hurtful statements that parents need to be prepared to respond to. “If a child makes a comment about another child, like ‘Her skin looks dirty,’ don’t quiet her or change the subject,” says Berman. “Instead, ask your child why she thinks that and explain that darker skin isn’t dirty. Take your child’s comments and questions seriously.” Parents should be very careful about passing on their own biases and prejudices before kids even understand the concept of racism, says Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and medical director of child and youth mental health for Vancouver Coastal Health’s community programs.

School-aged kids
When kids start school, their circle of exposure widens, which means that they may need more explicit guidance about race and racism. Kids this age are already getting subtle, often unspoken messages from TV, movies and politicians about who has power and who is valued in our society, says Berman. We must start teaching them to be critical readers and viewers. One way to do so is by asking them questions like “Are there certain groups who never get to be the hero in comic books and movies?” and “Who gets to be considered ‘pretty’?”

One book that Berman recommends for kids in grades one to five is Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester. It delves into our differences and similarities, and it’s the latter that resonates with kids this age, she explains.

This is also a time when we can begin to teach kids ways to combat racism and prejudice. But to do so, parents may have to first introduce them to the idea that some people get treated unfairly based on their skin colour, culture or religion. Henry suggests telling them about Viola Desmond, a black woman who challenged racial segregation in Nova Scotia in 1946 and who will be the first Canadian woman to be featured on a $10 bill. Desmond’s story bolsters the idea that people can make a change based on their actions—something that Kang says is important to emphasize when talking to kids about injustice so that they feel empowered to make a change.

It’s important to keep details age-appropriate, says Berman. For example, we can tell kids about the injustice faced by indigenous peoples who were forced into residential schools and explain that their hair was cut against their will and they weren’t allowed to speak their own languages, but we don’t need to mention the sexual abuse many of them faced.

It’s necessary to help kids realize that racism and prejudice aren’t confined to the past. When it comes to current events, Kang suggests that you tell kids the truth, giving them age-appropriate information, but let them lead the conversation. “Ask your kids about what they are interested in knowing about the story,” she recommends. “They may not want to know all of the details. And reassure them because kids’ first thing is fear.”

Henry notes that parents are on a wide spectrum when it comes to their comfort and knowledge in talking to kids about racism and prejudice, but we must approach this subject head-on if we want to change the world. “This is a moment when we have to help our kids understand what their role is going to be as future adult Canadians,” she says, “and it starts now.”

Tweens and teens
Older kids can have more in-depth conversations around issues of racism and prejudice and the role they may play in supporting them. At this age, you can have more sophisticated discussions on topics such as Black Lives Matter and racial profiling, says Henry. Your tween or teen may also be spending time online, which increases their risk of getting incorrect facts. “Parents have to be in tune with where their children are getting their information,” notes Kang. “It’s very easy to end up on a Twitter stream where there’s a lot of hate. But it is desensitizing, so parents of older kids should really watch out for extreme views.” Parents should encourage their kids to think critically about any source and, if you believe your children’s views are extreme, try to correct any myths they have.

Read more:
Discussing race: You know we’re black, right?
I thought a loving home would be enough for my biracial child
It’s a sad day when a toddler is told she can’t be Elsa

 

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