Children and Racism: The Importance of Age-Appropriate Listening and Support
This column was published in June 2020. The requests for this information continue to grow, making it helpful to revisit.
When is the right time to talk to children about racism? Are you concerned about not having enough or the right information? Are your kids and teens asking questions about history and race that make you uncomfortable? How do you start anti-racist conversations with children and how do you sustain them over time?
It can be hard to talk with children and students about racism. Conversations about race, the history of discrimination, both interpersonal and systemic, in our country and state, and current protests will likely be different for each family, school, and community. There is no one “best” or “right” way to talk with children about this important issue. At the same time, the research is clear that we can and should start teaching children about kindness, fairness and human rights at a young age.
In August 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy brief outlining the health effects of racism on children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families. Racism negatively affects the environments in which people live, learn, play, and work. For the person who experiences racism, its impact has been linked to differences in such health indicators as infant and maternal mortality, birth weight, and child and adolescent mental health. Prolonged exposure to stress associated with racism leads the bodies of those affected to produce increased stress hormones, which in turn can result in their development of chronic diseases. Systemic racism has impacted access to jobs, education, healthcare, and overall upward mobility. Creating antiracist environments and systems for our children can have lasting health and economic benefits for all people.
When discussing racism with children, it is important to first, increase our personal understanding of this critical issue from a lens of equity and fairness and secondly, to understand and adjust our engagement based on the stages of child development. What follows are some age-appropriate ways and resources, many from UNICEF and the Child Mind Institute, to address racism with children and youth.
Little ones, under age 5:
- Be open to all questions. Babies as young as 6 months old begin noticing physical differences including skin color, and by age 5 children can show signs of inclusion or racial bias. Children in this age group commonly ask many questions, and will likely ask about people who look different from them. Encourage their curiosity, recognizing and discussing differences in appearance in positive, prosocial ways.
- Celebrate diversity. Introduce diverse cultures and people from different races and ethnicities to children. Early positive interactions help decrease prejudice and encourages more cross-racial group friendships.
- Use relatable experts. CNN and “Sesame Street” recently partnered for a special town hall special, “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism,” where Big Bird, Elmo, Abby Cadabby and others, discussed and explained concepts of protesting and racism. Kids’ direct and heartfelt questions were answered in clear and simple terms that all can understand.
Elementary students and pre-teens:
- Encourage this age group to share their feelings about race and racism. Check in, listen, and ask questions. Children are likely to have concerns or questions that they do not know how to express. They may be ambivalent or uncertain, afraid of riots, of being hurt by the police, or worry that something bad could happen to loved ones.
- Discuss the media. Ask what they are seeing on TV and social media. Elementary students and pre-teens are becoming more exposed to information and can easily be confused by what they are seeing and hearing. Ask broad questions such as: “How did you feel about what we saw on the news? What did it make you think about?”
- Bring diversity into your home and schools. Explore food, stories, and films from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds, discussing the uniqueness and similarities. Advocate for curricula that are multicultural, multilingual, and reﬂective of diverse communities.
- Be ready for strong emotions. This age group is likely to know more than you may think and can also have strong emotional responses. Try to stay calm without hiding your feelings. Let them know that you are also sad and angry, validating that it is good to have a strong reaction to social injustice.
- Talk openly about historical racism and the challenges of addressing remaining inequities. This group is beginning to understand complicated and abstract concepts such as fairness, bias, and justice. Ask what they think and introduce them to different perspectives and worldviews to help expand their understanding toward global thinking and local impact.
- Encourage action. Many teens are looking for ways to be active in their community and on social media. Help them to act in ways that reflect a dedication to inclusion, unity and personal development.
Do your best to meet each child where they are, developmentally and emotionally. It is important to hear and validate their questions, fears, and emotions. Do not worry if you do not have all the answers. Our children are looking to us as role models and guides. Honest, open, and fact-based conversations about racism, diversity, and inclusion builds lasting trust. Take every opportunity to challenge racist behaviors, practices and policies, demonstrate kindness, and stand up for every person’s right to be treated with dignity and respect.
In the words of my esteemed colleague, Dr. Karlin Tichenor, “Our minority children deserve a world where they can run, walk, protest, and achieve without fear or limits. We all deserve this world.”
A few supporting and additional resources include:
- The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health, American Academy of Pediatrics
- Racism and Violence: How to Help Kids Handle the News
- From Colorlines: The Dos and Don’ts of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy
- From Safe Space Radio: Talking to White Kids About Race and Racism
- From the Center for Racial Justice in Education: Resources for Talking About Race, Racism and Racialized Violence With Kids
- From We Need Diverse Books: Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism and Inclusion
- From the Anti-Defamation League: Children’s Books Addressing Race and Racism and Activities to Promote Social Justice
- From the Oakland Public Library: Resources for Talking to Kids About Racism and Justice
(Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)