Race, socioeconomic status, and other markers of difference are touchy topics. How and when do we discuss them with our kids? How old is old enough to begin a dialogue? As soon as they start asking questions.
Don’t shush kids’ natural curiosity
Dr. Beverly Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race, says “Sometimes parents naively believe that if they talk about issues of race with their children, they will cause them to notice race in a way that they did not before.”
Children observe and pick up on elements of race at school, in the grocery store, and from media. Talking with them about race won’t be a sudden awakening to the concept of race, but it will be a healthy way to help them digest the complex messages they are receiving.
Use age appropriate examples
A toddler and a 10-year old will engage with race differently. Younger children can still grapple with the concept, but it helps to use concrete examples. Abstract ideas of race or identity even go over adults’ heads sometimes.
Try grounding the concept of race with comparisons. White and brown eggs are both the same on the inside, lions and tigers are both cats, and people with different skin colors are both humans. Celebrate similarity while also acknowledging that differences exist.
Grab on to teaching moments
If you’re unsure how to start the conversation with your child, you can piggyback off one of their own observations. Does your child notice different skin colors or hair types? That opens the door to age-appropriate dialogue on race.
You might also consider children’s books about race or segue a conversation about differences in other objects to differences in humans. You might consider some of the books from this list.
Shocking comments don’t mean that your child is racist
“Children often repeat what they hear others say, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the child believes it,” says Dr. Tatum. “Ask questions. ‘What made you say…?’ Gently dispute the stereotypes or perceived attitudes.”
If your child surprises you with a seemingly racist comment it doesn’t mean they have internalized racist ideas. Children are exposed to so many novel ideas that they need help processing. A shocking comment is the perfect teaching moment to ask your son or daughter where they heard that idea and if they think it is true.
Show your kid how it’s done!
The best way to reduce prejudice is to lead by example. Let your children see that you have friends of all backgrounds and that connecting with people different from themselves is natural and healthy. Children imitate the adults in their life so let them learn from your actions.
Talking to your children about race and other complicated social constructs is an ongoing process. Engage with your children’s questions and capitalize on teaching moments to start a dialogue.