Talking to kids about difficult topics: Racism

I am a white woman, married to a white man, raising white kids. And I am not pretending to know what it is like to be any other race than my own.

I also do not know the “right” thing to say. But I know that staying silent doesn’t feel right either. Other difficult topics such as death, gender identity, cancer, divorce, sexual orientation, rejection, miscarriage, etc. also qualify as difficult topics to talk about — both with kids and with adults. Before I lost my dad to cancer, I generally fluctuated between staying silent and being awkward. “I’m so sorry,” was my default line to acknowledge someone’s pain when it came to loss, without making ME feel too uncomfortable.

Comfort Level

And therein lies the problem. Our own comfort level often dictates what we say and what we choose to remain silent about. A silver lining about having experienced such a debilitating loss is gaining a level of comfort with difficult topics. Oh no, what if they aren’t thinking about it? What if I bring it up and they start crying and I remind them about their loss? I totally get it because that was me. Staying silent is certainly the easier option.

Have I now mastered talking about difficult topics? Not at all. But I am much more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Which brings me to writing about racism as a white woman who has never experienced racism. I don’t know what to say. But remaining silent for fear of saying the wrong thing or for fear of feeling uncomfortable doesn’t feel right either. So here goes.

Difficult Topics

I listened to this 20 minute talk on NPR titled “Talking Race with Young Children,” and found it to be quite helpful. You can also read the transcript which highlights the strategies that the hosts discuss. In the article linked with the episode, it says,

"Babies begin to notice race at 6 months old — in fact, according to this pair of studies by Professor Kang Lee at the University of Toronto, they actually show signs of racial bias by this age."

While I know my intentions have been in the right place, I haven’t talked about race with my kids often enough for fear of not wanting to highlight differences. However, this is counter productive if they have been noticing such differences since they were 6 months old. To get the discussion going, here are some things that I have recently found helpful.

Focus on Feelings and Fairness

Especially for little kids, it is important to keep their age in mind. We don’t want to overwhelm our toddlers with more than they can handle. That said, we also don’t want to shield them. A way to get the conversation going is by addressing the issue of racism on a level they can understand. Talk in concrete terms about what is happening: People are being treated unfairly. People are upset, angry, and frustrated that they are not shown respect. Every 2-5 year old can closely identify with issues of fairness as one of their favorite things to note is injustice: “That’s not fair!” Use that to build their empathy for others.

Another way to support challenging conversations with kids is to focus on the helpers. Mr. Rogers is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”” I love this quote. It turns a negative into a positive and helps our children to see hope. The NPR segment mentions highlighting examples of resistance and allies when talking about racism.

Children’s Books

The following quote is from Embracerace.org:

“Research from Harvard University suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to racism and prejudice, tend to embrace and accept it, even though they might not understand the feelings. By age 5, white children are strongly biased towards whiteness. To counter this bias, experts recommend acknowledging and naming race and racism with children as early and as often as possible. Children’s books are one of the most effective and practical tools for initiating these critical conversations; and they can also be used to model what it means to resist and dismantle oppression.​”

Children’s books are one of my favorite ways to teach kids about a whole host of issues. From emotional regulation to race, and everything in between. Books take the pressure off because the words are built in. You don’t have to find the words yourself, you simply are sharing what the author has already written.

One of our favorites about race is the book Shades of People. Both kids enjoy reading it and looking at the pictures.

Some of our other favorite books we have that include diverse characters/themes:

Having a well rounded library at our house is another area that I am conscious to maintain and build upon in the future. There are currently tons of fabulous book lists available online (see one in resources below). Unfortunately and fortunately, many of the titles are not currently available on Amazon. When the public library opens, start there. When these titles come back in stock, order a few. In the meantime, start with this digital book:

Follow your kids’ lead

I watched the above video with 4 year old Keener and he didn’t appear all that interested. But I also know that he takes time to process. For example yesterday I told him about George Floyd. He was more concerned with getting a snack. Yet seven hours later at dinner, he asked me more about it.

It’s important to be available to our kids and follow their lead. Just because YOU are feeling confident and comfortable to talk, doesn’t mean your kids are in that same mindset. Be available to your kids all of the time to revisit these conversations. You can also be honest with your kids. If you don’t know the answer, tell them. The following sample language may be helpful:

  • That’s a great question and a hard question. I don’t have the answer right now. I want to take some time to think about my answer and get back to you.
  • Tell me what you already know about _____?
  • Some people still aren’t treated fairly or equally
  • People are feeling upset and angry that not all people are treated fairly and with respect

I also remember hearing that boys in particular often open up more while playing. Take the pressure off yourself, thinking you have to call a formal family meeting. Next time you are doing a puzzle, digging in the dirt, or playing dress ups, get the conversation going.

Model, Model, Model

Our kids are constantly watching what we say and do. I took my kids on an adventure to scooter on an empty basketball court yesterday. On the way home, we stopped at the gas station. I rolled the window down in the back seat so they could see what I was doing. They asked why I was wearing a glove and we discussed the ever present topic of “germs.” We also played a game watching the numbers on the gas tank go up, guessing which number it would stop on. I didn’t think much of this experience until we got home.

The kids were playing together and I heard them start to play “gas station.” They were going through the exact same motions that we had done just 30 minutes before. Down to pushing the button to release the gas door.

Which made me realize I need to make sure that my words and actions fully support my views about race and racism. Whatever comes out of my mouth, I can guarantee I have two sets of listening ears who will be repeating the same thing. Being more aware of what comes out of my mouth needs to be at the the forefront of my thinking.

Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

Why does it feel harder to talk to my kids about racism than it does to talk about homosexuality? I have no problem highlighting and discussing with my kids that families look all different ways. I never assume that someone has a family that looks like ours. And this easily flies off my tongue without that feeling of wanting to hide and change the topic.

So why does race? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I think this is important to sit with. All of my reading about emotions has taught me the value in simply noticing what I feel. That taking the opportunity to notice is actually the perfect place to start. Why does this make me feel uncomfortable? I feel ill prepared to have these conversations. I feel overwhelmed by the topic. I feel uneducated. And all of those feelings are OK to feel.

As I sit with these feelings, I know my perspective will change. I know I will learn more and educate myself about race and racism so that my own comfort level increases. And I know this will directly benefit my kids.

Resources

Why I talk about race when I read with my toddler

Strategies for talking about race with young children

Your kids aren’t too young to talk about race: resource roudup

31 Children’s books to support conversations on race, racism and resistance

Watch the “I love my hair” Sesame Street video

4 comments

  1. Great job, Jenzie! Very tough to face and you’ve given us lots of help. That’s what our black leaders were asking us to do – some THING- not just a post-it. So well done! Hugs!😘. Gran Dickey. (Your Dad and grandparents would be so proud of you.).

  2. Thank you! You are to be commended for addressing the “uncomfortableness” and importance of approaching this timely topic. “Children will Listen” lyrics:

    How do you say to your child in the night?
    Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white
    How do you say it will all be all right
    When you know that it might not be true?
    What do you do?

    Careful the things you say
    Children will listen
    Careful the things you do
    Children will see and learn
    Children may not obey, but children will listen
    Children will look to you for which way to turn
    To learn what to be
    Careful before you say ‘Listen to me’
    Children will listen

    Careful the wish you make
    Wishes are children
    Careful the path they take
    Wishes come true, not free
    Careful the spell you cast
    Not just on children
    Sometimes the spell may last
    Past what you can see
    And turn against you
    Careful the tale you tell
    That is the spell
    Children will listen

    How can you say to a child who’s in flight
    ‘Don’t slip away and i won’t hold so tight’
    What can you say that no matter how slight Won’t be misunderstood
    What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
    Only whatever you put in it’s head
    Things that you’re mother and father had said
    Which were left to them too
    Careful what you say
    Children will listen
    Careful you do it too
    Children will see
    And learn, oh guide them that step away
    Children will glisten
    Tamper with what is true
    And children will turn
    If just to be free
    Careful before you say
    ‘Listen to me’

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