Promoting Healthy Discussions about Race and Social Justice with Children

Chris Ladish, PhD
Chief Clinical Officer, Pediatric Behavioral Health 
Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Network

The pandemic of COVID-19 has exposed an equally threatening, longstanding and devastating pandemic, that of racial discrimination and social injustice. Families are attending protest events, discussing the news, and having important conversations about these vital topics. Children who are witnessing events around the United States are asking questions and expressing confusion, curiosity, sadness and anxiety about what they’ve seen and heard. The following guidelines are offered to help parents continue to have these important conversations, provide education and explore these issues with their children in productive ways.

The Importance of Talking with Your Children About Race
Race and ethnic socialization is a process by which children learn about race and ethnicity.  These messages include things said and unsaid, things done and not done, and emotional reactions.  Parents and family members are the first influence in teaching about the important concepts of race and equality through conversation, open listening, and sharing of ideas.  Conversations about race should not be avoided, but rather encouraged as racial and ethnic socialization is constantly occurring in a child’s life.  Research demonstrates that children without access to important conversations about race are more vulnerable to developing negative opinions about self and others and may incorrectly judge or attribute negative characteristics to other groups.   In contrast, when participating in conversations about race and ethnicity, children are provided an opportunity to learn respect for all groups, to better understand and appreciate their own race and that of others, and to respond appropriately and supportively in racially charged situations.

Talking About Race with Children: Teach, Model, Ask & Listen
Discussions about race may be uncomfortable but are vitally important. When parents avoid talking about differences and discrimination, children infer that the topic is taboo. Thus, when talking about racism, parents are encouraged to acknowledge that racism exists and must be addressed, as well as provide truthful information. It is important to model acceptance and compassion as children take emotional cues from significant adults in their lives. Language that is developmentally appropriate is important so that children can understand and apply what they are learning.  It is also critical that information provided to children be factually true. Parents should teach children to question statements that are stigmatizing, are not factually supported, or which overgeneralize qualities or attributes to an entire group of people. When sitting with one’s child, a good place to start is by asking what he/she knows.  Encourage parents to correct misinformation and support children to keep asking questions.  Parents should learn about situations children have been a part of or have witnessed. What happened? Why do they think the events are happening?  What is the issue?  What does it mean to the child? How would he/she like things to change?  How might the child act, seek support or support others in this situation?

Talking About Race with Children: Meet Them Where They Are
Children enter the conversation about race at different stages but begin to understand similarities and differences from a very young age. If conversations about race and culture are not typical within a family household, encourage parents to begin by reaching out to understand what their child understands. Once parents understand what their child knows, they may build upon the conversation. Encourage listening to feelings as well as exploring misconceptions and inaccuracies. It is helpful for parents to emphasize positive and familiar images of diverse groups. Additionally parents should discuss the many characteristics, values and experiences that all have in common, as well as the unique community contributions made by all that are so meaningful and vital to our society.

With very young children, it may be necessary to enter dialogue simply by discussing differences among human beings. These may include hair color, eye color, and skin color among other attributes. Focused conversations with children 3-5 should focus on acknowledging and celebrating differences and appreciating the wonder of ALL. Activities may include reading books about various cultures and ethnic groups, playing multicultural music and trying multicultural foods. Children should be taught to celebrate all cultures, including their own and that of others.

School-aged children are more in tune to racial and ethnic differences and are more likely to begin noticing differences when individuals are treated unfairly. To enhance appreciation and celebration of race and culture in school-aged children, read books highlighting the beauty of all people, both those of similar heritage and culture as well as those of others. Help parents to encourage curiosity and comfort with difference, as opposed to anxiety and fear. Taking trips to heritage museums and teaching important facts about culture and race can help expand awareness.

It is also important that parents acknowledge the fact that people may judge others based on skin color (or other difference) and discuss this with their child. Offering guidance and direction about the concepts of “fairness” and “justice” is encouraged. Parents may also begin to discuss the impact that positions of power may have. Importantly, they should encourage children to speak up and seek support from the parent and other safe adults when the child or others have been treated unfairly.

For adolescents and teens, continued dialogue about race is important; discussing how one’s teen and others have been treated in various situations can create real life opportunities for learning and guidance. Discuss strategies for addressing and speaking up for anyone who is being harassed, bullied, or unfairly treated or blamed. Discuss how it would feel to be blamed unfairly by a group or association and what the long-term impact of that might be. Explore fears to speaking up and consequences of remaining silent. Be available to discuss difficult circumstances as they arise. Consider undertaking projects to help those in need with people from diverse backgrounds and emphasize how diversity enhances understanding, how multiple ideas are more powerful than one.

Talking About Protests and Demonstrations with Children
Children need time to think and process. Revisiting the topics of race, justice, and current events keeps lines of communication open.  Discrimination and racism are longstanding issues and our conversations must be present and frequent if we are to truly address them.  To some children this may be one of the first times they have truly considered the concept of racism.  It is important that they be made aware that racism has existed for over 400 years.

Children may see protests.  They may have heard about rioting, looting or other acts of violence. They may fear the police or other authority figures. It is important that these topics are not ignored nor glossed over.

Children should be asked what they have seen and how they feel — scared, angry, anxious? Provide context and explain the importance of what is happening.  Share that most people and protests are peaceful and that their important message is being echoed across the world. Focus on the fact that the clear majority of people want to create a more fair and just system for all people of color.

Invite trusted extended family and friends to be part of the conversation. Chatting with others and hearing their stories can foster and broaden perspectives. A grandparents’ or other relative’s experience can provide a very tangible and poignant way to expand a child’s understanding of race, justice, and history in America.

Talking About Race with Children: Action in the Community
Children may want to act for justice. Applaud their sense of fairness and help channel that energy toward age and ability-appropriate action. Here are some ideas for families:

  • Complete an art project. Children can’t always express themselves though words. Painting a picture for the door, wall or window, or using sidewalk chalk to draw images for justice are powerful ways for children to feel a part of conversations about race. Convey emotions and concepts like love, peace, friendship and equality. For children who can write, consider making signs they can put up in their bedrooms or in prominent places in the home.
  • Talk with another family. Connect with family friends for discussions. Have a video call to talk about feelings, ways to help, and how to create impact in your community. Ideas might include more inclusive play groups, craft projects reflecting equality and justice, and facilitating inclusive conversation with classmates about race and justice.
  • Join a neighborhood protest or conversation (wearing a mask). Many parents are concerned about large demonstrations that have drawn non-protestors who act in violent ways. Encourage parents to research details about local protests in their neighborhood. There are both large and small demonstrations happening throughout the sound.
  • Continue speaking up and speaking out. Encourage children to call attention to acts of racism when they encounter them, using phrases like “please stop” and “please use kindness” and to seek immediate support if feeling that they or others are unsafe in any situation.
  • Monitor social media use. Social media is filled with content about racism, race, and justice. If a child is active on social media, consider monitoring what he/she experiences so that it can be discussed. Discuss criteria for assessing material prior to posting it to the internet. Remind children that once posted, material cannot be controlled, and context is not always maintained.  Words may be taken out of context and used to hurt. Encourage avoidance of derogatory terms or swear words. Consider placing limitations on the amount of time a child spends on social media, particularly before bed. Remember that the volume of content on social media can stress and overwhelm young people, increasing internal feelings of distress. Check in with children frequently about what they are reading and posting, and how they are feeling.

Most of all, help parents recognize that they are standing in the doorway of opportunity. They can shape and influence their child’s understanding of race and justice while helping him/her navigate the complexity of our culture.  Parents are not expected to have all the answers, but they are the example that their child will follow.  Encourage parents to step into this opportunity and take every available moment to demonstrate kindness and advocate for each individual’s right to be treated with fairness dignity and respect.  Both they and their child will benefit.

Resources to share with parents: