When acts of racism occur, some parents may be at a loss for words for how to explain racism, prejudice and acts of violence to their children. Other parents may grieve that they yet again must address the dangers of racism with their children and worry for their safety. While these conversations can be difficult, they are important to have, urges Hillary Kimbley, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern.
"Children hear about these events through social media, the news, their friends and even parents' conversations at home, and they can affect children in a lot of different ways depending on who the child is, their developmental age, and their own race and background," Dr. Kimbley advises. "A lot of kids are shocked, a lot of kids are scared and a lot of kids are asking questions about what's going on."
Parents should be prepared to listen to their child's concerns and questions, even if they're afraid they don't have the right answers.
"Parents might be hesitant to discuss race and racism for a number of reasons – whether it's their own lack of knowledge of what to say, fear of upsetting their child, thinking their child is too young or even wanting to shield their child from the trauma or discrimination they've personally experienced," says Dr. Kimbley.
However, children will hear about and be affected by race and racism even if parents don't talk about it. By starting the conversation, parents have the opportunity to support their child, filter out misinformation, and build empathy and compassion.
How do you explain racism to a child?
Racism is a complex topic and should be addressed in ways that are appropriate to a child's age and development. "Children may not understand certain terms such as systemic racism, but many kids understand right from wrong, fair from unfair and what it feels like to be included versus left out," says Dr. Kimbley.
Explain to your child that there are many different races, colors and groups of people. Racism, at its most basic definition, is when people think that one color or race is better than another, and they treat or mistreat people based on that belief. Essentially, it's when someone is treated unfairly because of how they look.
What age is appropriate to talk about race and racism with a child?
It's never too early to start the conversation with your child about race and racism. Research indicates that even in infancy, children will start to show preference for certain skin colors and faces, and that children as young as 2 or 3 years old can start to use race to explain behavior. As language develops, children may start making observations or asking questions about how someone looks.
"Children may say, ‘Why does their skin look like that?' or ‘Why does their hair look like that?'" says Dr. Kimbley. "As they become more curious, you can use these moments as opportunities to have discussions with them."
Dr. Kimbley offers some advice for teaching children about race and racism in age-appropriate ways:
Toddlers and preschoolers
At this age, children learn through play, storytelling and experiences. Introduce concepts of diversity through play, picture books or exposing them to different cultures.
"There's diversity in a lot of things, not just race," says Dr. Kimbley. "Even at a young age, children can see all the colors in a crayon box or a variety of flowers in nature. That's one way to introduce the idea of differences."
As children start to ask questions about how people look, explain that different people have different colors and different features – and those differences make us all unique. Look for ways to celebrate diversity, while also teaching how we're all connected as human beings.
As children grow older, they start to make expressions about racial prejudices or preferences for peers based on physical characteristics like race. This is an important age to start and continue conversations about race and racism.
Parents can look for opportunities to ask their child questions, such as if they've heard about events in the news, or if they or any of their friends have ever been treated unfairly. Suggest resources to explore together, such as books, movies or experiences. Set an example by wanting to learn more about others and by treating them with respect.
Tweens and teenagers
The middle and high school years can be challenging socially, and often, racial situations may become more apparent. This is an age where parents can be clear and acknowledge that racism and prejudice exist, it's not acceptable and here's what we can do to make a change.
Talk to your child about how to respond in an uncomfortable situation and let them know you're there to talk when they need it. Suggest age-appropriate ways to take action, such as joining a diverse organization or multicultural group. You can share your own experiences and continue to grow with your child in learning more about race and racism.
Tips for talking to kids about racism
How you address race and racism with your child depends on their age and level of understanding, as well as your own family's background and experiences. However, these general tips can help you have an ongoing conversation.
- Start the conversation early and have it frequently. Race is embedded in our society. It affects our everyday lives and how we interact with each other. Introduce the idea of differences early and look for opportunities to keep the conversation open with your child. The more you talk about race, the more normal these discussions become and the more comfortable you will feel in having them.
- Seek educational resources together. There are books for every age that introduce the concept of race and racism. Make a list of books to read or movies to watch, and engage with these resources together, so that they can encourage your conversation to continue.
- Use experience as a teacher. Seek experiences that expose your child to diverse cultures and races, whether traveling, visiting a museum, attending a multicultural event, trying different foods or learning a new language. Engage in observances such as Black History Month and seek to understand unique perspectives.
- Broaden your circle. Make an effort to diversify playgroups and encourage authentic friendships with families of other races. This may mean stepping out of your community or comfort zone and seeking activities that attract a diverse group of people.
- Get involved. Talk to your children about what we're able to do as citizens to promote change and equal rights. That may mean seeking to educate yourself further, joining a group that promotes racial justice, or participating in age-appropriate and safe methods of activism.
- Model positive behavior. One of the most important ways parents can teach children about race is by being a good role model. From a young age, children watch and imitate parents. Demonstrate respectful interactions, watch what you say and acknowledge if you make a mistake. It's important to be honest in your own journey to become more aware, or how you're coping with your own experiences.
- Acknowledge and address your child's feelings. Racism and acts of violence can affect children in different ways. If your child is upset, make sure to listen to and validate their concerns, without being dismissive. "Acknowledge what is happening and that it is scary, and let your child know it's okay to be upset about a scary event," says Dr. Kimbley.
After listening to your child, suggest activities that might help calm anxiety – whether that is learning more information together, focusing on people who are helping to create change or taking a break from the news or social media. Encourage deep breathing exercises or making time for activities they enjoy. If feelings of anxiety persist and parents are concerned that their child needs more support, seek help from a mental health professional.
Unfortunately, while certain events may shine a light on inequality, racism has long been an issue and is one that unfortunately will not go away overnight. However, Dr. Kimbley encourages those on both sides – whether they have experienced the effects of racism or they have not but are becoming more aware of the problem – to seek ways they can give and receive support to each other.
"We're different in a lot of ways, but by working together, we can teach children to have empathy and compassion for one another. By valuing our differences, we can move forward and improve," she says.
Resources to help explain race and racism to children
If you're looking for more resources to explain race and racism to children, the following organizations can help:
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Child Mind Institute
- The Conscious Kid
- Doing Good Together
- Center for Racial Justice in Education
- National Museum of African American History & Culture
- American Psychological Association
- National Association of School Psychologists
It's never too early to start talking with your child about race & racism. Children's offers age-appropriate ways to help you approach this important topic with your child.
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