Talking to Kids about Race: Part 2 of 3

Using the Readiness. Facts. Honesty. framework for conversations about race and additional resources for parents to learn about race and racism. 

This post is part 2 of a 3 part post about talking to kids about race.  Read Part 1 for more about my experiences of continuously striving to learn more about race and racism.  

At Oh. My. Word., we have three principles that work as a framework for any difficult conversation parents might have with their children – Readiness. Facts. Honesty.  Those three words can help parents to have difficult conversations with their kids early, often, and continue to improve.  

Let’s go through the framework for conversations with kids about race.    

Readiness:  You know your child better than anyone else, so you are best prepared for assessing their readiness for the depth of any conversation, including conversations about race.  However, like we say regarding talking to kids about sex, a parent’s assessment of their child’s readiness is not an excuse to not have the conversation.  Every child, of every ethnicity, at every age is ready to start having conversations about sex.  The depth of the conversation just might vary.  In addition to using your knowledge of your child, the following articles may help you consider age appropriate topics for talking to your kids about race. 

This resource from The Children’s Community School, offers an evidence-based timeline of how children experience race.  Here are a couple of Oh. Moments from the articles: 

  • “Expressions of racial prejudice often peak at ages 4 and 5 (Aboud, 2008).”
  • “Explicit conversations with 5–7 year olds about interracial friendship can dramatically improve their racial attitudes in as little as a single week (Bronson & Merryman, 2009).”

Think of the profound impact that even a week of conversations could have. 

This healthychildren.org article summarizes research on when children start to differentiate race and beliefs about race.  

  • As early as 6 months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences.
  • By ages 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias.
  • By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs—giving parents a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves cultural understanding.”

Note: Research shows children are not born with an ability to differentiate between races.  It is developed in those first few months of life. 

This Parents article also provides some helpful tips, from various scholars, about readiness for race related conversations based on kids’ ages.   

As we always say with any difficult conversation, it is never too late, it is never too early.  

Facts: Knowing the facts about race and racism in America is critical when talking to children.  The learning process is continuous, so talking to children does not have to wait until we are “finished” learning.  We have provided a resource list for parents to learn independently and with their children at the end of this post. We are happy to continue to add to the list.  Please feel free to send us your recommendations for resources at info@ohmywordconversations.com.  

Actions that support diversity: 

  • Read & Watch: At birth, children are ready for stories written about Black people, by Black people.  The resource list includes some examples.  
  • Toys: At birth, parents can buy diverse toys for their children for play and nurture.  As we talk about in the “Not The Talk” course, Kristin received a lot of commentary from her friends when she bought her children Black baby dolls.  Never mind the fact that her children are ¼ Black or that their cousins are ¾ Black, some of her friends thought it was weird.  Playing with diverse toys was a great way to build acceptance and compassion for kids of a different race.  See more example of toys at Colours of Us.   
  • Live: Expose kids to people who live differently than our families.  Experience other family’s traditions.  When I ask my students about their family’s culture or traditions, my White students have a hard time describing theirs, because as the mainstream culture they have never seen how their culture or traditions are different from other people’s.  Especially as a Texan, Juneteenth is a great example of a day celebrated by the Black/African American community that is important for all of us to know and celebrate.
  • Actions that support anti-racism: 
    • Talk: It is critical to talk about systemic racism and how it affects Black people.  By ages 8-10, kids are ready to know about all of the topics below: 
      • Slavery
      • Voting rights
      • Segregation
      • The Civil Rights movement
      • Redlining
      • Rezoning in schools
      • Juneteenth (I loved this podcast episode from The Daily featuring Dr. Berry – a professor of African American history, who explains the evolution of Juneteenth)
      • Diversity in the workplace (its value and the factors that make it difficult to achieve)
      • Privilege: Please talk about this one (please, please, please).  This is where I see my college students still struggle the most.  I am understanding now, because no one taught us about privilege growing up.  Children of this generation will not get the same grace period.  They have to know.  Privilege is not just about money.  That is one aspect of privilege, but many other factors about us (intersectionalities) contribute to our privilege.  We often hear about race, gender, and sexual orientation, which contribute greatly to privilege, but so do height, attractiveness, ability, socioeconomic status (to name only a few).  
      • Say their names: George Floyd was a Black man who was killed by a White police officer.  Of course, assess readiness on this one, but there is a disconnect with being uncomfortable talking about violence with a 10 year old who plays Fortnite.  
      • If you pray, as a family, pray for the Black people in America who have been killed by police violence.  Pray for them by name.      
    • Upstander Training: Some kids are getting upstander (a step beyond bystander) training in schools today.  The training can be very effective in teaching kids how to safely intervene when someone is being bullied.  In absence of full upstander training, here are two statements that work well with kids (and adults).  When people use race to make fun of others, and yes, it still happens (making Asian eyes, making fun of a Black person’s name, etc. – I share my story about this experience in Part 3 of 3 here), a child can say: 
      • “Why is that funny?”  The question makes the other person stop and have to rationalize what they said.  It’s a great wake-up call to everyone around that making fun of someone for their race is actually not funny.  
      • “When you say ___________, it makes me feel ___________, next time can you say ___________?”  For example, “When you make fun of Jahmal’s name, it makes me feel sad, next time can you tell Jahmal his name is cool or ask him what it means?”
      • Some kids may not feel comfortable addressing the peer who made the racist comment.  Teaching children to comfort the peer who was the target of the racist comments can also go a long way in teaching compassion and in making the peer feel supported. 

Teach kids to ask “Why is that funny?”

or to say

“When you say ___________, it makes me feel ___________, next time can you say ___________?” 

  • Make a donation: As a family, donate to an organization fighting racial injustice.  Color of Change is an organization I have researched and to which I have donated.  There are many others doing great work.  You can find one that aligns with your family’s values.       
  • Teach kids to think critically by using questions: A great way to engage a child in any conversation is through questions.  Here are some examples of a few you might try for talking about race:   
    • What race are you?  Do you have friends who are other races?
    • If you were going to draw a picture of your class, what color of crayons would you use? What color would you use to draw yourself, why? 
    • Do kids at school ever make jokes about race or make fun of each other because of race?  If so, what do you say when that happens?
    • Do Black kids and White kids sit together in the cafeteria or do most kids sit with kids of their own race?
    • What are some of our family traditions?  Do your friends of different races have other traditions?
    • How would it make you feel to know that someone was treated differently because of the color of their skin?
    • What race are most Disney princesses?  Are there differences between the princesses who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color – Mulan, Tiana, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Moana – and the White princesses?  

Teach kids to think critically by using questions:
If you were going to draw a picture of your class, what color of crayons would you use? What color would you use to draw yourself, why?

Do kids at school ever make jokes about race or make fun of each other because of race? If so, what do you say when that happens?

What are some of our family traditions? Do your friends of different races have other traditions?

Honesty: Finally, honesty is about telling the truth.  It is also about intentionally communicating your own values to your own children.  At Oh. My. Word., we will never tell a family what values to have.  We just ask families to be mindful of their values.  We often say in our course about sex that we all inherited many values related to sex.  Some of those values (or many of them) we do not want to pass on to the next generation.  The same is true about race.  There are many values related to race that have been passed down to us.  Many of those we want to leave behind, which requires us to be more mindful of our values – those we intend to hold and those we don’t, those conscious and subconscious.  That mindfulness is required if we are going to help the next generation be better.  Here is a great quiz that can help us assess our own hidden biases – a way to investigate our values.

Finally, silence also communicates values to children, whether we mean it to or not.  The cost of silence is too significant to ignore.  It’s literally costing people their lives.   

We would love to hear from you about ways you have talked to your kids about race.  What has worked, where are you struggling?  What other suggestions do you have for parents who want raise race conscious children?

Resource List: Talking to Kids about Race

I hope this is inspiring and not overwhelming.  Pick just one for now (and then pick another and another…).

Content parents and children can watch/read/explore together: 
Resources for parents to learn more about teaching their children about race: 

Part 3 of this blog series includes a missed opportunity I had to talk to kids about race.

Comment below, with any questions or areas where you are struggling to have the answers for your kids. You may also email us at info@ohmywordconversations.com.

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