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How to Talk to Kids About Race

Learn how to talk to kids about race from Pediatrician LeKeyah Wilson, MD, and Pediatric Family Psychologist Jessica Moore, PhD.

June 22, 2020

Parent talking to their child about race

Racism is a public health crisis in the United States. Countless tragedies involving people of color have sparked protests across the country, from our most populated cities to our suburban and rural communities. While we typically deal with public health crises like the coronavirus, AIDS pandemic or heart disease by bringing top scientists and leaders together to develop a solution and comprehensively rolling that out across our health institutions—there’s something markedly different about this one. This public health crisis discriminates. This public health crisis targets people who look different, and as Dr. LeKeyah Wilson affirms, “it grows stronger in silence.”

It’s for that reason that LeKeyah Wilson, MD, a pediatrician with specialization in adolescent medicine at Rochester General Hospital, and a black mother of two children living in Rochester, stands with her medical peers across the country in urging parents to openly discuss race and racial injustice with their young children and teens. “If parents never discuss race with their kids, their kids will never look at all races as equal,” said Dr. Wilson. “Our kids are the next generation of decision-makers, and I fear we’ll be even worse off than where we are with race relations today if we don’t have these conversations with our children.”

In this article, you’ll learn how to talk to kids about race, at what age, what words and language to use, and how parents and guardians can get past the uncomfortable feelings they may experience during these conversations.

When to start the conversation

Children start to notice and separate by race at an early age. “Talking should start in the preschool ages of around two to four years old,” said Dr. Wilson. “That’s the age where children can internalize racial biases.”

A study by sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin in their book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, shows that children in an urban day care as young as three exclude other kids from play based on their race, and use race to negotiate power in their social networks. 

There’s a term for what Ausdale and Feagin describe. “It’s called in-group bias,” said Jessica Moore, PhD, a pediatric family psychologist at Rochester General Hospital.

“Human beings by nature make some cognitive short cuts. For kids as young as preschool, those short cuts are grouped by very concrete factors, and race is one of them,” Dr. Moore said.

Why talking about race is important

Talking to your children about race is important because it teaches them that all races are equal, and all races should be treated equally. If adults don’t teach, that’s when children can misunderstand the situation, explains Dr. Moore.

“There’s an assumption that kids don’t see color or kids are color blind, and that’s false. People naturally notice differences between themselves and others and when left to their own devices, kids can get the wrong message. By not addressing racism and not trying to correct it, it becomes part of the system.”

Children of color also start to notice differences, according to Dr. Wilson.

“Young children of color realize that they look different, and they start to notice a difference in treatment. They start to see this binary of white as being good and as black as being not as good or bad, and they start to see some of those racial biases. They start to see some injustices where they might not really be able to fully comprehend what is actually going on, and that’s where parents need to step in and guide them through their development.”

What to say and how to say it

The conversations parents have with their children can vary depending on race. Dr. Wilson says that parents of color tend to have conversations about race with their kids early and often.

“Parents of color prepare their children for the social biases and racism that they will encounter. They are trying to teach their child how to navigate racism and racial prejudice, how to respond appropriately to it, and how to deal with the emotions associated with those experiences.”

For white parents, the conversation should center on education and celebration of other skin colors and cultures. When those conversations become uncomfortable for white parents to have, that’s when Dr. Jessica Moore says white parents should bear that responsibility.

“As a white mom with three white children, it’s easy for someone like me to ignore those conversations because we’ll likely never face racism in any facet of society, so why even talk about it? And the answer to that is because it’s our responsibility as parents to make sure our children don’t grow up perpetuating racism. The responsibility of white parents is teaching our children to be antiracist.”

All families can start the conversation at an early age by learning through books, songs, movies, games, family activities like a trip to a cultural museum or historical landmarks, or listening to podcasts.

Here’s how Dr. Wilson and Dr. Moore recommend you talk to your kids about race:

  • Use clear, concise language
  • Explain in the context of what is fair and what is unfair
  • Provide examples of historical moments and how they happened versus how they should have happened
  • Ask your child how hearing and learning about race makes them feel
  • Validate their emotions (“I hear you and I understand that you are upset”)
  • Check-in with them often

Activities, Books, Podcasts, & Museums

Podcasts

Podcasts are an interactive and fun way for your kids to learn about race. They allow children to learn and celebrate different races through language, music, and storytelling.

Pause your podcasts after each section and discuss, restate, and ask questions about what your child has heard.

8 podcasts about race for your kids

Museums

Museums provide kids with a unique, in-person setting to learn about the history of race. Kids are encouraged to participate in activities and experience and celebrate race through exhibits and artifacts.

Learn about African-American heritage in Rochester

Activities

Hands-on learning is one of the most memorable and effective ways you can discuss race with your kids. Here’s an example of an activity you can do with younger children.

Crack two eggs together to make scrambled eggs or a cake. Use one brown egg and one white egg and discuss how even though the eggs are different colors on the outside, they are the same on the inside.

For a sweeter example, bight into two different-colored chocolates (white and brown). Even though they are different colors on the outside, they taste the same on the inside.

See more at-home activities about race for parents

List of Anti-Racism Books for Kids

Books that teach history and oppression are important, but so are books that celebrate the accomplishments of people of color throughout history. 

Here’s is a shortlist of age-appropriate books you can use to educate and celebrate people of color with your children:

*This list originally appeared in the New York Times

Ages 0-3:

The Snowy Day,” “A Letter to Amy,” “Hi, Cat!” and “Whistle for Willie” by Ezra Jack Keats.

Keats’ series of books about a black boy named Peter who lives in the city demonstrates Peter’s curiosity and bravery while still just being a kid. “They are beautiful meditations on the interiority of black childhood without trauma while still feeling very black,” said Kaitlyn Greenidge, New York Times Parenting contributor.

Ages 3-5:

Saturday,” by Oge Mora.

This quiet, yet profound, picture book follows a mom and her daughter, Ava, who are always looking forward to Saturdays because it’s the one day of the week they get to spend together without school or work. “On this Saturday, however, they experience a series of disappointments and nothing seems to be going as planned. But, thanks to Ava, they figure out a way to enjoy their time together.” - Matt de la Peña, a Newbery Medal-winning author of seven Young Adult novels and five picture books.

Hair Love,” by Matthew A. Cherry. Illustrated by Vashti Harrison.

Written by a former NFL wide receiver and now an Oscar-winning short film, ‘Hair Love’ tells the story of a black father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time and the special bond they share.

Ages 5-8:

Each Kindness,” by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

A new girl, Maya, shows up at school, and the whole class, including Chloe, the main character, shuns her because she’s shabbily dressed and seems different. When Maya is suddenly gone, Chloe realizes she’s missed her chance to be kind. “This is a powerful picture book that bravely ends with regret,” said Matt de la Peña.

Ages 9-12:

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham.

This book is an honest explanation about how power and privilege factor into the lives of white children, at the expense of other groups, and how they can help seek justice.

Ages 12+:

All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

This book looks at the effects of police brutality from the perspective of two teen boys: one white and one black. The reader gets inside both of their minds and watches them grapple with the weight of something too familiar in our country.