Many parents don’t realize that kids recognize race at a very young age. In fact, research shows that at six months, they notice racial differences; preschoolers demonstrate “in-group” bias when picking playmates; and by grade school, children recognize the inequity of power in skin color.
Raising children who are aware of social justice issues requires open, honest conversations and modeling inclusive practices. Of course, there is no foolproof way of discussing the complexities of race.
That’s why, as a professor who teaches racial identity development, I always tell parents to prepare for an ongoing, and at times messy, conversation. Still, the effort to create more belonging, inclusion and compassion in the world is worth it.
Here are four things that parents who raise compassionate, inclusive and self-aware kids do when talking about race:
Children take note of physical differences differences, including in skin color, facial features, and hair color and texture. Creating categories is how they make sense of the world and attempt to name and rationalize these differences.
If your child notices and comments on the color of someone’s skin, support their curious questions and comments: “Hmmm, you’re right. That’s a great observation. It’s nice to see different kinds of people and skin.”
It’s also great to talk about the “why” and “how”: “Did you know that everyone’s skin color is different because of the amount of melanin in their bodies? The more you have, the darker your skin. When you have less melanin in your body, your skin will look lighter.”
Our race and ethnicity are part of our identities, and they bring us pride and a sense of belonging. But it is also important to note that race is a constructed concept that has changed over time.
Race has been used throughout history to give unfair privileges to some groups while harming others. We all have biases, and these ideas are passed along to our children through everyday interactions.
Talk about your own biases and any stereotypes that your children may have internalized: “Sometimes we have assumptions about people based on their race or gender. Do you ever do that? Let me tell you about a time that I did and how I reminded myself to be mindful of that.”
These moments can be a great way to practice vulnerability and compassion with your children.
Anti-racism is the practice of actively working to eliminate the unfair treatment of people based on the color of their skin. It is dismantling laws, policies, attitudes, behaviors and practices that are unjust and inequitable.
The goal is to combat racism actively, not to be complacent in your position of belief in equity. Support your kid’s natural desire to help others through thoughtful conversations: “Sometimes we have to speak up when things aren’t fair, even when it’s hard. It’s okay to tell me you are scared. I get scared, too.”
Another example of what you could say: “When you stand up for people who are different from you, and you want the world to be better for them, you become an ally. An ally is like a good friend who always makes sure you’re treated fairly and is always on your side.”
Action, no matter how small, is the foundation of antiracist work.
Kids rely on their existing schema to make sense of the world. Each time you reinforce your values around race or racism, you are allowing them to make connections and reorganize their existing knowledge.
The more you see gaps in your children’s knowledge, the more you know what specific conversations are needed.
Ask open-ended questions to see what they know, what they need learn and where more dialogue is necessary: “Can you tell me more?” “What else do you know?” “Can you explain that idea to me?” “How does that make you feel?” “What would you do?” “How can we help?”
When mistakes happen, reflect, apologize if needed, be kind to yourself, and reaffirm that you’re committed to learning and growing.
Dr. Traci Baxley is a professor, parenting coach and author of “Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate Anti-Racist Justice Minded Kids in an Unjust World.” An educator for over 30 years with degrees in child development, elementary education and curriculum, she specializes in diversity and inclusion, anti-bias curriculum, and social justice education. Follow her on @socialjusticparenting.