How To Talk To Your Kids About Racial Inequality And Social Injustice

It's not easy, but it's important.

Korin Miller |

Think it might be too early to start talking to your kids about tough topics like racial inequality? TBH, there’s no such thing as too early. A baby’s brain can notice race-based differences from as young as 6 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). By ages 2 to 4, children can internalise racial bias and, by age 12, many children become set in their beliefs, meaning parents have a little more than a decade to help instil core values, the AAP says. Essentially, your child has probably noticed differences in skin types, even if you haven’t discussed it with them.

“Our children learn about these very sensitive topics from us, from their teachers, from their friends, and from the media,” says Dr. Ashanti Woods, a paediatrician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. “Therefore, if we, the parents, do not address it, it will likely come from another source. As such, it is important for parents to be involved in the conversation — better yet, even initiate the conversation — to listen, and then steer the conversation with accurate information.”

Dr. Rob Keder, a developmental and behavioural paediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, agrees that taking a proactive approach is important. “Research shows us that talking with children about the topics of race, inequality, and social justice can make big changes and leave lasting positive impacts on a child’s development,” he says. “On the other hand, not talking about these issues leads to the development of implicit biases, which can lead to further problems.”

Of course, racial inequality and social justice can be difficult topics for even adults to discuss. So, how are you supposed to cover them with a child? Every family, situation, and kid is different, but experts say there are a few things to keep in mind. Here, we’ve broken it down to help you broach the topic with your child(ren) in an age-appropriate manner.

For Toddlers And Younger

For the youngest of children, Keder says it’s a good idea to read children’s books that promote inclusion and that celebrate diversity and differences.

For Toddlers Through Preschool-Age Children

As kids get a little older, Dr. Mary Fristad, a psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says it’s smart to address the basics of race and why people have different skin tones. That means acknowledging that, yes, different people have different skin colours, and it’s based on where their ancestors are from.

“Tell your child it’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just reality,” Fristad says. At the same time, she recommends telling your child that all people, regardless of their skin tone or appearance, should be treated with equal respect.

Make it clear to your child that it’s okay to notice physical characteristics and differences, says Dr. Jacquelyn L. Doxie King, a paediatric neuropsychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “However, they want to be careful not to make negative judgements based on those,” she says.

It’s also important to help your child see how differences are a good thing. “The best practice in discussing race is often explaining the beauty of how different each of us as individuals are — as in short, tall, big, heavy, black, white,” Woods says. “Parents should emulate embracing each person’s uniqueness.”

For Primary School-Age Kids

While it’s always a good time to talk to your children about these topics, Fristad says news stories can provide a good starting point. “Now is a good time to have these conversations,” she says. And, if your child has questions about what is happening right now, Fristad says it’s important to answer them as honestly as possible “in an age-appropriate manner.”

Keder also recommends calling out examples of early bias and inviting your child to make positive choices. “Developing this awareness is key,” he says.

For Older Kids

If your child is 8 or up and/or you think they are ready for it, King suggests using the recent news as an opportunity to talk about historical and institutional racism. “Understanding history can help explain why certain words or statements are hurtful and why current events may be happening,” she says. “Remember to highlight that racism is not a thing of the past.”

You can also make an effort to follow up with your children about racial inequality and social justice when you’re doing something as simple as watching TV, Keder says. “You can point out and discuss negative stereotypes that are demonstrated in movies and television shows,” he says. “You can celebrate when people demonstrated courage in celebrating and speaking up for people who are different.”

For this group, Keder also recommends reading age-appropriate books about historical context of race and inequality. “You can discuss heroes like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In all of this, it’s important to recognise privilege, both your own and that of your child, says Dr. Jennifer Walton, a developmental behavioural paediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “It is difficult to teach a child about privilege, if the adult does not acknowledge their own privilege and bias,” she says. “If you have done that, which is a process, and encouraged diverse exposure to your children, be a model to your children in your everyday activities, everywhere you go, [and] your interactions with others. You can still have the conversation, and it may be easier to do that when the child or teen has seen you in action.”

If Your Child Is Afraid

It’s completely understandable that your child might be afraid if they hear about what has been happening on the news, and Fristad says it’s important to be honest.

In situations like this, Fristad recommends talking to your children about what to do if they are in a situation in which they will be interacting with police. You probably have your own thoughts on the matter but, if you need guidance, PBS teamed up with the SALT Project, Trinity United Church of Christ and Christian Theological Seminary to develop the short film, “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival.”

The film specifically recommends tips for people of colour if they’re stopped by police, like to be polite and respectful, stay calm and in control, try to avoid getting into an argument, keep your hands visible at all times, and remember that the goal is to get home safely. It’s devastating to even think that this needs to be discussed with your children, but Fristad says that it’s “really important for parents to have this discussion with their sons and daughters.” She adds, “Be really explicit on how to act in those circumstances, because it does matter.”

That said, letting your child know you are there to help and protect them can make a big difference in how secure they feel, Keder says.

King agrees. “To the extent possible, remind children that they are in a physical safe space and support predictability and routines,” she says.

Overall, Fristad says it’s important to have age-appropriate discussions with your children about this but, most importantly, have the discussion at all. “In large part, let the questions come from your child, but it’s important to communicate that you are open to having this kind of painful discussion,” Fristad says.

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