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How To Talk To Children About Race

How to Talk to Children About Race

University of Utah professor provides 10 tips for discussing race and culture with small children

Although children don’t come with instruction manuals there are, thankfully, an unlimited number of books and online resources to help parents navigate the ins-and-outs of raising children. Many popular resources are focused on topics such as sleep training, nap lengths, feeding, discipline and how to distinguish a blazing 2-year-old’s tantrum. But what about instructions for raising socially conscious children? How do you talk to a 5-year old about skin color, diversity or equity? Karen Tao, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Utah, can help.

“Kids are complex thinkers and they are really observant at a very young age,” said Tao. “They are watching adults and other kids, trying to make sense of how to operate and navigate their own interactions. For really young kids, they’re looking at what’s right and wrong and what’s fair and not fair. It’s important to provide a space for kids to have open conversations about these matters.”

Tao studies how children talk about and understand race and their other social identities. She has collaborated with elementary school teachers, students and parents in the Salt Lake School District to implement a classroom-based program focused on topics such as race and gender. She also conducts research on how parents and kids discuss these issues. Tao stresses the importance of starting conversations about diversity early, as children as young as 2-years old are beginning to articulate their ideas about difference and developing judgments on what these differences might mean.

“Kids are hearing a lot of misinformation through media, books and playground interactions, so it’s essential to ask questions and engage with them about these topics. These conversations can build empathy, compassion and kindness.”

Below are 10 of Tao’s tips for discussing race and culture with children:

  1.    Examine your own understanding of race. If race wasn’t discussed in your household growing up, do some research on your own and reflect on what it brings up for you. The more you understand what race means and how it operates in our society, the better equipped you are to teach your children about it.
  2.    Become comfortable with terminology and familiar with how certain concepts are used. For example, race and culture are not synonymous. It’s important to be explicit and provide children with accurate terms so they can learn how to apply them.
  3.    When your child brings up a topic related to race, don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going. This lets children know it is OK to talk about what they notice. Instead of telling kids to keep quiet, refrain from using particular words or make specific observations out loud, talk to them. Ask them what they noticed and discuss it.
  4.    Find opportunities to ask questions. For example, when reading a book to or with your child, ask them why someone is being treated a certain way? Is it because of their gender or skin color? Let this lead into a rich conversation.
  5.    Let children take the lead. They will probably be the ones to initiate the conversation, so spend some time on what they bring up. Validate their questions or observations (“that’s such a great observation…”) and then move into a discussion. Statements and questions such as, “I’d love to hear more about that,” “that’s really interesting, what made you think of this?” or “how did that make you feel when you saw that happen?” are helpful ways to deepen your conversations.
  6.    Involve your children in activities to help them learn about their own cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds. This will help them develop a greater sense of who they are, which will then enable them to create more positive interactions across various racial-ethnic groups.
  7.    Help your children to think critically. It is common for children to focus on concrete and visible features to describe others, such as skin color or assumed gender. Challenge them to think about other important personal dimensions. For example, if your child refers to a friend as “my brown-skinned friend,” ask her to tell you more about her friend (e.g., “What does your friend like to do?”  and “What kinds of things do you play together?”).
  8.    Recognize your child’s limits and know when to stop. Depending on age and attention spans, conversations with children about these topics may only last a minute or two.
  9.    Initiate a book club or conversation group with other parents who are interested in learning how to talk with their children about race. Sharing challenges you encounter will normalize the difficulty in talking about socially charged topics.
  10. It’s OK to make mistakes. Many of us did not grow up discussing racial issues, so there is quite a steep learning curve. You will stumble over your words and may share wrong information. Let your child know you are still figuring out how to talk about these important topics too and are so happy you get to have these conversations together.  

Suggested books for discussing race with children provided by Lauren Liang, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah.

Everywhere Babies (Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee)
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James)
Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship (Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualis and Selina Aiko)
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson)
The Other Side (Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis)
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Duncan Tonatiuh)
Freedom in Congo Square (Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie)

Chapter Books:
The Year of the Dog (Grace Lin)
Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson)
Save Me a Seat (Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan)
Inside Out and Back Again (Thanhha Lai)
The Crossover (Kwame Alexander)