How do you talk about racism with your children?

Recent world events have catapulted racism back to the top of the political agenda and many parents will be looking for guidance as to how to discuss this sensitive topic with their children.

How society fosters racism in children

No child is born racist, but as they grow up, they absorb the views of society around them.

Children as young as 6 months can notice physical differences such as skin colour. As they grow up, children start to become more aware of the notion of ‘race’* and observe that some people appear to enjoy a more privileged status in society than others. By the age of 5 studies have shown children displaying racial bias, i.e. treating people differently based on their ethnicity.

It doesn’t help that we are biologically wired to favour people who look and behave similarly to us, and to be wary of what is unfamiliar or different. The unfortunate truth is that unconscious biases form easily and it is important to recognise this as none of us are free from them. In fact, the reason why unconscious bias training often only meets with limited success is because such programmes don’t tend to acknowledge that individuals with unconscious racist biases are simply the products of a society with institutionalised racism.

Having said that, there is much we can do to help our children become more aware of, and to question, racist attitudes and behaviour.

(*In the sense of ‘ethnicity’, race being a misleading distinction since there is of course only one human race.)

Why talk to children about it

Having conversations about racism can feel awkward, but if we wish our children to grow up tolerant and respectful of others, it is important not to shy away from an open discussion and to answer any questions they may have. We may feel like we want to protect them by not talking about it but ultimately this just means they won’t understand racial bias when they encounter it, which they inevitably will. If we pretend to be ‘colour blind’ or that racism is a thing of the past, then children may end up believing that any racism they see is justified. We are our children’s most significant influences; they will learn from us and notice how we act towards others so what we say and do will have a big impact on the opinions they then form.

How to talk about it

It goes without saying that any conversation about racism with children should be age-appropriate. Below are some pointers according to the developmental stage your child is at:

The early years

  • Make clear that talking about people who are different colours is not a taboo topic.
  • Celebrate differences at every opportunity.
  • Even very young children can grasp the notion of unfairness so this can be a good way to get them to understand the concept of racism.

The primary school years

Children are increasingly exposed to information and experiences they need help deconstructing and are better able to articulate their feelings.

  • Ask them what they’ve heard at school, on TV and through social media, and discuss what they think about it. Remember it’s ok not to have all the answers.
  • Frank conversations now will pave the way for more honest discussions in the future.

The secondary school years

Teenagers are better able to understand abstract concepts and can be very emotional and opinionated – as any parent of an impassioned teenager knows!

  • Try to understand why they feel a certain way and keep the conversation going.
  • How have they formed these opinions, what are their sources, what have they witnessed first-hand?
  • Attempt to introduce them to historical events they may not yet be familiar with as well as to other perspectives, perhaps more nuanced ones, to push their understanding.
  • If they are interested in online activism, encourage them to keep you in the loop.

Welcoming diversity

Of course, actions speak louder than words and children do as we do and not as we say.

Bearing that in mind, we should foster friendships and seek interactions with people from diverse cultures and ethnicities ourselves at every opportunity. We naturally gravitate and connect with people similar to us, but we expand our horizons by breaking out of that comfort zone and learning to see things from different perspectives. Personal connections and experiences conquer those biased assumptions that come from fear of the unknown, whether the ‘unknown’ is a different skin colour, a different language, a different culture or a different religion. If we set an example of open-mindedness and regularly seek out opportunities for intercultural interactions of all types in this way, your children will want and expect to have a diverse network of friends too and will also benefit from exposure to multiple different perspectives.

Family friendly resources (books and films) to help your children of all ages learn about racism

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