Children's Hospital Colorado

Talking About Racism with Your Children: Starting the Conversation

Graphic of two people talking.

Many parents struggle with how to talk to kids about racism, hate and inequality — topics that adults often feel are uncomfortable and difficult to discuss even amongst themselves. Experts say these are important topics that you should regularly be discussing, because it can impact your child’s health and well-being, the health and well-being of other children your child is interacting with, and how your child views individuals in their community.

For example, as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, national news outlets are reporting a substantial rise in the number of hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans due to stigma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stigma around COVID-19 is associated with a lack of understanding about how the virus spreads, a need to blame someone and fears about disease and death. It can lead to labeling, stereotyping and discrimination. Watch Seattle news station King5’s segment on how one Asian American mom is talking with her kids about the violence.

However uncomfortable you may feel, and even if you feel like you don’t have all the answers, it’s important for you to start and continue the conversation about racism with your child.

Introducing race, difference and racism to kids

We spoke with Children’s Hospital Colorado team member Natasha Turner, MS Ed, and child psychologist Jenna Glover, PhD, about when and how parents should start. In general, it’s never too early, as studies show that babies can recognize race and difference as early as 6 months old. By ages 2 to 4, kids can internalize racial bias. And by age 12, many children are firm in what they believe.

Ways to talk with preschool and elementary school age kids (ages 4 to 9)

Natasha says she began having conversations with her daughters (now in their 20s) when they started kindergarten. Initially, it was about family values and setting precedents.

“When they were little, I’d say, ‘When we leave the house or we go to school, it’s important that you look and act appropriately,’” she says, meaning that she knew her daughters, who are Black, would be held to a different standard so they needed to be aware and ready for that judgment. When she felt they were old enough to comprehend racism, Natasha centered the conversation around race. “It became ‘Because you’re Black, it’s important that you do this for your safety,’” she says.

Conversations will differ from family to family, but all parents should keep the following tips in mind.

Ways to talk with preteens and middle schoolers (ages 10 to 13)

Children’s Colorado administrative professional Genesis Sanchez Ortega, PRN, is Mexican American. Her family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born, and they regularly speak Spanish. “It’s comfortable for us,” she says. “I love to speak Spanish.

“When I was in school, I had a teacher who wouldn’t allow me and my friends to speak Spanish,” she recalls. “She wouldn’t let us because the non-Spanish speaking students thought we were talking bad about them, but we weren’t. Another time I was walking home with a friend. A man passed by and asked us a question. We were speaking Spanish, and he told us to go back to Mexico.”

Experiences like these are common among Hispanic and Latino Americans. Watch episode 3 of Seattle news station KING5’s Race & Parenting series to learn how some Hispanic and Latino American parents discuss race and racism with their children.

“It’s important to acknowledge that this is the age where some kids are going to be asking, ‘Why do these experiences happen to people?’ and there are other kids who are going to be asking, ‘Why does this happen to me or people like me?’” says Dr. Glover.

Parents should consider the following when talking with preteens and middle schoolers:

  • Be up front with your child that sometimes people act differently around those they don’t have a lot of experience with.
  • Help your child understand why it’s important for everyone to get to know people of all races and backgrounds.
  • Your child is also likely starting to learn more about history and current events and forming their own opinions. According to Children’s Colorado general pediatrician Brandi Freeman, MD, who is also a leader in diversity and inclusion, you should engage your child often in discussion and help them make sense of what they’re learning.

Ways to talk with teenagers and young adults (ages 14 to 21)

Alison Chan is a graphic designer with Children’s Colorado’s marketing department. She is Chinese American. Her parents, who live in New Hampshire, are immigrants.

“Growing up, I remember specific incidents of racism and microaggressions,” she says. “I was called the wrong name by teachers at school, and they would make jokes. Another time, someone left an extremely racist note on my parents’ car windshield. Those kinds of acts hurt, but they were never violent. This past year with the pandemic and people making fun of Asians and blaming China for everything that’s happened, things have turned extremely violent. It’s really hard not to worry about my parents.”

The violence against Asian Americans took a deadly turn on March 16, 2021, when a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, mostly women of Asian descent.

“I know my parents don’t want me to worry about them, but I can’t help it,” Alison says. “They have accents, and they’re immigrants, and you just never know what can happen and when.”

In general, parents should consider the following when talking with teens and young adults about racism:

  • Remind your child about the importance of consuming information that is credible. You should also help them discern whether what they’re reading, seeing, hearing and saying is inappropriate or racist.
  • Talk openly about discriminatory social norms and how to safely advocate for change.
  • For families of color, in particular, it’s also crucial to address ways to help your teen stay alert and safe.

Thoughts for all parents to keep in mind

As you continue conversations about racism and social justice with your family, it can be helpful to consider the following:

Commit to action

The bottom line is that no matter how young or old your child is, it’s never too early or too late to start helping them understand racism and its impact. And that’s true of parents, too. You can begin by educating yourself using the following resources, although there are many more available:

Using these resources as a starting place, you can challenge your own personal beliefs and implicit biases and help your child do the same. At the same time, you and your family should expand your social circles and actively seek to learn about experiences that are different from your own. When it comes to talking about race and difference, it’s less about having the right answers and more about helping everyone, especially kids, start the conversation — and keep it going. It’s never too late.

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