Children's Hospital Colorado

Talking About Racism With Kids

A close-up of two kids smiling and touching their foreheads and noses to each other.

Over the past several months, the topic of racism has come to the forefront of our society and is being talked about consistently and openly in a way we haven’t seen in the past. The coverage of this topic can be found throughout different media outlets and is something both parents and children are seeing, consuming and reacting to. Given the zeitgeist of this moment, it is important to encourage families to openly have conversations about race and racism and provide tools for parents to facilitate healthy and productive conversations regarding these issues.

Because these conversations are not something that many families have addressed in the past, it is likely that parents will need help and guidance in the effective ways to start and facilitate these conversations. Additionally, acknowledgement of the differences in how these conversations take place in white versus families of color is important in considering the best ways to help guide and support a family’s discussion of how race impacts their children and how to best support raising children to embrace anti-racist values.

Understanding privilege

Before engaging in a discussion with children about race, it is important for caregivers and parents to educate themselves and gain an understanding of how race impacts day-to-day experiences of those in our communities and country. For white parents and caregivers, it is important to learn about the concept of privilege and how being white is associated with rights and privileges not experienced by people of color.

Privilege as it relates to race, means that some people (specifically those who are white) experience an advantage or are spared from experiencing obstacles based on the color of their skin. For example, most people who are white have the privilege of going through school and being taught by people who look like them, whereas people of color are far less likely to have teachers who represent their race who are teaching them. This small example illustrates how white individuals often take for granted the feeling of being included or represented in the social settings they experience.

Families of color are burdened with talking to their children about the lack of racial privilege and the necessity of being conscious of the ways they interact with authority to ensure that they remain safe. Understanding how different races experience privilege or are denied privileges based on their race is an important foundation to establish in discussions related to racism and how different people experience advantage or additional obstacles based on the color of their skin. Families and caregivers interested in learning additional information regarding how race privilege operates are encouraged to visit racialequitytools.org.

Addressing racism with young children

Children as young as 3 years of age will show a preference for different races and can distinguish aspects of privilege without being overtly taught about these concepts. When we think of young children, one of the most important aspects we can influence in promoting openness and inclusion is to ensure we are representing individuals of diverse backgrounds in the media our children are consuming.

Encouraging parents to provide positive representations of different races and backgrounds in the books and movies that young children are consuming is vital in ensuring that we are working toward raising children to have open and inclusive views of the world. Common Sense Media has provided a list of different books that parents and caregivers should consider making available to young children to promote this diverse representation.

Addressing racism with older children and tweens

Older children are familiar with differences between themselves and others, but explicit conversations about how race impacts daily experiences are vital in helping promote anti-racist attitudes. Although these children might not be familiar with the concepts of oppression and privilege, they will understand the concept of fairness. Having overt conversations that some individuals are treated unfairly and that assumptions are made about the meaning of their actions and behaviors, based on their skin color, is a starting point to help children understand racism.

For families of color, this is oftentimes when they will begin having the “talk” about the importance of acting carefully with those in authority to ensure they remain safe. For white families, it is important to help children understand that some people are treated with more suspicion and uncertainty when they are people of color, which is unfair and something that we want to avoid replicating in our own actions.

Addressing racism with teens

Teenagers will have undoubtedly been exposed to a variety of media on TV or via social media that have portrayed the national conversation related to race. Teens will have a range of reactions to these events, and it is important for parents and caregivers to make space for teens to express their reactions and point of view regarding what is happening in the larger society.

One important way that teens can be guided in these experiences is through supportive conversations that allow them to express and explore their own reaction to what is happening in the broader culture. Questions such as “How do you feel about what is happening in our country related to racism?” is an open and helpful starting point. Follow-up questions may include “What inspires you?” or “What upsets you about what you are seeing in how people are responding to racism in our country?”

Open dialogue and showing teens that it is okay to discuss race and their reactions to these events will help them have a space to safely explore their reaction to a complex and dynamic problem that our society faces. The most important guidance that can be given to parents and caregivers is to openly address these issues rather than to deny or minimize what is happening.

Remembering that there is no right or wrong way to discuss these things is essential and that starting the conversation is the most effective path forward is to acknowledge that there are differences that occur in our society based on skin color and that it is okay for our children to talk about how that impacts them. Doing so will help guide teens and reduce the racial bias that people of color experience across multiple social systems that we all exist in.