Racism is not hard-wired in humans — it’s something that’s learned. Parents and teachers need to talk to their children and teens about racism to prevent the damage and trauma it causes. Although addressing racism with kids may seem like a challenge, it isn’t something parents have to do alone.

We understand racism is not an easy topic to discuss, but we’re here to show you that there’s hope and that parents can make a difference. In this guide, we’ll provide tips for talking to kids about racism and its impact.

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How Racism Affects Children

Racism is harmful to the health, happiness, and future of children. For example, one study found that racism is linked to mental health issues and chronic stress in children and teens. Chronic stress leads to increased exposure to cortisol, which can then lead to inflammation and related diseases. Although children who are the target of a racist experience will suffer the greatest impact, those who witness racism are also affected.

Racism also impacts a child’s chance of living a comfortable and successful life. Race-related stereotypes hurt a child’s self-esteem and affect the belief that he or she can achieve educational or vocational goals. Educational achievement is a critical predictor of life-long health and well-being, yet the high school graduation rates of different racial groups show inequalities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the graduation rate for white students was 89% in 2018, while the graduation rate for black students was 79%.

Tips for Talking to Your Child About Racism

Children learn about race and ethnicity in their homes, schools, and neighborhoods. Kids take what they learn and experience and construct personal beliefs. Although parents and teachers cannot control everything a child hears or sees, they can teach children to be aware of racism as well as how appropriately respond and be a positive force.

If you feel uncomfortable talking to students or your children about racism, take some time to educate yourself. Learn about race and racism, and you’ll feel more prepared to have a conversation. Also, know it’s OK not to have all the answers — you should still talk openly and honestly about racism. Here are some tips to help you discuss this topic with kids of any age.

Under-6

Under 6

Children begin to recognize racial differences at a very young age. For example, a 6-month-old baby can notice racial differences, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. By the time a child is 4, he or she may have already formed racial biases. It’s important that parents teach their kids how to react to racial differences as soon as the opportunity arises. Here’s how to discuss race with a young child:

  • Celebrate differences: A young child might point out differences he or she notices in public. If a child asks you about these differences, such as why someone’s skin tone is light or dark, respond with positivity. Let the child know how great it is that humans have differences, and even you and your child aren’t exactly the same. The goal is to teach your child to respect and accept differences and similarities.
  • Respond carefully: If a child makes a hurtful comment about another child or asks a race-related question, be sure to take their comment or question seriously, and do not try to change the subject. This is an opportunity to ask the child why they feel a certain way and address the topic with empathy, accuracy and without prejudice.
  • Discuss fairness: Children in this age range typically understand the concept of fairness well. Talk to your child about how racism is unfair and explain that people must work together to overcome biases and treat each other fairly.

Ages 6 to 11

School-age children are better at expressing their thoughts and feelings. A child in this age range might come to you with questions about racial injustice. Here’s how to answer race-related questions or initiate a conversation:

  • Be honest: Your child might come to you with questions you don’t know how to answer, and that’s OK. Be honest about what you know and don’t know and search for accurate answers together. Investigate the inequalities you find throughout history and current events and discuss treating all people with kindness and compassion.
  • Encourage your child: Encourage your child to share their experiences with you and ask questions about race, history and ethnic differences. Explore different cultures with your child through films, books and events and talk to him or her about it afterward.
  • Be a role model: What you say and do makes an impact on your child and how they view people. If you face biases of your own, acknowledge them and make an effort to move past them. Share examples of your biases with your child and tell them what you do to overcome them.

Ages 12 and Up

Some adolescents may not understand the complexity of racial stereotypes, while others might have strong opinions about the subject. In either case, you’ll want to keep the conversation going. Here are tips for talking to your teen about racism:

  • Find out what they know: Teens are exposed to a lot of information from a variety of sources. Find out what your child knows about racism and what they may have heard on the news or from friends, and ask them questions. Use the media as a conversation starter and a chance to help your teen recognize prejudices.
  • Encourage action: Find out if there’s a cause your teen feels passionate about and encourage him or her to get involved. Help your child feel empowered to use their voice and recognize they can make a difference in their community.
  • Be open: Talk openly with your teen about the experiences you’ve had and the challenges they might face in the future. Remind them of your support and that you’ll always be there for them no matter what.

Understanding and Looking Beyond Racial Stereotypes

Understanding and Looking Beyond Racial Stereotypes

Parents can help themselves and their children stand up against racism by understanding stereotypes and why they exist. A stereotype is a generalized belief about a particular group of people. According to Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, humans naturally use stereotypes to make sense of unfamiliar situations quickly. The truth is, people are much more complicated than stereotypes. It’s simply not accurate to ignore a person’s individual identity.

Racism stems from stereotyping. It has long been a way for one group of people to have power over another group.

Stereotypes impact a child’s beliefs and behaviors. However, you can help your child look beyond stereotypes by reminding them that not all people in a group are the same. Avoid making general statements about other people, and instead, speak about others as individuals.

How to Encourage Anti-Racism for Kids

Here are tips to help your child gain awareness of racism and choose the path to equality:

  • Talk about it: No matter your race or ethnicity, it’s critical to discuss racism with your children openly. First, learn about racism to prepare for conversations based on facts and history. Discuss your hope for a better future and ways you and your child can make a difference.
  • Show positive images of different groups: Far too often, children are exposed to negative images of different racial groups in the media. One way to counter this effect is to show children positive images of people from different backgrounds in films, books and stories.
  • Encourage diverse friendships: Encourage your kids to make friends with children from different racial groups. Positive cross-race friendships decrease prejudice and increase awareness of the negative impact of racism.
  • Work on yourself: Consider your own biases so you can be a positive role model. Read books, watch films and expand your social network to learn about different groups of people and understand various points of view.

Racism Information for Kids

Parents and teachers are not in the battle against racism alone. There are plenty of resources available to help you discuss race and racism with your children to make a positive impact. You can start with the list of resources compiled by the Center for Racial Justice in Education, or check out the list of books, articles and other resources put together by Oakland Public Library.

Start the Conversation Today

Talking to kids about racism may feel challenging, especially if it’s the first time you’ll have this convention. It’s crucial you encourage your child to discuss their thoughts, feelings and concerns about racism as soon as possible. Once they realize they can turn to you for support and truthful information, they’ll be back to discuss racial topics again. Every conversation you share is an opportunity to combat racism together.

If your child has been impacted by racism, you and your loved one are not alone. Reach out to us at Hillside®, where our mental health counselors are ready to help.

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