Talking to Kids about Race

Quick background on me: I’m a mom with a STEM background, but no formal expertise in the social sciences. This is based on scientific research I found helpful as a new mom, and on my own experiences — I hope it helps other parents, and/or prompts productive conversations about how we discuss race with our kids.

Myths vs Science

When I was doing research before my first daughter was born (I’m someone who’s very comforted by research), I found the book Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman to be really accessible and interesting, and it changed how I thought about a couple topics. In particular, “Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race” really opened my eyes. Here’s my quick synopsis of that chapter’s findings. You can read the full text for citations, or if you want to understand how these conclusions were reached.

White liberal parents are, on the whole, deeply uncomfortable talking about race with their kids. When they do, they use abstract phrases like “we’re all equal” or “under the skin we’re all the same.” They often operate under the assumptions that:

  1. If they don’t point out race, their kids won’t notice/act on race — they’ll be “colorblind”
  2. Having multicultural entertainments will be enough to teach good attitudes regarding race
  3. Statements like the examples above will be effective in preventing racial bias in their kids
  4. Being in a diverse environment will be sufficient — the environment itself can serve as the lesson, without explicit discussion of race

What studies show, though, is that these hypotheses don’t work out as parents expect.

  1. Color-blindness: Kids notice race starting as early as 6 months old — it’s a clear visual differentiator, how could they not? From 6 mos to age 6, studies showed that there is no point where kids are “colorblind”. Also, kids categorize everything from a young age, and are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism, so you have to help shape how they select their groups.
  2. Multicultural shows, on their own, don’t change kids’ attitudes about race — the messages/themes are often too abstracted, even if they seem obvious to an adult
  3. Vague statements like “we’re all equal” are not internalized by small kids. They can parrot their parents’ words, but when asked questions like “How many white people are nice/smart/pretty? (All/most/some/none) How many black people are nice/smart/pretty?” etc, they’ll show preference for their own group.
  4. Diverse Environment: studies showed that as schools get more diverse, kids self-segregate more

Even if no adult mentions race, kids will notice it on their own and draw conclusions. If they draw those conclusions in a vacuum, they might be ones that would horrify their parents.

But! Small interventions help significantly — putting 1st graders in diverse study groups (met 2x a week for 8 weeks) led to lasting changes to playground dynamics. In another study, 5 nightly discussions of race led to changes in racial attitudes.

When a kid makes an inappropriate/incorrect remark about race, there’s a natural impulse to shush them and get embarrassed, but that makes race a more loaded, intimidating topic for them — you have to address those statements and the assumptions underlying them head on. You want them to feel like they can ask questions.

These are all geared towards white parents — what advice was there for minority parents?

  1. Most minority parents have a talk with their kids to prepare them for discrimination. Preparation-for-bias discussions are helpful and necessary, but should not be too frequent. If repeated too often, such discussions can be as destructive as experiences of actual discrimination, because they make kids feel like the world is hostile and doesn’t value them.
  2. Lessons regarding ethnic pride are very valuable for self-confidence. Black children who’d heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their successes to effort and ability.

That latter point about ethnic pride almost inevitably leads to some sort of “what about white history month” question. The obvious answer to this is that white role models, white representation in entertainment, white achievements in history are all so ubiquitous, white kids get all that they need in that department already. These lessons only need to get called out for other demographics because history lessons are so often whitewashed, with contributions from women and minorities papered over.

One thing that isn’t mentioned in the NurtureShock book, but that I think needs to be explicitly called out, is whitewashing of the history lessons our kids hear in school. I, like many other people, hadn’t heard about Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Massacre until I saw it depicted in the Watchmen, and like many others I realized that there had been some major gaps in my education. With that in mind, I’m planning on reading along in my girls’ school books as they enter grade school, so that I can supplement their lessons at home, and bring any egregious omissions/edits of history to the school’s attention — I plan to be a bit of a pain. I encourage other parents to do similarly, where possible.

Most of the focus of the research I read was on younger kids, as the focus is on how attitudes about race develop, and how they can be shaped. There were a couple practical tips for older kids. First, it’s never too late to start supplementing/correcting the history lessons from school, or encouraging kids to push for more diverse reading assignments from their teachers. The other bit of teen-focused advice that stood out to me in Nurtureshock was about the social dynamics of American high schoolers. America’s emphasis on individualism leads, somewhat paradoxically, to cliquishness, especially in teens. It’s helpful to explicitly point this out to this age group, so that they understand the motivations of their actions.

Parents are usually very comfortable providing counterprogramming with regards to other factors, like gender — parents have no problem saying things like “Mommies can be doctors, just like daddies,” etc. The research shows that they need to be just as frank in discussing race.

I know that frank discussions of race can be uncomfortable in the extreme for many people. I often wonder if I’m saying the right thing or handling something the right way. That’s part of parenting. But, the research shows that not saying anything is far worse, and by being matter of fact about these issues, hopefully we can make these topics less taboo and intimidating for our children, which will make them better equipped to work for better equity in the world they’re inheriting.

Other Personal Experiences

The above research prompted me to look for opportunities to discuss race with my daughters, and for indicators that they might be drawing undesirable conclusions about race, so that I could address them. My younger daughter hasn’t quite gotten old enough for us to have any teaching moments like these, so these are all about my older daughter, who is now 5.

One of the earliest examples is one that I don’t know if I would have noticed if I wasn’t looking for it. My daughter liked to send long streams of emojis to her grandparents when she was 2 or 3, and at one point I noticed that she was selecting the white version of every emoji that involved a person. So, we sat down and talked about some of the people we know who have skin colors like those other emojis, and how those people are beautiful too.

When she was 3 or 4 she started watching a show called Callie’s Wild West on one of the streaming services — overall, it’s a cute show, but as we watched it, I was more and more bothered by the fact that while their “wild west” had cowboys, it didn’t have any Indigenous characters. So, I told her that it was totally fine if she kept watching the show, and that I liked a lot of things about it (how nice everyone is to each other, how silly it is, the songs), but there was one thing that bothered me, and what did she think about it?

This summer, there was lots of discussion on the news and in our household about the Black Lives Matter protests and all the events surrounding them. I explained to my older daughter (in terms a 5 year old can handle) what a protest was and what everyone was upset about, using the Sesame Street specials as a launching off point, and we made a Black Lives Matter sign for the house. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to discuss something like this with your kids, the Fred Rogers Center put out a really good 1-pager offering guidelines on how to talk to kids about difficult topics in the news in an age appropriate way:

This year she’s in kindergarten, and she had lessons at school surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr Day and Presidents’ Day. For each, I asked her what she learned — about MLK, Jr, she said “he said a lot of words, I didn’t really understand.” So, I explained to her that MLK, Jr was upset that people who had dark skin like his weren’t being treated fairly, and that even though he was very mad about that (and had every right to be), he worked through peaceful protests to show people that it wasn’t right and get them to change. About Abraham Lincoln, she said “he had a tall hat, and when there was a war between the North and the South he was on the right side.” I asked if they mentioned slavery, and she said “no, what’s that?,” so I told her that people used to be allowed to own other people, which was very wrong, and that’s what that war was about. I didn’t get into anything too heavy (she’s just 5), but I let her know it was a terrible thing, and answered any questions she had — she wanted to know, if someone owned her, could that someone tell her she wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom when she needed to? Kids engage with these concepts at levels they can handle.

Did I say the right thing in all these cases? I hope so, but can’t know — that’s what parenting is like most of the time. But, the science tells me it’s better to try to address these topics head on than to keep quiet out of discomfort or fear of getting it wrong, so I’m doing my best.

Reading/Viewing List Recs

I’m supposed to include a picture somewhere, so here are some books!

Children’s books about BIPOC, LGTBQI, and disabled characters have allowed us to have good discussions about lots of important topics. There’s a wealth of really good books out there these days, which is amazing. I’d love to get recommendations for more from other parents — always happy to have new things to get from the library. Every kid is different, but my 5 year old really responded well to:

  1. The Tea Dragon series by Katie O’Neill — This series includes gay, deaf, non-binary, and wheelchair-bound characters. The second book in particular allowed us to talk about the fact that some people have pronouns other than he or she, and that gender is a spectrum. Since then, she’s sometimes identified characters in her play as “they” instead of “he” or “she.”
  2. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss (NOT to be confused with the Marlon Bundo book from the Pence family!) — Talks about gay marriage, and the idea of voting for government that stands for what you do.
  3. Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin — a little black girl wants to audition for the role of Snow White in her school play and when another girl tells her she can’t be Snow White, her mom helps her gain the confidence to audition.
  4. My Friend by Taye Diggs — Shows one friend correcting another when they treat someone unkindly, and that it’s good/ok to hold friends accountable.
  5. Princess Grace by Mary Hoffman — A black girl who’s very into Disney-style princesses starts exploring other princesses throughout history who don’t fit that mold.
  6. This is How We Do It by Matt LaMothe- a book that profiles a day in the life of kids around the world. It isn’t about any of these topics directly, but it’s been a good conversation starter for us.

For video content, Sesame Street did a really good “town hall” special to explain the protests this summer to smaller children. Barbie did a vlog with her friend Nikki talking about racism.

Liz is a mom of two who works in STEM, and who likes applying her work skills to parenting, which is itself an important full-time job.

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