How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism and Intolerance

In an era marked by division, teaching children to embrace difference—and protecting them from racism and prejudice—is our moral imperative as parents.
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Racism has never really disappeared from American society—and with events like the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, it can feel like our society has become a whole lot less inclusive for families of different religions, races, and sexual orientations. 

So how do you help your kids make sense of it all? And how do you protect them from the worst of it, especially if you're in a group that could be a target of hate? We spoke to two experts to get answers to the most common questions about dealing with racism: Sheri R. Levy, Ph.D., who studies the development, maintenance, and reduction of prejudice among adults and children at the psychology department at SUNY Stony Brook in New York; and Ava Siegler, Ph.D., a practicing child psychologist and former director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies in New York City, and author of How Do I Explain This to My Kids? Parenting in the Age of Trump. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it's important to stand up for what's right and have these important conversations with your family. 

Q: How should you talk to your kids about what's happening right now? 

Dr. Siegler: What our children need to understand is that we're doing everything to protect them. It depends upon the age of the child. For children under school age, you really need to protect them from the news, because it’s very, very hard for child to be exposed to this kind of hatred and violence like we’ve seen in Charlottesville. If they overhear something, you can offer realistic reassurances. You can say that some people who are just angry and filled with hate, and we’re doing everything we can to protect our country from these people, and most people in the United States don’t believe what they believe. 

School-aged children are exposed to news, or they talk about it in school, or among themselves. You can explain that we have a long history of having a small group of people who don’t believe we are all created equal, but that we don’t agree with them, and that is not what our democracy is about. It’s a simple story that speaks to what your values are, how they differ from the values of the administration, and who you want your children to believe. You're going to add more info as your child approaches the teenage years. Then you can have real conversations about this. 

Q: Why is it important to talk with children about racism and prejudice?

Dr. Levy: Prejudice among children can begin at a young age. By age 4 or 5, most children can identify people's race or ethnicity. Between ages 7 and 10, children are beginning to develop sophisticated understandings of the similarities and differences among groups. Even though we may not see or hear about racial conflicts and name-calling, it doesn't mean children are not exposed to—or participating in—such acts. Also, while prejudice among young children tends not to be as hostile and intentionally hurtful as that of adolescents and adults, it's still harmful to everyone involved.

Q: Where do children pick up racist terms or ideas?

Dr. Levy: The media, parents, teachers, friends, and siblings can all influence children's attitudes. Also, keep in mind that kids are quick to notice discrepancies between what we say and what we do. Be sure that your actions match your tolerant teachings; otherwise, children will follow your actions, not your words.

Q: What should parents do if their child is being bullied at school?

Dr. Siegler: You need encourage your children to talk to you about it, if anything happens that can hurt your child. You need to respond with compassion, and make a plan about how you’re going to address it. Talk to the teachers, the principals, and the guidance counselors.

Q: What should you say if your child is exposed to intolerance or makes a racist remark?

Dr. Levy: Racist statements among young children are most likely hollow and not meant to hurt another person. You should challenge negative remarks with positive ones. Kids of all ages can benefit from learning about role models of different ethnicities or religions—for example, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. Around ages 7 to 9, children are able to take the perspective of another person, so it's worthwhile to encourage them to consider how their certain remarks hurt people.

This is an opportunity to teach kids about these rich cultures and religions. Here, it's critical that children learn not only about our differences, but also our similarities. So while you might point out differences in dress, food, or holidays, be sure to emphasize that people in other cultures share many of our worries and wishes: having fun, loving animals, spending time with family, and so on. Only talking about differences will fuel prejudice. 

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