Talking to Your Child About Racial Injustice

By: Sarah McNemar, MD

In these tense and unsettling times, we know that you as parents understandably have questions about how to talk to your child about race, bias, and social justice. You may be struggling with questions and uncertainties yourself, and feel unprepared to discuss these issues with your child. If so, join the club! I am a pasty white girl raised in a whitewashed culture and to say that I feel ill-equipped to even write this post is a massive understatement.

That said, None of us are perfect parents, and all of us have biases (conscious and unconscious) that we need to work to deconstruct. One thing that may help you as you process racial bias and injustice with your child is learning exactly how and what children understand and think about race.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) gives helpful guidelines for how children begin to understand racial differences…

  • Infants: These tiny tots can notice race-based differences in people as early as 6 months of age.
  • Toddlers: A child that is two or older can already internalize racial bias. That means that when a toddler overhears racial slurs, witnesses bias, or hears trusted adults talking in ways that demean other races or nationalities, they are processing that information and storing it away. Children even as young as two are already capable of internalizing this information and then ultimately feeling, on some level, that there is something inherently different and possibly negative about themselves.
  • By the time children are 12 years old: many children are already set in their beliefs and values concerning race and culture by the time they are 12 years old. So if you’re waiting to talk to your kids about race, equality, and bias until they are older—maybe reconsider. You only have a few short years before their beliefs are fully solidified. As their parents, you need to be the ones helping shape those beliefs before friends, media outlets, other adults, and the cultural norms surrounding them beat you to the punch.

So what do you do? How do you educate your child about current and past events, help them deal with everyday bias, and mold their beliefs about culture in a positive way?

First off, take a deep breath. The first step is easier than you think. Simply acknowledge that differences exist and celebrate them! Being color blind doesn’t help anyone—we can all plainly see that we ARE different. So, instead of suppressing that truth, celebrate different cultures and appearances with your children. Teach your kids early on that different is not bad, and that it is great we have diversity within our country. How boring would it be if we were all the same?

Secondly, don’t be afraid to admit and deal with your own biases (everyone has them!) and under no circumstances should you tolerate racially biased comments or actions from others. It’s so true that actions speak louder than words, and how your child sees you dealing with current news, your neighbors, and unjust situations teaches them more than any lecture ever could.

Set the example for how you want your children to respond, and discuss with them why you are responding in that way. One of the best ways for you to change the narrative of discrimination that surrounds your child is for them to see you treating anyone and everyone with kindness and respect.

Lastly, actively widen and diversify your family’s social network. Prioritize travel. Seek out cultures and people that are different from your own family and teach your children about them. Celebrate together all the different people in the world so that diversity will be a norm for your children, not an exception.

Obviously the current climate limits many of us from even traveling to a new restaurant in a different part of town. Another simpler (but not smaller) way to broaden your child’s view of the world is to purchase children’s books, games, apps, and movies featuring people of color and minority groups. A great resource is Common Sense Media which gives examples of books, shows, games etc. that promote racial and cultural diversity.

Just know that the most important part of addressing racial injustice with your child is to BEGIN! No matter their age, they are taking in gobs of information all around them and they are constantly watching how you treat others that are different from you. This won’t be a one-time conversation, and it also won’t be an easy one.

View this first discussion about racism and discrimination as the beginning of a lifelong narrative that’s always evolving as your child grows. Speak with humility and hope and be as honest as you can, when you can. Together we can shape the upcoming generation to not only be more aware of racial injustice but to be a part of the mission to end it entirely.

Until next time,

Dr. Sarah McNemar

Parkside Provider, Medical Director (Powdersville), and mostly just “winging it” parent

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