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Healthy ways to talk to children about race

Recent events have brought racism to the forefront, increasing the need to have open and honest discussions with children of all ages. But how and when do we talk to our children about racism? First, we have to understand race and what it means to be anti-racist.

Race is probably best understood as differences we see on the outside (such as in skin color, hair texture, and facial features). Racism happens when people are treated unfairly because of beliefs that some races are better than others. Less than 1% of genetic differences in humans are due to race, which means that humans are WAY more alike than they are different. In the past, groups of people used race to decide who could do things like vote or attend school and today, racism continues to make it difficult for people of color to get good health care, education, fair pay and many other basic human rights.

Being anti-racist means that we:

  • Support that all people deserve the same rights
  • Accept that damage has been done to communities of color
  • Participate in activities that make things fair for everyone
  • Speak out against activities that make things unfair for communities of color

Research shows us that racial bias (preferences based on race) begins early. Children as young as 6-9 months old1, 2 look at faces of their same race more than faces of other races. Several studies show that children group people unfairly based on race as early as 3 years old3, 4. That is why it’s important to talk about race even with young children because when we don’t, they are left on their own to learn. This can lead to confusion and negative ideas about themselves or others based on race, including poor self-esteem if part of a disadvantaged group, supremacy (thoughts of being better than others) if part of a privileged group and mistrust or hurtful views toward others.

The research described above and events in society show us that silence about race does not lead to anti-racism or changes toward racial equality. Accurate conversations about race and healthy/balanced experiences with racial diversity lead to anti-racism. Information from developmental psychology research5 helps us understand how to teach children about race. It suggests four strategies:

  • Teach children about their racial background to help them develop a positive identity and self-esteem.
    • Celebrate accomplishments made by people from their racial group.
    • Participate in cultural events and holidays that are special to your race.
    • Have decorations, toys and books in your home that help your child see other people from the same-race, especially if part of a racial minority group.
  • Teach children to recognize and cope with discrimination so they are prepared when they see it happen.
    • Teach your child about the ways that people have been and still are treated unfairly because of their race.
    • Show your child how they can speak up when they or others are treated unfairly or made fun of because of their race.
    • Help your child learn how to get support from adults they trust when they have been treated unfairly.
  • Don’t teach your child to stay away from or be untrusting of other racial groups because this can lead to untrue and negative views about others.
    • Instead, prepare your child to live in world full of people from different racial backgrounds so they learn how to appreciate and interact well with others.
    • Get to know families from different backgrounds through school and social activities.
    • Participate in community events or organizations that include people from a variety of races.
  • Don’t teach your child to be ‘colorblind’ or avoid discussions of race because this ignores experiences that others have had because of their race.
    • Instead, learn about other races and cultures.
    • Participate in activities that celebrate and support other racial groups’ history and culture.
    • Have toys, books and movies/TV shows in your home that help your child learn about people from other races.
    • Challenge unfair treatment because silence results in acceptance.
      • For example, help your child learn to not only ask others to stop doing or saying something that is racist but to also explain why it is wrong.
    • Don’t overreact if your child, especially a young child, says something about race in public. Use it as a teachable moment rather than brushing it off or dismissing it quickly due to discomfort.

We can all make a difference in reducing unfair racial treatment for current and future generations by doing our part to educate our children. It is not easy, but it is necessary. It involves a lifelong process of learning and understanding. Your child’s questions about race will change with age as their understanding develops and they learn more information.

If your child’s behavior and emotions have been difficult to manage for several days or weeks and have gotten in the way of daily activities after they saw or heard news about recent racial challenges, please reach out to your family’s medical provider. Your medical provider may suggest helpful support options, such as counseling, for your child during this time.

There are a lot of resources available to help have conversations with our children on anti-racism and to support raising children who appreciate culture and diversity. We have listed some of the resources below under “Action Items.”

Action Items (please choose one or more)

  • Join a racial justice advocacy group and talk with your child about the mission of the group and your reason for joining.
  • Donate to anti-racism work or racial justice reform and talk with your child about your reason for donating.

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Research References

  1. Xiao, N. G., Quinn, P. C., Liu, S., Ge, L., Pascalis, O., & Lee, K. (2018). Older but not younger infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music. Developmental Science, 21(2), 10.1111/desc.12537.
  2. Xiao, N. G., Wu, R., Quinn, P. C., Liu, S., Tummeltshammer, K. S., Kirkham, N. Z., Ge, L., Pascalis, O., & Lee, K. (2018). Infants rely more on gaze cues from own-race than other-race adults for learning under uncertainty. Child Development, 89(3), e229–e244.
  3. Van Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  4. Williams, A., & Steele, J. R. (2019). Examining Children's Implicit Racial Attitudes Using Exemplar and Category-Based Measures. Child Development, 90(3), e322–e338.
  5. Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E. P., Johnson, D. J., Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents' ethnic-racial socialization practices: a review of research and directions for future study. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 747–770.


Child Psychology

Child Psychology