Controversial police shootings and a growing Black Lives Matter movement may be hard to fully understand as adults, but from a child’s point of view, racism and discrimination may be even murkier.
Your child may be sharing their playground with peers of other races, age, size and social class without judgment or second-guessing. How do you explain concepts like racism and stereotyping?
While it’s a difficult conversation, it has to be done, according to experts.
“Kids are aware and the media is everywhere so even if we feel uncomfortable having these discussions, we have to have them,” Ann Douglas, a parenting expert and author of Parenting Through the Storm, told Global News.
“We have to be sensitive to the child and their developmental level. But there are principles – every child is going to understand the basic concept of treating people fairly,” according to Alyson Schafer, a parenting expert and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids.
Douglas and Schafer offer their tips on how to talk to your kids about racism in light of current events in the U.S. and around the world.
Be conscious of your child’s age and maturity level
If your child is in kindergarten, he or she may not be able to grasp issues such as racial profiling, stereotyping or racism, Schafer says. A teenager, on the other hand, may be incredibly aware of his or her surroundings and they may have strong opinions against social injustices.
Pay attention to your child’s age, sensitivity level and maturity, she said. Some kids could grow up in a multicultural environment where they don’t blink an eye at other cultures while others could be raised in rural communities where they may not come across peers from a different race or religion, for example.
Understand that this will be a continuing conversation. Don’t expect to sit down to this conversation once, Douglas said. As your kids get older, they may comprehend more or they could come across misinformation. It’s your job to revisit the conversation to answer any questions.
“Recognize that you’re going to have to tackle it in countless different ways as your child’s awareness of racism and curiosity of what fuels it evolves,” she said.
Don’t hit the panic button if your child makes an inappropriate comment
Young kids may not have a filter – you’ll know when you’re shopping at the grocery store and he or she shouts out a physical attribute about a fellow customer, for example.
This is a teachable moment for your child, Douglas said. Here, you can show your child how to value diversity, to celebrate differences and to recognize what we have in common – that we’re all human.
“Talk about how boring it would be if the cereal aisle at the grocery store only had one kind of cereal—or if every person on the planet looked exactly the same,” she said.
It’s a great opportunity to talk about empathy, too.
“Talk about how we all miss out when we wrote off entire groups of people for arbitrary reasons – whether that’s based on race, gender, body size, age or something else entirely,” Douglas said.
Acknowledge the globe’s history with racism and social injustice
Head to the library to find age-appropriate content for your kids to better understand what’s happening. Watch movies, listen to inspiring speeches, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream, and go over what your kids are learning in history class.
It may be hard for kids to process, she warned. As a child, she remembers her parents’ photos from South Carolina in which they explained that white people drank from one water fountain while black people were forced to drink from another.
The Holocaust and the U.S. civil rights movement were also world issues that troubled her as she read about them.
Tell your kids, “It may be hard to believe because you’ve been doing such a good job in your own life of treating people the same, it’s hard to imagine there are people who are systemically devalued,” Schafer offered.
“It sounds so strange to us now and we think things are better but people are still treated unfairly. It’s still a deep problem for society,” Schafer said.
Reinforce safety and hope
Kids could have trouble putting news in context. A peaceful protest that turns deadly in the U.S. may seem like it’s happening down the street to a young child, Schafer notes.
You want your child to feel safe and secure. Remind them that there is a justice system in place and appropriate measures in place to protect them.
“Reinforce hope. Make sure that your child understands that there are all kinds of people working to create a better, more just world and that she can be part of those efforts, starting right now,” Douglas said.
Your child can take part by joining a cause, such as letter-writing with Amnesty International, to writing a letter to the editor at the community newspaper. He or she may want to light candles, organize a school rally or even pray before dinnertime.
Be a role model
Your kids are looking up to you when they forge their beliefs, the experts say.
Don’t idly stand by if someone makes an inappropriate comment or talk through concerns with your child if he or she makes a subtly racist comment.
“Kids notice differences and will be trying to make sense of these differences—and you want your child to do so in a way that is inclusive,” Douglas said.