Published on in Health Tip of the Week
In light of the recent incidents of police brutality, in addition to the disproportional impacts of COVID-19, many Americans are now thinking deeply about issues of race, racism, social justice, and equity. As this movement around social justice and anti-racism continues to sweep the nation, many parents are having critical conversations with their children about the racism and bias that have persisted in our country for centuries.
Whether or not your family has begun discussing these issues, it’s important to keep in mind that children pick up information in a variety of ways. Social media, older siblings and even peers may provide varying narratives about what’s happening in the world — and children are paying close attention.
“At times, parents may be woefully underestimating the information to which children are being exposed,” says Wanjiku F.M. Njoroge, MD, Medical Director of the Young Child Clinic and PolicyLab Faculty at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
“Parents want to know what their children know. They want to know all of the details so they can understand where their children are getting information, whether it’s from the news being watched in another room, social media if they have access, other family members or overheard conversations between adults or even same-aged peers.”
So how should parents address the topic of racism with their children? And what do they do when the beliefs being taught at home aren’t being positively reinforced outside of their home?
Starting the conversation
Dr. Njoroge says the most important thing parents can do is continue to talk to their children in order to determine their level of understanding about race, racism, social justice and health equity.
“It’s always best that parents are the arbiter of what their children are learning, particularly around a topic in which there is so much misinformation,” says Dr. Njoroge. “Parents know their children, and with clear and developmentally appropriate conversations, they are able to probe and see what their children know and from whom they learned the information.”
Simply asking children what they think is happening and allowing the opportunity for an open discussion about their questions and concerns, allows parents the opportunity to have appropriate and informative conversations with their children.
To set the stage for a discussion about current events around race and racism, tell your children you’d like to talk with them about some important things happening in the country right now. Make sure to use direct, clear and open-ended questions, such as:
- “What do you think is going on right now?”
- “Why do you think that?”
- “Where did you hear that?”
- “How do you feel about that?
- “Do you have any questions?”
- “Have you talked about this with your friends?”
- “If so, what do they think about all of this?”
- “Do you have any worries or concerns about everything that’s going on?”
Acknowledge that talking about race, racism, social justice and inequity may be difficult. It’s important to remain mindful of your own emotions during these conversations in order to ensure a frank, open discussion. If your child has questions, provide honest and accurate responses. As your discussions continue and become more complex, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to focus on areas of specific concern.
Rely on resources
Whether you’ve just begun to talk to your children about racism, or you want to reinforce the concepts you’re already teaching, age-appropriate resources are key. Providing your child with reliable resources not only informs their accurate understanding of the topic, but also empowers them to refer to those resources when they hear inaccurate information from their peers or even relatives.
“Parents may not realize that a wealth of resources are widely available for children of all ages, and many resources are free,” says Dr. Njoroge. If your child asks why another family has a differing opinion, “families can talk about how best to share the resources that have helped them understand why racism and bias continue to exist.”
Parents can also rely on resources to widen their own knowledge about race and racism, as well as bias and privilege. A difficult conversation about racism with your child might be an opportunity to reflect on your own views and where you developed them. If you have strong opinions, have you considered historical context or evidence to support your beliefs? By being open and adding to your knowledge through further education, you’ll be more effectively able to educate your children.
The following resources can help educate both parents and children of all ages and reinforce the anti-racist concepts being taught at home:
- Help your child explore the concept of racial identity and the role it plays in society at the National Museum of African-American History & Culture.
- Read about the important work happening through Sesame Workshop and consider showing younger children the Sesame Street character Abby Cadabby’s take on prejudice and empathy.
- Review this age-by-age guide to teaching anti-racism at home.
- Find books about racism and social justice — grouped by age and reading level — at Common Sense Media.
- Embrace Race offers book lists, along with webinars and other media that can help inform conversations at home.
- Check out these articles and tackle head-on issues such as discrimination and racial violence in the news.
For more helpful tips, read “Talking to Your Kids About Racism.”
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Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Program Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship
Medical Director, Young Child Clinic, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences