Hands of different races held together As cities across the nation are filled with protests over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, children are watching, listening and worrying. Stuck at home with their families due to COVID-19, these children often can't escape the constant barrage of news or tense adult conversations.

Whether you talk to your child regularly about race and cultural differences or have struggled to find the right words, your kids need your help now to understand what's happening, why and how it affects them.

As a parent of two mixed-race children, I struggle as well. One discussion will not help all children understand and cope with what's going on in our world today – or address years of racial inequality. My best advice: Let your child guide the way.

Start the discussion

The discussion about race should begin in toddlerhood – for all children, not just the black and brown ones. At this age, kids start to recognize the differences in other children and the adults around them. They're curious about why they have a different skin color than their friend, preschool teacher or neighbor.

Acknowledge these differences, casting them in a positive light. Show them a family – even your own – and demonstrate the many differences in skin tone that can be found. It's important to stress that outside appearance is just that – the outside – it's not who we are inside. And that goes for other people as well.

As caregivers, we need to foster these conversations at every stage in our child's life. The conversation about race is not one talk, but many; each building on the last and addressing current issues in our children's lives.

Believe change is possible

The children and adolescents that make up Generation Z are not as plagued with social biases and believe more than anyone that change is possible. Because of this, they are positioned to make better decisions about race. You can see that in the composition of the people protesting – they come from all backgrounds, all races, all socioeconomic groups. This generation – the people in their teens and 20s – is going to choose a different path forward.

I see evidence of this in my own children, aged 7 and 4, who are equally comfortable with their black friends, their Asian friends, their Latino friends and their white friends. They are excited that they share similar interests. They don't feel the same pressure to separate along racial lines as I did growing up. Instead of looking for reasons to separate, they are embracing their differences, breaking through societal norms and making their own rules.

Check yourself first

When I saw the video of George Floyd being killed, I saw myself, and my young son and my nephews and cousins. This could have happened to any of us. We must acknowledge how these images affect us because our children – especially young children – gauge how they feel based on how we respond. For this reason, it's important to disconnect from news and social media if these mediums trigger us. Center yourself and start the conversation when you’re ready to approach it as calmly as you can.

Listen to your kids

One of the beautiful things about talking to kids is that they'll tell us what they really want to know. They will lead you to where they need you, as their parent, to be. Ask them open-ended questions and answer their questions honestly, even if you don't know the answer. How do they feel? What are they thinking? What are they seeing? By initiating these types of questions, you can make your child feel safe discussing complex issues about race and equality.

Right now, many kids are asking why this is all happening. Explain that people of color have been treated unfairly for quite a long time; that they are frustrated. We need to reassure our children that while the anger and frustration is justified, violence only causes more violence and we all need to find positive ways to channel our emotions to affect positive changes in our world. Peaceful protests, voting and being kind are just a few ways.

Be part of the change

For teens with social media, there's no real way to protect them entirely from exposure to the video of George Floyd's death or the hundreds of protests around the world that followed. Any efforts we make to contain teens is fraught. Telling them they can't do something won't work: They want to – and will – assert their independence.

What parents and caregivers can do now is talk to their teens about what they're seeing, what it means and why it's important. Create a safe space for teens to discuss these complex issues and express their feeling of anger, distrust and sadness. Acknowledge their feelings and tell them their responses demonstrate that they can be part of the generation that leads to true societal change.

Explain that, as a parent, you are concerned about their safety. Talk about safe ways to effect change and make the world a more equitable place. Teens and children, just as adults, have a right to feel a range of emotions, including anger – it's justified – but we can help them funnel it in a positive way so they don't get stuck in the cycle of violence.

Stop hate with love

One thing to stress with your children – no matter their age – is that violence begets violence. Only through love can you change the hearts of people who hate you based solely on the color of your skin. If you respond with hate to someone who hates you, you only justify their thoughts. If you respond with love, it's transformative. You have challenged their stereotypes. Only with love can you change people who deal in hate.

Tips for talking to your children about race

Toddlers

  • Recognize racial differences and explain why they occur.
  • Stress that differences are positive; diversity only makes our country better.
  • Use examples in their lives – friends, family or neighbors who are different than them but have a positive role in their community.

Elementary school age

  • Explain that racial differences make us better and stronger.
  • Safety issues: Teach all children how to interact positively with police officers and authority figures.
  • Explain the issue of equity and how it is unfair that black and brown people are expected to act a certain way when approached by authority figures or they will face unpleasant consequences.

Teens

  • Have more nuanced conversations about race and racial profiling; not all police officers are behaving badly. Children mature at different paces; some elementary children will be ready for these conversations at an early age.
  • Accept their anger about racial injustice, but caution them about acting out negatively.
  • Try to channel their feelings in a positive way to make the world a more equitable place for everyone.

Roy Wade, Jr., MD, PhD, is a pediatrician at CHOP Primary Care, Cobbs Creek.

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Contributed by: Roy Wade, Jr., MD, PhD, MPH, MSHP


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