Race Relations

When To Speak About Racism With Our Children

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a decade since the first African-American president of the United States was inaugurated. During that time, it forced many to delve into unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable territory about the state of race relations in America.

And with the election of Donald Trump, it’s continued to force the national conversation even further about race – particularly since the launch of his campaign began with racist rhetoric towards Hispanics – and his debacle of allowing immigrant children to be separated from there parents. And is some cases, even die.

So the question is no longer if we should talk about racism with our children, but how. And how should we approach the subject within our own households? Not talking about racism is like much like not speaking about sex. They’re going to learn about it one way or another. It’s probably best that they learn it from you.

How early do children learn about racism?

“Children form biases early, and can quickly pick up on cues from adults as well as peers. Kids may be exposed to prejudiced attitudes at home, as well as at school. These learned biases can have a significant impact on how they perceive and treat others,” Shimi Kang, M.D. USNews contributor stated.

Children are primarily influenced by what parents say and do, and from what they don’t say and don’t do. If a child sticks out his/her tongue and spits (like children do) at an adult of a different race and the mother ignores that behavior, but has previously told the child not to spit at people, the child has just learned that spitting at a person who looks like that particular adult is acceptable.

Although a parent may believe they don’t have racist attitudes because they never use racist epithets or speak ill of other races, their lack of action has spoken for them, and their child has inadvertently learned to discriminate.

One may assume that because their child is an early adolescent, she/he doesn’t know what she’s doing. However, it is not too early to start having meaningful discussions with children regarding their behavior. Racism is no different.

Parents need to recognize behavior in themselves, and to their children. And of course, pay attention to language and non-verbal communication messages.

“Unfortunately, it is not enough to set a good example. Nor can we shield children from bigotry. A society that continues to discriminate against racial and ethnic groups nurtures prejudice in each new generation. If we avoid these subjects with our children, we actually run the risk of strengthening prejudices we want them to reject.” (civilrights.org)

“Harvard University psychologist and racism expert Mahzarin Banaji found in her own research that children as young as three-years-old are susceptible to racist behavior within a few days of being exposed to it”, Shimi Kang M.D. USNews contributor said.

This may seem too young to discuss such a heavy-laden issue. But children develop at a fast pace, absorbing and observing the world around them, then internalizing and learning from all those experiences. So when should parents start talking to their children about race, race relations and racism?

“You can start at the beginning. Children ask questions as soon as they can talk. Even toddlers wonder about similarities and differences between people.” (civilrights.org)

If they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to know. Even if they don’t ask, the early years are a crucial time to have meaningful talks with children.

“Between five and eight-years-old, children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs. Generally, by the fourth grade, children’s racial attitudes start to grow more rigid. Our guidance is especially crucial during this impressionable, turbulent time.” (civilrights.org)

Shaping a child’s attitude toward race in the very beginning can start with basic things, such as reading books with pictures that represent various racial groups, or going to social settings within an integrated environment.

In addition, exposure is also important and should include discussion of, and respect for cultural differences, as well as an acknowledgment that discrimination is a result of the lack of respect some people have for those who are different from themselves.

If racism is going to end, it must first be acknowledged, then combatted with knowledge, kindness, and compassion. And we can start by instilling those values with our children.

“Racism is grown-up disease and we need to stop using our children to spread it.”

Ruby Bridges.

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