Voices in Education

10 Tips on Talking to Kids About Race and Racism

  • SHARE:

As children, many of us recall being shushed or scolded by adults whenever we pointed out people’s differences such as skin and hair color. Or, we may recall a teacher abruptly ending the conversation when a question regarding race or racism was brought up in the classroom. From these interactions, we likely learned that talking about race was wrong. When teachers and parents avoid talking about the questions and concerns kids have around race and racism, it can further perpetuate misunderstandings, biases, and racial injustice. 

Engage in open, honest discussions about race and racism.
As trusted educators, caregivers, and parents, we need to engage in open and honest conversations with children about race and racism. To begin, we must fully understand our country’s legacy of slavery and how systemic racism maintains and feeds racial inequity in the United States. For white teachers and parents especially, this might evoke some anxiety. Much of this initial anxiety can be managed by examining your own understanding of race by reading books about race and racism, talking with and listening to experts, watching documentaries, and learning how (and committing) to address anti-racist policies and actions within your own community. 

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. 
I find that many parents and teachers are worried about saying the “wrong” thing or not having the “right” answers. This is common. The first step in getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is to increase your own knowledge. By learning more, you’ll be better prepared to raise and teach socially conscious and conscientious kids. 

Children are observant and complex thinkers. They look to people around them including parents, teachers, and other children, to make sense of who they are and learn how people who look and don’t look like them are treated. Research shows children as young as two can begin to articulate ideas about racial differences and develop judgments on what those differences might mean. 

Encouraging the conversation at a very young age. 
From as early as three years old, many children begin to verbalize what they notice about differences including skin color, hair, visible disabilities, and gender. Children also want to talk to you about what they notice! As any parent knows, these observations or questions come up at the most inconvenient and unexpected times - while you are busy getting ready for work, while riding the bus within earshot of many other people, or while waiting in line at the grocery store.

It is important to acknowledge a child’s questions and observations, even if you don’t have the answers or feel uncomfortable. Some back pocket responses are: “I’m so glad you brought this up, let’s talk more about it when we can sit down together,” “I love that you are curious about this and I don’t have all the answers right now, but we can learn together.” and “Hmm.. that’s a good observation. I wonder where you came up with that idea. Let’s explore.”

Social awareness and empathy are learned behaviors.
When we keep the conversation going, we let our children know their observations about the world are important. It helps them develop social awareness and empathy. It helps reaffirm that it is ok to notice differences and to be curious about others. The discussions they have with the trusting adults in their lives are the most influential in shaping how they see themselves and others. 

The PBS Let’s Talk Series
I recently hosted a PBS Utah show called Let’s Talk in which I interviewed 14 parents on their own experiences with race and racism, some of whom are teachers, as well as an elementary school counselor. In each episode, we talk about how they navigate conversations around race and racism with their children. Each episode reveals the triumphs they’ve experienced, lessons they’ve learned, vulnerabilities they’ve felt as well as some of their best tools. To watch each of these interviews visit Let’s Talk at PBSUtah.org/letstalk. 

Based on these conversations and my own experience as a mother and educator, here are 10 Tips to help you on this journey. 

  1. Examine your own understanding of race.
    If race wasn’t discussed in your household growing up, do some research on your own and reflect on what it brings up for you. The more you understand what race means and how it permeates our society, the better equipped you are to teach your children about it. For a list of adult and children’s books visit Let’s Talk book list resource page!
  2. Become comfortable with terminology and familiar with how certain concepts are used.
    For example, race and culture are not synonymous. It’s important to be explicit and provide children with accurate terms so they can learn how to apply them.
  3. When your child brings up a topic related to race, don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going.
    This lets children know it is okay to talk about what they notice. Instead of telling kids to keep quiet, refrain from using particular words or make specific observations out loud, talk to them. Ask them what they noticed and discuss it.
  4. Find opportunities to ask questions.
    For example, when reading a book to or with your child, ask them why someone is being treated a certain way? Is it because of their gender or skin color? Let this lead into a rich conversation.
  5. Let children take the lead.
    While I recommend that parents intentionally initiate conversations about race and racism, children will often bring up these thoughts on their own too. It’s important to spend time on what they’ve noticed. Validate their questions or observations (“that’s such a great observation…”) and then move into a discussion. Statements and questions such as, “I’d love to hear more about that,” “That’s really interesting, what made you think of this?” or “How did that make you feel when that happened?” are helpful ways to deepen your conversations.
  6. Involve your children in activities to help them learn about their own cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
    This will help them develop a greater sense of who they are, which will then enable them to create more positive interactions across various racial-ethnic groups.
  7. Help your children to think critically. It is common for children to focus on concrete and visible features to describe others, such as skin color or assumed gender. Challenge them to think about other important personal dimensions. For example, if your child refers to a friend as “my white friend” or “my brown friend,” ask them to tell you more about their friend (e.g., “What does your friend like to do?” and “What kinds of things do you play together?”).
  8. Recognize your child’s limits and know when to stop.
    Depending on age and attention spans, conversations with children about these topics may only last a minute or two. 
  9. Initiate a book club or conversation group with other parents who are interested in learning how to talk with their children about race.
    Sharing challenges you encounter will normalize the difficulty in talking about socially charged topics.
  10. It’s OK to make mistakes!
    Many parents did not grow up discussing race or racism, so there is quite a steep learning curve. You will stumble over your words and may share wrong information. Let your child know you are still figuring out how to talk about these important topics too, that learning is a life long process which you are committed to and that you are so happy you get to have these conversations together.
Karen Tao

Karen Tao Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology

I was born and raised in Hawaii to immigrant parents. Growing up I remember my parents telling me stories about living on the “mainland” and how they worked so hard to fit in, and yet always stuck out. As a kid in Hawaii I was surrounded by other families and children who looked like me and shared similar experiences. It was not until I moved to California for college when I first experienced the feeling of being an “outsider.” Since that time, my  personal and academic path has led to my becoming a psychologist with a focus on multiculturalism. I conduct research on how people from diverse backgrounds negotiate cultural differences and how children make meaning of who they are, including their racial selves. As a therapist, I enjoy working with clients to explore the ways in which culture feels, understand, and learn about identity and race.

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!