Kids of the world have had a rough 2020.
School got cancelled. Birthdays, friendships, gatherings, vacations, and their favorite places to go? Also cancelled. For many kids, busy and preoccupied parents working jobs from home became their primary teachers. For others? Their parents weren’t able to stay home and teach them, and so they’re lonely, confused, and in danger of falling behind.
And for some, the space they occupy in the system of racism running through the veins of our legislature and law enforcement hasn’t budged an inch. The lived reality of many children in America has been predetermined since their births – since they emerged into this world as people of color.
Now… plenty of us grew up with parents who said things like “It’s not polite to talk about race, religion, or politics” or “I’ll explain that to you when you’re older.”
It turns out, according to an article for the American Academy of Pediatrics, children can internalize racial bias as young as between the ages of two and four.
And for older children, from nine to 17? They probably know more than you realize. School, TV, video games, and the internet are all ingredients in the cauldron of consciousness your child develops as they grow. That’s alright – if they’ve internalized any information ranging from unsavory to factually incorrect, you have a teachable moment on your hands.
But because this is not a post-racial society, these conversations must be had. We are the village raising the children who will become the adults of the next generation.
So let’s delineate talking about race by age…
Infant to Six Years Old
If your children are in this age range, your job is simple: Get out in front of the conversation.
Whether or not you’re a person of color, you should have literature featuring nonwhite central characters. Maybe that seems out of pocket, or like your children won’t be able to relate.
Consider that for most of the world’s history, nonwhite children have only had popular literature available with a cast of white characters.
Children will relate to other children unless they’re taught they can’t.
This is your chance to teach them to invest in the lives, dreams, feelings, and failings of others, regardless of what they look like. Read them books about civil rights and black achievements, but also just about people of color living their lives. Check out this list!
Watch movies centered around people of color, as well as other cultures. Studies have shown it helps prevent shock and confusion later on.
This is also the age at which children notice there is a physical difference in skin tone.
Perfect chance for science! Children are sponges – and they’re curious to boot. Explain to them what melanin is.
Melanin is a pigment that makes skin have different colors. We all have it – when you get tan in the sun, that’s melanin. Black people have more melanin than white people. Just like flower petals can be different colors! It’s wonderful that the world has so many varieties of people, and all we have to do to appreciate what nature has given us is love each other.
Ages Six to Eight
This age is particularly tender… kids between six and eight typically have garnered an understanding of right and wrong, fair and unfair.
In fact, you’ve probably already seen plenty of examples of it. A sibling playing with a toy they want, a kid in class getting picked for a privilege that your child didn’t get picked for, etc.
Especially now, when they may or may not be aware of what’s going on in the world, it’s critical to explain what is happening that is unfair and why.
Start by asking what they’ve heard – if it’s already on the right track, build layers. If it seems like they’ve gotten something muddled, gently dismantle it.
Don’t get too far into the weeds on the history of the civil rights movement just yet (unless you think your kid can safely comprehend that reality). But if asked directly about anything, don’t lie.
Above all, remind them that nothing separates you fundamentally from the people of color who are upset at the state of racism in the world – except unfair prejudice.
Ages Eight to Twelve
At these ages, kids are starting to form opinions based not on yours, but on opinions they hear at school, at family gatherings, on the internet, etc.
This is a great time to practice equanimity and show your children how to respectfully disagree, explain why you don’t agree, and teach them how to be advocates and allies to other children and people.
Classmates getting teased in school about their race or religion? Help your kid learn how to uplift that one and de-escalate bullies.
Hear a racist remark from an adult? Equip them with the knowledge to deflect it personally, and maybe even encourage them to speak up.
Ages Twelve and Up
Here’s where it can get dicey.
Myriad reports have come out showing that in many places in the States, public schools don’t spend a lot of time on black history. February, sure. But during that month, children usually get sugar-coated and white-washed versions of things that were actually dreadful.
That’s where you can come in.
You can explain that slavery wasn’t normal for the times – that there were plenty of vocal abolitionists opposing it all the way back to 1688. You can explain what the Tulsa race riots were. You can explain what happened to MLK. You can tell the truth about the Black Panthers. You can talk to them about police brutality rate discrepancy between white people and people of color.
You can show them hard, immutable facts.
And be there for them when they have a response, a reaction, or questions. Children are more capable of understanding than they’re often given credit for.
Show them documentaries, historical films, read literature that explains the black American experience. (More on that in a future issue.)
And by all means, if you hear your children espousing racist ideals or parroting harmful, insidious remarks, congratulations – it’s another teachable moment!
Being an ally is not a destination. It’s a journey. You have to be willing to accept new information when you learn it, and adjust your beliefs accordingly without fear of vitriolic retribution for admitting you were wrong.
That’s the most powerful lesson you can teach your children.