An age-by-age guide to talking to your kids about racism

An age-by-age guide to talking to your kids about racism

Raising a child is a big responsibility—if you're reading this, you don't need anyone to tell you that. But part of what makes this responsibility so huge is that we are our children's main source of so much more than food, shelter and love. We also give them an understanding of the world in which we all live. Science shows that as parents we shape our children's biases, preconceptions and attitudes to a remarkable degree.

In the choices we make, in the toys we buy, in the media we consume, in the friendships we hold dear and in the values we demonstrate, parents wield an incredible amount of power every day. It is nothing more or less than the power to create a better world—through our kids.

Racism is a lived reality for too many Americans. As parents, it is our responsibility—and, in fact, our great honor—to guide our children toward an understanding of racism that can help create the changes we want to see in our society.

Motherly talked to a range of Black and white sociologists, psychologists, family therapists and researchers to compile expert advice on how parents of all backgrounds can talk to their children about racism, age by age, including the best ways to have developmentally-appropriate conversations about recognizing and respecting differences.

The goal is to raise an actively anti-racist child. Here are some ways to begin.

Why it’s never too early to start talking about race and racism with kids

Children are never too young to talk about race. As tempting as it might be to believe that children are "blank slates," decades of developmental science research has shown that human beings acknowledge race very early in life.

"Research has shown that as early as 6 months babies notice the physical differences associated with race and start absorbing racial stereotypes even during their toddlerhood," notes Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychologist, educator and author of the seminal book about children and race, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Other research suggests that infants as young as 3 months recognize when faces are the same skin color as their own.

Race is a social construct, but difference is something that children can observe and appreciate during infancy. The key is to help children understand that our differences are something to acknowledge and to celebrate—not to fear or ignore.

When parents inadvertently teach children to be afraid of difference—or to ignore it completely, as some well-intentioned parents do, in the name of "color blindness"—implicit biases can take root. Why? Because children of all backgrounds are already aware of and thinking about differences starting in toddlerhood. A widely-shared infographic created by the Children's Community School of Philadelphia breaks down the developmental science of how children from a variety of backgrounds notice race age-by-age, emphasizing that because all children notice race, silence about race enforces racism.

Of course, that doesn't mean your toddler is ready to start watching the evening news with you. Developmentally speaking, young children's understanding of race starts with what they can see.

"If children are younger, say 3 or under, we're talking about noticing [race]—so, their eyes can see it, they are tracking it. They see it," explains Riana Elyse Anderson, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Michigan whose clinical practice and research focuses on fostering the emotional and mental health of African American children through in-depth conversations about race and racism.

"By about 5 they can give some words to it," Anderson continues. "From about 5-7, kids are not only seeing it but they're ascribing some sort of meaning to it, and by 7 or so they're able to say 'well this group believes this or thinks this or does this' so now they're ascribing group characteristics to it. At about 10 we're starting to see kids see their own involvement in it, so identity starts to really play a role at about 10, where they say, 'well that must mean this about me and that must mean I am XY and Z.'"

What does this mean for parents? Young children of all backgrounds are already noticing and thinking about race, starting in toddlerhood. Our goal as parents must be to have open and honest conversations with our kids about it.

This is, of course, an acknowledged reality for all parents of children of color, who are already painfully aware that conversations about race and racism will by necessity form an important part of their kids' upbringing, like it or not. But "just because someone is of color doesn't mean that they came with an instruction manual of how to talk about it," Anderson notes. Even though Black parents talk about race more frequently with their children, she says, "there's really nothing natural about the way that we deal with race in America—so nothing about it is natural. It takes a really concerted effort starting early on."

While it's never too early or too late to talk to your child about race, experts agree that earlier is better.

And it's not just "one and done," as parenting expert and bestselling author Dr. Laura Markham notes. "I don't think there is ever one conversation about such a big issue; I think we need to talk repeatedly about these tough issues on an ongoing basis as they arise. Sometimes current events will create the opportunity or the need for such discussions; sometimes our personal lives will. But if we want things to be different in the next generation, we need to begin those discussions in our homes."

It's worth noting that experts agree discussion is the goal—this isn't about delivering some kind of magical confusion-obliterating speech. (Listen, we can't all be Mr. Rogers. Or even Big Bird.) Rather, it's about having a series of conversations.

As soon as children are able to express themselves verbally, Anderson says, it's important to engage in what she describes as inquiry-based conversations: "Tell me what you see, tell me how you feel, tell me what you notice. As your child's answer becomes more complex because they're seeing and thinking in a new way, your questions and responses can become more complex."

Here's how experts recommend creating a dialogue that's appropriate to your child's age and stage.

How parents of infants and toddlers can teach their children about race and racism

Read books and watch videos that reflect diversity

"One way to counteract the negative messages about people of color that are embedded in the environment (i.e., in the TV they see, in the language they hear, in the interactions they observe) is by exposing children to books that include a diversity of characters and portray children of color in positive, non-stereotypical ways," says Tatum.

Normalize and celebrate difference—every day

"The best way for parents to teach a celebration of difference is to live a life that celebrates difference," says Dr. Dana E. Crawford, a clinical psychologist who works with children. "Teaching about racism is a bit of a tall order for little ones that haven't learned how to keep their beds dry at night. Therefore, the focus should be on helping infants and toddlers develop a brain that views differences in skin color as normative. Infants and toddlers learn from watching and repetition."

Make actively anti-racist choices as a consumer

Representation is the goal here, for families of all backgrounds. As Crawford notes, "whiteness is communicated to infants and toddlers as being the standard for humanity as early as the child is born. Frequently, white children are featured on the labels of diapers, baby food and even cribs."

This is why our choices as parents in the books we read, the toys we buy and even the packaging we gravitate toward in the grocery store actually matter—even before they can speak, kids are picking up on visual cues that normalize and celebrate only one skin color. "Black parents must actively reposition Blackness as beautiful," Crawford suggests, and "white parents should make every effort to have books, pictures and toys from all different races."

Practice talking about race—even if you're not confident

"For white parents, part of becoming comfortable talking about race and racism is practicing, so that the conversations become normative and children don't pick up on a sudden change of energy, or increase in discomfort, when the topic arises," says Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, clinical psychologist, parenting coach, and author. "So, even with babies and toddlers, who likely won't understand the content or meaning of your words, parents can start practicing pointing out, for example, the existence and beauty of different skin colors."

For parents of children of color, experts say that getting practice with asking questions about race is one way to have better conversations as children grow. Even with toddlers, Riana Anderson notes, "you can always start from a level of inquiry: What is it that you saw today, and how is it that you're feeling? Those inquiry-based conversations can help us to be more competent in the talk rather than having the content for the talk."

Model the world you want your child to see

"This is also an age when parents can start thinking about their own peer group, and making an effort to socialize with parents and children of different backgrounds and ethnicities as a way of broadening their own horizons, and modeling the value of inclusivity," says Hershberg.

Model the values you want your child to have

White parents take note: Your toddler is watching you. "Toddlers notice race and are drawing conclusions about everything, including race, all the time," Markham emphasizes. "They notice their parent's cues, such as friendliness or stiffening up when someone approaches. They look to parents to "approve" when someone initiates at the playground. So notice your own reactions that may be influenced by race and what cues you're giving your child."

Resources for parents of infants and toddlers

How parents of preschoolers (ages 3-5) can talk to their children about race and racism 

Building on the expert strategies listed above for parents of toddlers and babies, here's how parents of preschool-age children can work with their kids' growing verbal and social skills to enhance their understanding of race and racism, and raise an actively anti-racist child.

Talk about how words and actions can hurt

Preschool-age children are at an important stage of growth in terms of their awareness of how people's feelings can be affected by actions and words—including their own. That's why your child's preschool probably has specific language and guidelines for dealing with bullying and inclusion (and if they don't, it's time to find a new preschool).

Crawford suggests reinforcing the anti-bullying, pro-inclusivity language children are encountering at school at this age, literally bringing the message home: "Parents can say something like, 'Some people bully other people because of the way they dress, talk and even look. Making fun of someone because of their skin is a really bad type of bullying.'"

Crawford continues, "White parents might add, 'In this family, we do not make fun of or leave someone out because of their skin color. When we see that happening we stand up to bullies and we invite everyone to be a part of our lives.' For Black parents, they might add, 'Some people who are bullies may try to bully you because of your skin color. If that ever happens to you, please let me know.'"

Talk about the science—and social impact—of skin color

Every parent of a preschooler knows that kids this age tend to be obsessed with natural science—dinosaurs, seasons, weather, planets, animals, habitats, any topic that reveals something about the "why" of the world they live in. This also helps explain why parents often find themselves in unexpected conversations with their preschoolers about skin color, and why it's different from person to person. There's nothing "wrong" with this conversation, and in fact, it's an important moment for you and your child to talk about not just why skin colors are different but also what that means.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum's widely-shared talk on this subject, called Is My Skin Brown Because I Drank Chocolate Milk? is an excellent introduction to why it's so important to address children's confusion about skin color head-on. For many people of color, their very first race-related memory is of being a young child and experiencing confusion or embarrassment because another child called attention to their skin color.

Tatum tells how her 3-year-old son was asked by a preschool classmate whether his skin was brown because he drank chocolate milk—and she suggests that all parents should explain to young children how skin coloration works, not just parents of Black children. An open conversation about different skin colors can prevent confusion, hurt and the dangers of silence. The worst thing you can say when your child points out skin color is, "sssh," or "we don't talk about that."

So much for the worst thing to say—what's the best way to explain skin color to young children? Tatum's approach with her own son was to be straightforward and clear: "Your skin is brown because you have something in your skin called melanin. Everybody has some."

She went on to explain that when a white friend came back from Florida with a tan, that was because the sun brought out the melanin in his skin, adding, "Everybody has some [melanin]...but in your class, you're the kid with the most." Her 3-year-old (like most preschoolers) was of course delighted to be the kid with the most of something.

"Preschool is a good age to teach children, on a very concrete level, about why people have different skin colors," Hershberg agrees, adding that beyond talking about what melanin is, you can also talk about how skin color is an unfair basis for judging other people—you wouldn't judge someone by their hair or eye color, and skin color is the same.

Point out examples of systemic racism

Your preschooler will probably beat you to the punch on this one. In much the same way that your preschooler is increasingly aware of unfairness in their person-to-person interactions, your preschooler is going to notice—and be interested in—examples of unfairness in the world around them. Take this as a good sign, and encourage that awareness through questions and conversations.

"It's important for white parents to point out some of the manifestations of structural and systemic racism that children begin to notice at this age," Hershberg says. "If we don't explain that systems exist in the United States that allow people with white skin to have jobs with more power and money, then they will come to believe that people with white skin are somehow more deserving of those things."

You might think this is a complex topic to bring up with a young child, but don't shy away from it just because it's complex. Ask your child questions, and answer with examples they can recognize.

For parents of white children, Hershberg suggests, "You might say something like, "I know that a lot of the teachers at your school have white skin, and the people who clean the classrooms after you leave for the day have brown or Black skin. That is not because people with brown and Black skin are better at cleaning and people with white skin are better at teaching. That is because it is more difficult for people with brown and Black skin to get the jobs they want and are good at. That is not fair, and in our family, we are doing things to help change that."

Resources for parents of preschoolers

How parents of elementary-school-aged kids (ages 6-10) can talk to their children about race and racism

Elementary school is a formative time for kids' identities. As Professor Riana Anderson notes, by the age of 10 children's ideas about race are "really starting to play a role in early racial identity development." At this age kids ascribe values and characteristics to groups and individuals based on what they observe and what they hear from their parents, teachers and friends. What this means is, parents of grade-schoolers have tremendous potential power to raise kids that are a force for good in the world.

If you're a white parent just getting started with talking to your elementary-school-age kids about race, you're not alone. According to a 2019 study, 60% of parents rarely or never discuss race with their children until elementary school. While that study drew responses from parents from a variety of backgrounds, parents of children of color rarely have the luxury of waiting until the time "feels right" to talk about race.

Whatever age you start, it's not too late. The expert suggestions above for toddlers and preschoolers should serve as important building blocks, and below are more expert strategies for helping elementary-school-age children understand racism.

Call racism by its name

"With school-aged children, the conversation shifts from general bullying to naming racism," Dr. Crawford notes. "Parents can say something like, Some people bully other people because of the way they dress, talk, and even look. Making fun of someone because of their skin is a really bad type of bullying called racism.'" She adds that white parents might make this even more explicit, saying "'In this family, we do not make fun of or leave someone out because of their skin color. When we see that happening we stand up to bullies and we invite everyone to be a part of our lives.'"

Have conversations about systemic and structural racism

"When white children are in elementary school, it's important to continue to point out systemic and structural racism as well, whether it be that historically people with brown and Black skin get paid less at their jobs, or get put in jail more, or don't have access to the same school and housing opportunities," says Hershberg. "Always, the emphasis is that this is not fair and that we need to change the systems as much as we need to change individual attitudes. Talking about people running for office, and their proposals for enacting some of these important reforms can be an avenue for these conversations."

Talk about history

"Teach them about the history of racial oppression and how racism is bigger than people having stereotypes or prejudices—it is about a system of power and is built into our laws, institutions, policies, and so forth," suggests Margaret Hagerman, PhD., author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. "This might mean that parents need to do some learning in this area, and families can do this learning together."

Ask questions, and let them ask questions too

You don't have to have a Ph.D. in political theory to have a conversation about racism with your kids. Meet them where they are, suggests Anderson. "You're going to be blown away by what your child knows—like, blown away—because our kids notice everything and they know a lot more than we give them credit for."

She also says that the conversation should focus on asking questions: "What I say to parents is that you don't have to change your message as a parent...It's really what your child is going to be bringing to you, what they notice, what they see."

Hagerman agrees, adding that you might be surprised by their questions, too. "Don't just talk but also listen. The white kids in my research had a lot of questions about race that they told me they didn't think they could ask their parents. Understanding what kids already know, what conflicting messages they are trying to negotiate, is really important."

Resources for parents of elementary-schoolers

How parents of teens and tweens (ages 11 and up) can talk to their children about race and racism

You've probably seen the widely-shared videos about how parents of Black children prepare their kids for a world in which racism is a clear and present danger—there's the video showing parents talking to their Black kids about how to interact with the police, and the TikTok about the "rules" one African-American teenage boy was taught by his mother. There's a term for this conversation, which every Black parent knows: It's "the talk."

While Black children are seen as "problematic" and "threatening" as early as 4 years old based on data about expulsions from preschool, the teenage years mark a point at which the conversation about racism means something very different for kids of color compared to their white friends. While no speech any white parent can make will help their teenagers become 100% impeccably flawless allies for their African American friends, the conversation for parents of children of color is less "how am I going to make a difference in my child's life" and more "how am I going to keep them safe," Anderson says.

At the same time, tweens and teens are actively engaged in the process of constructing their own identities—meaning it's a developmentally critical stage for raising children who understand and fight racism in all its forms. Here's how experts suggest talking to tweens and teenagers about racism.

Give them "The Talk"

"The talk" is never just one conversation or one set of rules. It's a series of conversations in which Black parents hand down guidelines to their kids to help them navigate a world that will challenge their right to be who they are, where they are, what they are.

As important as "the talk" is, unfortunately, there are no words that parents can say that will make their Black children safe from racism. "The content of what we have been telling our kids does not magically keep them safe, unfortunately," says Riana Elyse Anderson, Ph.D., whose research and clinical practice focuses on improving mental health outcomes for Black youth through conversation, community and parental guidance. "We have to contend with a world that very much sees our kids and ourselves as a threat."

Crawford agrees: "For Black parents, there are many resources that discuss how to give "the talk"...[But] it is not an easy conversation and the key points have to be around being safe and above reproach in a world that may view your body as a weapon even if you are unarmed and doing a neutral human thing like sitting in your house or driving a car or jogging."

Parents of white teens need to be aware that these conversations are happening in African American families, and that they hurt. All parents who want to raise actively anti-racist kids must have their own version of "the talk." "In the same way parents teach tweens and teens about puberty, racism should be part of the coming of age talk," Crawford says.

Give them space to practice talking, too

In Anderson's therapeutic sessions with African American youth, part of the process of managing the stress of living with racism is giving them a safe space to react. "We ask the kids to yell out and express in frustration all their comeback lines. Then we say, 'Now, in your mind do you think this would have been the right thing to say in the moment? If not, why don't we try that again and see what you want to say.'"

Use talk as a stress release valve

Perhaps more than for any other age group, open talk as a way for teenagers to release physical and emotional stress cannot be overestimated. "We might never have the words to keep a cop from being trigger happy. But in the conversations we have about these things, we're going to help you unpack that stress together," Anderson says. "The action of getting it out might be stressful at first—it's a stressful endeavor for parents to think about—but the more we take it from the body and mind and get it out into the world and say these are my concerns and hopes, the more comfortable we are."

Make sure white children understand their privilege

Teenagers tend to be acutely aware of injustice in their schools, their social circles and their world. At this age, they want parents to offer guidance on how to be active allies for causes they believe in, and they need resources to help them navigate the challenge of racism as independent critical thinkers.

Helping your teenager understand their own privilege is a way of focusing their awareness of injustice in a bigger context. Crawford suggests, "For white parents, it might be something like, "Because of your skin being white, some people may think you are smarter or treat you nice or even give you things you did not earn. This is called privilege. You did not earn it, but you have it. While you may work really hard, being white is like being given extra credit on an assignment you completed while. Although you did earn a good grade, you didn't do anything to get extra credit. Because of this extra credit, it is important you use it to help others. Some people will be treated poorly, be blamed for things they did not do, or get in more trouble than you for things they did with you. Please use your privilege to stand up for others similar to if you see someone being bullied."

Talk about history

"Kids need to know that racism is part of a history that dates back hundreds of years," Dr. Kenya Hameed, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist, writes for the Child Mind Institute. Tweens and teens are old enough to watch documentaries and films that give them a foundational understanding of the historical roots of racism. Common Sense Media offers a guide for parents to help us use movies, television and streaming media as tools for learning about racism and starting conversations about racial justice and inequality.

Be the change

Especially with teenagers but really at every age, what we say as parents matters far less than what we actually do. "When white parents move to a segregated white neighborhood because the kids in the integrated neighborhood are 'too rough,' or when the only people in a child's life are also white with the exception of the economically marginalized Black and brown people at the soup kitchen whom they are told they must help 'save,' children notice and develop understandings of not only the position of others in society but also of themselves," Hagerman says. "How parents choose to set up their kids' lives has serious consequences for the lessons kids interpret and the cues they pick up on from that environment."

Walk the talk

Teenagers are going to roll their eyes at just about everything we do—except act on our most deeply-held beliefs. As your child enters their teen years, find ways to get involved, contribute and engage in activism together. It's a powerful way for parents to model the behavior they want their kids to emulate, and a way to help support a generation that wants so badly to be part of the solution.

Resources for parents of teenagers

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