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Mealtime conversations: discussing racism & other challenging topics with kids, part 1

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

The topic of combating racism in children is outside our expertise as feeding therapists

but the consequences of silence are so much graver than the trepidation we feel from perhaps saying or doing the wrong thing. Our imperfection is a given. We won’t let it be our excuse.

This will be a 2-post series. In this post, we’re going to talk about the foundational work of discussing racism with kids. In the next post we will get into more specifics and examples of which words to use.

We are turning to the experts on racism (such as The Conscious Kid, Layla Saad, Raising Race Conscious Children, and, of course NPR and Sesame Street) to find guidance on words, timing and tools to use in these discussions. And, adding to this by weaving in our own expertise in the areas of:

  • child development

  • mealtimes

  • relationship-based parenting

I will also pull from our own experience talking to my children about race and racism.

We want to start by acknowledging that we‘re focusing here on the work white parents need to do to talk about race with our kids (bc as white women this is where we have lived experience), though some of this applies to any challenging yet powerful topic a parent will have to address with their kid- no matter what your race. This post is emphasizing race because it’s at the front of everyone’s mind and heart right now and is one of the essential topics that must be discussed repeatedly with a child— but other topics which are also potentially challenging, such as sex and sexuality, drugs and alcohol, bullying, sexism, ableism, poverty...all apply here as well and need ongoing work between us and our kids to make sure we’re raising thoughtful, responsible, loving, and kind humans.

Raising kids who are anti-racist

Just like we advocate for actively teaching your child skills to become a good eater, when it comes to raising kids who help break the cycle of racism it takes active teaching on the part of us parents to help our child build knowledge and skills.

Not discussing race with your child allows whatever unspoken messages, fantastical ideas or random information which might have crept into their heads to stay there, unchecked and unexamined. It is our job as parents to explore their theories and guide them towards facts, truths and growth. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through doing your own learning on the topic then having loving, honest and direct conversations with your child starting at around 3. We’re going to talk about what those sounds like in a moment.

Doing your own learning

We are, of course, learning weekly on this topic. Some easy to digest tools we have found helpful are:

And the experts and resources we listed in the opening paragraphs. The more you read, the deeper your understanding and the easier it gets to talk to your kids. This list is purposely brief. Long lists can paralyze people because they don’t know where to start. Start here then obviously keep going!

The more you practice, the better you get

The more we have challenging conversations with our kids about racism or other complex topics, the better we get at having them. Getting the words and messaging right to discuss racism takes practice because often it’s not something that white parents face regularly (this is an example of white privileged. Black families do not have the same luxury of not bringing up race and racism.) Many of us were also raised to think it was “bad” to notice or talk about race which also contributes to our feelings of discomfort when having conversations about race with our kids. We need to build our confidence through learning and trial and error practice. In the words of Ahmed Ali,

“It’s a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life.”

Lots of short conversations are better than one long “talk”

The words you choose will sound different depending on the age of your child and what your message is in that moment but racism is such a HUGE topic and there are plenty of places to start. You will need to have many ongoing conversations to help your child learn and process. They don’t need to be long conversations. In fact it’s probably wise to have many, many brief conversions rather than one long one because young children often can’t process a lot of information at once. Follow their lead and answer questions but if they move on by changing the subject or if they stop talking, it’s ok to let it go and try again a little later.

Using mealtimes to talk about racism

If your child doesn’t naturally bring up the topic by asking a question or making an observation at some point, you can initiate. And while there isn’t one best time to bring up hard conversations, we believe there are

2 ideal times to bring up the conversation with your child:

  • reading books (during story time or before bed)

  • mealtimes

Reading books with your child is one of the most powerful and simplest ways to introduce ideas and topics of conversation. Books about race are great but not necessary at first. You do need books with diverse characters in them and books written by Black people and people of other colors and races. This list by which explores books written or illustrated by Black women, is VERY comprehensive and valuable. We like her site in general. This post is another great one from the same author that focuses on books that actively raise the topics of race, privilege, poverty, ableism, and other important yet potentially challenging topics.

Favorite kid books on our bookshelves

Favorite kid books on our bookshelves which aren’t specifically about racism but feature Black characters and characters of other races:

While we love the book which address racism, bullying, and discrimination head on, it’s also important to us that our children read stories where Black kids and kids of other races are just doing awesome, fun, normal, adventurous kid stuff. We don’t want to impart the subconscious idea that people of other races are always being picked on and need saving. We do want them to see kids of other races being heroic and smart and funny to match the messaging coming from so many other books that feature white kids in the role of main character.

In addition to reading stories and discussing in the moment, often kids need time to process and then need follow up conversations. We strongly encourage you to use mealtimes for those follow up conversations.

Why? Because family meals are times of connection and togetherness which happen consistently. (Obviously if your mealtimes are currently a battleground of picky eating and parental yelling, this will have to change first! And we hope that the prospect of one day having powerful conversations with your child over a meal about things that have nothing to do with eating 2 more bites motivates you to make important changes to your current dynamic.)

Meals should be served family-style

The consistency, warmth, and safety of a family meal can make it an ideal time to teach your child life lessons, little by little.

Thank you if you've stuck with us this far. We're eager to get into more detail around what to say, which words to use when talking to your kids- especially young kids and how to respond to their sometimes cringe-worthy thoughts and comments about race.

In the mean time, let us know how old your kids were when you started having challenging conversations about race. Any particularly challenging questions or moments? Let us know if you've come across a resource you find valuable on the topic by leaving us a comment below!

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