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Discussing racism & other challenging topics with our kids at meals, part 2

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

As we said in part one, we are combining the ideas and expertise of many wise people who teach about and have helped us learn more about race, racism and white privileged (such as Ijeoma Oluo) along with our own expertise in kids to bring you this post.

The previous post was about why and when to have challenging conversations with your kids about race. Let's continue by exploring what conversations about race with our young child might actually sound like at a meal.

What do I say to get my toddler/young child talking about race and eventually about racism?

If your child isn’t ready to answer questions or to say what they see, you can always start by pointing out what you see. It is easiest, in our opinion, to start a conversation in relation to something relevant which your child experienced and has some context (I.E. “Remember that book we read yesterday about the girl who was looking for a quiet place? I noticed that her she had beautiful brown skin.”) But it is also ok to just bring up a new random topic at the table (I.E. “hey I’ve been thinking about something and wanted to talk with you about it...“)

As we said in our previous post, we love starting with a book to introduce an idea that might otherwise feel a little out of context for us. To see which books we recommend, read our previous post here. For example you can say, “I noticed that in many of our books the characters have white skin, like us.” Pause. See if your child offers anything. Then try, “Have you noticed that?” If your child answers (yes or no) dig in there a little by asking a follow up question like: “Have you noticed anyone with different color skin from us in the books we have read? Tell me what you’ve noticed.” Literally the conversation can end there the first time. You’re planting a seed. You’re acknowledging what your child may or may not have noticed and introducing the very early ideas of differences in a simple and non-threatening way that most 3 and 4 year olds will understand. You can get to race, racism, empathy, slavery, white privilege etc. later because these conversations will be ongoing. These topics are long game issues of life-long learning.

The follow up to that conversation might come from your child asking a question a few days later or might come when you purposely read books that include characters who have skin or features that are different from your own. You don't need to expand on the conversation at every meal but you do need to be consistent enough to keep building on the ideas you bring up.

For example, a few nights later you could point out, “look at all these different foods! I think the meal would feel pretty boring if we only had one flavor.” Then reconnect to the conversation from a few days before with something like, “it’s the same with friends- differences in how we look and what we like make life more interesting and beautiful.”

Expanding your conversations about race

Some possible topics to grow on the introduction of differences and race with your 3-4 year old (so that by the time they are 5 or 6 you can start to deepen the conversation):

  • Noticing and naming similarities between themselves and people around them

  • Noticing and naming differences between themselves and people around them.

  • Affirming that it’s good to have both similarities and differences (in interests and in how we look) with friends.

  • Affirming that it’s OK to talk about differences respectfully and ask questions

  • Noticing and describing your own skin color and features (like hair or eyes)

  • Noticing any friends whose skin color and features are the same or different.

  • Asking what else they have in common with their friends who have same color skin/look similar (both in features and in interests)

  • Asking what else they have in common with their friends who have different color skin/look different

  • Using the word “race” and defining what it means

  • Practicing perspective taking*

*One powerful skill that helps a child learn to be empathetic and thoughtful is perspective taking. Teaching this skill can start at around 3 or 4 years old. We will talk about this in a moment.

These conversations are getting dark... what now?

If you’re having consistent conversations with your child about any complex topic, especially something as horrible as racism and oppression chances are you might hit on something that starts to feel scary or ugly. Your child might ask an uncomfortable question or say something hurtful or overtly racist. That’s ok- it’s the whole point of these conversations! You want your child to ask about and say what he’s thinking so you can help explore, guide, correct, and teach. The goal is to discuss these ideas to help him learn and avoid growing into an adult who never had anyone question him or help him see problems in his thinking. Yes these conversations might feel scary or hard. Your child is safe with you even when the world feels scary and it’s ok to acknowledge that some topics are scary to discuss but so important we need to talk about them anyways.

Practicing perspective taking

This is an important life skill which takes practice to hone. We recommend starting with a game. When you are reading with your child or when you’re out and about with your child point to someone in the book or in an advertisement in your environmentand ask: “what do you think she’s thinking about right now?” take turns guessing. Push your child to come up with more than one possibility. Try follow up questions like, “what do you think her bedroom looks like?” “what do you think she likes to eat for dinner?” Your child’s answers might surprise you and might reveal biases that you weren’t expecting. Don’t shame. Go ahead and cringe inside, but don’t embarrass your child. The point is to teach and keep open communication. But be clear- if your child guesses that the Black person is about to commit a crime for example, obviously don’t let that go. You can say something like, “That’s one possibility. We might not realize it but a lot of times the news around us tells us that black people commit crimes. I wonder if that’s why you guessed that. Actually, most Black people don’t commit crimes. Some do, just like some white people commit crimes. Most black people obey laws just like us. I wonder if (point back to the picture) she was just about to play hide and seek with her son, like we play? Or maybe she’s about to accept an award. What award do you think she might win?“

There aren’t right answers. You can look for themes in your child’s responses though and challenge them. Are all the guesses about girls fitting standard gender and heteronormative stereotypes? If so, point that out. The goal is to practice stepping outside ourselves in order to think about ways others might see and experience the world and it’s also to start to notice our own biases and possible stereotypes.

Deepen the conversation as your child grows-Taking about racism with 5-8 year old kids

If you lay a strong foundation and expectation with your child that you talk about these challenging topics early and often as a family, it will come easy to advance the depth of the conversations as your child grows. You want to move towards these topics over time:

  • Racism- naming it and defining it.

  • The fact that racism is present all around us.

  • Describing “white privilege“

  • Listing the ways we might benefit or be hurt by “white privilege“

  • Our role in speaking up when you see something that isn’t right.

  • Your family values around acceptance, respect and inclusion for people who look different.

  • The value and benefits of variety and inclusion.

  • The ways you can speak up if you see injustice or hurt.

  • The ways you personally have made mistakes, hurt others, misspoke or gotten things wrong.

  • Learning from mistakes and doing better.

Modeling being anti-racist

We believe that beyond educating our kids on racism we MUST SHOW them through our own actions how to stand up against racism and how to check our privilege and how to lift up the voices of Black, Brown and Indigenous people and all those who are under-represented and oppressed. This topic is huge and will need additional posts to dig into it. We’ve got lots of work to do in this realm personally and we’re still learning so we will revisit this soon. But we know that kids learn by WATCHING US even more than listening to us so modeling is essential.

In discussing the ongoing, daily work needed to actively combat racism in ourselves and in the world, we hope we’ve encouraged you to join us in doing the work and given you some clear ideas of how to start.

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