Talking to Kids About Race and Violence

What do our children hear and understand about the recent wave of clashes between race, violence, police brutality, and justice in our country? Let’s start with what they hear.

Maybe you still receive the daily newspaper on your doorstep or listen to just about any radio station while driving in the car? Or maybe you turn on the television while you make dinner or let your child borrow your phone every now and then? Maybe your child is old enough to read the magazine covers at the grocery store or overhear people talking at the ballfield? Maybe you take a walk in your neighborhood without a blindfold on and casually observe the contrast in yard signs?

It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do. Our children – of all ages, attention spans and media exposure – hear. Our children listen, read, see pictures, and certainly KNOW that our nation is abuzz. Though the words are certainly not new, they may be to our children; words like race, racism, Black, White, police, violence, brutality, justice, reform, protest, mob, and riot. The names of people that they did not know – like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more – are familiar for some reason.

Of course, we can rarely be certain what our children really hear. But we must realize that they do hear, and they feel, and they try to make sense of confusing and emotional situations, just like adults do. And, it is part of our job as parents to help our children understand and process these situations in healthy, respectful, and compassionate ways. But how? How do we talk to our children about heavy, complex topics like race and violence? The answer, the full answer, is certainly bigger and deeper than we can tackle in one article! But, for starters:

  1. REFRESH and deepen your own knowledge of the history of racism in the United States and the underlying principles of the American justice system. (See here, here, here and here for lists of resources on these topics)
  2. RECOGNIZE and celebrate differences between people, while also pointing out things we all have in common.
  3. RESPOND to your children’s questions or thank them for asking.
  4. ACKNOWLEDGE their fear.
  5. REPHRASE questions using age-appropriate terminology and correct words. Even young children understand concepts of fairness and kindness.
  6. ASK your child questions, too, so that you can understand what they are hearing and thinking about.
  7. BREAK answers down into smaller parts or simpler concepts.
  8. IDENTIFY action steps that your family can take to address a concern that your child has.
  9. READ and watch, with your child, age-appropriate content. (See here, here, here and here for lists of kid-friendly and parent-specific resources).
  10. BE HONEST when you don’t know the answer; it’s okay to say: “I’m not sure about that one”! You and your child can research the topic together.

Talking about racism and discrimination is not easy and it will look different for each family.  While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the science is clear: the earlier parents start the conversation with their children the better.  And remember while you may hesitate to talk to your children, other children are experiencing racism and discrimination daily.  Help your kids be their anti-racist ally!

The concepts in this article were borrowed and summarized from a number of sources. Check some of them out here: UNICEF “Talking to your kids about racism”; PBS, 10 Tips on Talking to Kids About Race and Racism; USA Today, What do we tell our children and Child Mind Institute, Talking to Kids About Racism and Violence.