Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Tips for talking about race with your kids

Discussions of race continue to be challenging, sensitive, and uncomfortable for many Americans, particularly outside of our very intimate circles. If your child has questions about race, consider these tips to have a productive conversation.

Today's guest blogger is Roger Harrison, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. He see patients in both the hospital and Nemours primary care settings. Among his special interests are conduct issues, ADHD and learning problems.

The face of America is rapidly changing. A child born in America today will emerge into adulthood in a very different America than a child born in the 1960s or earlier. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2043, America will become a minority-majority nation. Ethnic minorities, who comprise 37% of the population currently, are projected to comprise 57% of the population by 2060. Minority children under age 10 now make up the majority of the under-10 population in 12 states, including New York, California, Texas, Florida (and yes, New Jersey!) as well as the District of Columbia.

Despite these changes, discussions of race continue to be challenging, sensitive, and uncomfortable for many Americans, particularly outside of our very intimate circles. Whether due to personal discomfort with the topic, fear of offending, fear of sounding 'racist' or insensitive, or a host of other reasons, conversations about race are often dreaded or avoided, even among parents and children.

Recent events such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the Eric Garner killing in Staten Island, New York have generated tremendous media coverage and spawned many conversations in the media, around the water cooler, and likely around the dinner table or couch. If your child has overheard such conversations and is interested in a conversation about race, consider the following tips to have a productive conversation:

  1. There is no 'one way' to talk about race. The conversation between an African-American father and his son, Hispanic immigrant parents and their daughters, and a White American mother and her son will necessarily sound quite different. Your child will appreciate your willingness to 'hang in there' with her and share your thoughts as openly and as developmentally appropriate as you can.

  2. Consider your child's developmental stage. While it might be sufficient to simply state that people are all different and explain how we celebrate and appreciate differences while talking to a 4- or 5-year-old, a conversation with a 15-year-old might be more involved, potentially examining the history of race relations in America or other cultures and asking your child their opinion on historical or current events involving race.

  3. Model the attitudes and values you want your child to adopt. Do all of your friends look like you? Do all of your child's dolls look like her?  It might be harder to have a sincere conversation about the beauty or importance of diversity and inclusion if your child has not seen evidence of such diversity or inclusion in your life. If you answered yes, don't despair! You have a great conversation starter about race and diversity on your hands.

  4. Focus on your family's values. Try discussing race in the context of your family's value system. Children are more likely to accept without question responses such as "In our family, we value…" or "it's really important to our family that we…" The more explicit you make your family's values, the easier it will be to apply those values to the discussion of race.

  5. Don't be afraid of the tough questions. Be frank and candid in your conversation. Admit when you don't understand, when you're unsure, or when you have conflicting feelings.

  6. Ask more questions than you give answers. The best conversation often involves more listening than speaking. This strategy will also help you when feeling at a loss for words. Questions such as "what do you think about…?" "What do your friends say about…" and "What have you heard…?"

  7. Explore differences, don't just talk! Take advantage of cultural activities (e.g., festivals, art and entertainment events) in your area and discuss these with your children. Participate in activities that coincide with Black History Month (February), Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) or Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month (May) and engage your children in conversation about these activities. Consider museum visits, library visits, or internet resources as a means of learning about different races and cultures.

  8. Teach your child perspective taking. Understanding the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of others is an important step in developing empathy. When discussing race, ask not only questions about what your child thinks and how they feel, but ask them questions about how someone different from them might think, feel, or act in various situations.

  9. Be intentional about teaching respect. Teach respect by modeling respect for different races and cultures. Teach respect by defining (according to your family's values) and emphasizing the practice of respect for self, others, and property. Teach respect by having your child engage in behaviors that show respect for persons of different races, cultural symbols, and persons in authority.

Next week, I'll have a blog that will look at more in-depth questions that your children may have about the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson and the Eric Garner killing in Staten Island.

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »