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Teaching children to talk of race

Roger Harrison, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, wrote this for's "Healthy Kids" blog.

Roger Harrison, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, wrote this for's "Healthy Kids" blog.

The face of America is changing. A child born in America today will became an adult in a different nation. The Census Bureau predicts that minorities, now 37 percent of the population, will account for 57 percent by 2060. Minorities under 10 now make up most of their age group in 12 states, including New Jersey.

Despite this, discussions of race are still hard. Events such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and the Eric Garner killing in Staten Island, N.Y., have spawned much debate. If your child is interested in talking about race, consider these tips to have a productive conversation:

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 sound quite different. Your child will appreciate your willingness to "hang in there" and share your thoughts as openly and as developmentally appropriate as you can.

Consider your child's developmental stage. Compared to a 5-year-old, a talk with a 15-year-old might examine the history of race relations in America and ask for opinions on historical or current events involving race.

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 discussion about diversity if your child has not seen evidence of that in your life. If you answered yes, don't despair! You have a great conversation starter about race on your hands.

Try discussing race in the context of your family's values. Children are more likely to accept responses such as, "In our family, we value. . . ." The more explicit you make your family's values, the easier it will be to apply them to a talk on race.

Don't fear tough questions. Be frank. Admit when you don't understand, are unsure, or have conflicting feelings.

Ask more questions than you give answers. The best discussions often involve more listening than speaking. This strategy will help when you feel at a loss for words. Ask questions such as, "What do you think about. . . ?"

Explore differences, don't just talk. Take advantage of cultural activities (festivals, art, and entertainment events) and discuss these with your children. Participate in activities that coincide with Black History Month (February) or Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15). Consider museum and library visits.

Teach your child to appreciate the perceptions and feelings of others. That's key to developing empathy. When discussing race, ask not only about what your children think and feel, but also about how someone different might think, feel, or act in various situations.

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 and cultures and for those in authority.