In this blog, Dr. Angela Searcy shares her guidance on common questions parents and educators may have about how to have simple, developmentally-appropriate conversations on race awareness, racism, racial discrimination, and racial violence with young children. The intent is for parents and educators to use this resource to engage in ongoing conversations with children on these topics. Conversations should grow with the child in both depth and sophistication so they know how to process, respond, and act out of empathy, kindness, and love.
How can parents and educators talk to children about racism and racial violence?
Children are always listening and watching as adults describe national events. If we don't take time to educate young children about what they are hearing and seeing, they will come up with their own inaccurate version of what these events might mean without adult input.
In the same way that children's television shows, movies, and literature tackle serious subjects like homelessness, divorce, incarceration, and death, parents and educators should also support children as they witness or experience racism and racial violence.
What might those talks look and sound like?
We don't shy away from talking to children about how to respond if an emergency occurs, or what to do if they are hurt or sick, therefore we can also provide guidance on how to not only celebrate diversity, but also respond to racist encounters and injustice. If children are experiencing it, educators and caregivers should be teaching children about it.
Talk about race with young children using these conversation starters.
For Infants and Toddlers:
- When you see someone of a different color, describe those attributes and celebrate them. Simple picture books like More More More, Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams are great opportunities to talk about diversity.
- Use children's literature to introduce the topic of race. A simple book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Marti, Jr. and Eric Carle ends with a page full of diverse children.
- Use the same concrete items we use to teach children about bullying or emotions when talking about race and racism. Use simple statements like, "Tell me about a time you were scared," and incorporate tools like mirrors, drawing, or a stuffed animal to show those emotions. Connect those ideas with individuals that experience racism or racial violence. In the same way you say "we shouldn't hurt our friends in school," talk about how some adults hurt one another just because they look different.
How do I explain racial violence?
If we don't talk to children about what is wrong in the world, they won't understand how to make things right. Even though we strive to limit exposure to violent images or media, children might feel our sense of worry or stress and overhear conversations about racial violence. It is good to tell them things such as, "I am worried about my friend's safety," or, "I am worried that someone might get hurt."
Even though adults should put limits on what children might see, they should still keep in mind that children are not totally immune from violence. Research shows aggression peaks between the ages of 24 to 42 months.1 It is at these ages that young children slowly begin to understand how their actions might hurt others. Racial violence can be explained in simple terms stating that one person hurt another person.
As children grow older it is important to recognize, point out, and describe how to act on race-related injustices. Discuss how people have fears for their own safety and model speaking up for others that need help. Empower children in knowing they have an active role in making the world a better place.
Start developmentally appropriate conversations on racial violence using these strategies.
For Infants and Toddlers:
- Do not watch any violent media with your baby present.
- Even though babies may not know the complexities of the situation, babies and toddlers can easily pick on anger, anxiety, or fear from a caregiver. Try saying statements such as, "I am feeling nervous today and I am going to take three deep breaths to calm down."
- If you cry in front of your baby, label those emotions and appropriate responses to them. For example: "I am sad because someone got hurt, so I need a hug and some tissues."
- Babies and toddlers like to mimic adults even before they understand your words or the meaning of our actions. If you become angry, try to label that feeling and show your babies positive coping mechanism such as, "I am so mad! Let's take a walk so I can calm down."
- Pose open-ended questions to your child such as: What do you know about this situation? How does this make you feel? How would you speak up if you saw someone getting hurt?
- Explain things in simple, age-appropriate terms without too much detail such as, "People are marching because a man was treated unfairly and he died."
- Avoid dismissive statements like, "you don't need to worry about that," or untrue statements like, "no worries, everything is okay." Instead, focus on direct, true, and reassuring statements such as, "I am not sure what is happening, but I will make sure you are safe," or, "I don't know when this will end, but I am glad we are all together."
- Continue to watch any media in private without your children present. Use the pause button if a news clip comes on unexpectedly.
- Explain that protests are peaceful ways people use their words to change something they think is unfair. Have children think of something they think is unfair and help them draw or make their own sign. Let your child choose the topic. They may choose something that is important to them like "changing my naptime."
- Children don't need to see looting or riots, but we do need to label and define those terms if children ask us to do so. For example, you can say: "A riot is when a group of people become angry. Looting is when people steal things during a riot and no one is paying attention." or "Sometimes people get angry, they don't use their words, and they break things."
- Make the conversations concrete and relatable with discussion starters like: When you get upset, have you ever hurt people or yelled at them? Do you mean everything you do and say when you are upset? Do I forgive you? Don't we have to clean up sometimes when you get upset and make a mess? Well now we have to clean up the community because some adults also became upset and forgot to use their words.
- Children's books like Sometimes I'm Bombaloo by Rachel Vail, Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban, and the free social story Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Tuck and Think by Rochelle Lentini can help facilitate a discussion about rioting and include ideas about getting upset, not using words, and examples of calming down.
- Educators can use the Walk in My Shoes Mat to teach children empathy and start conversations on how to deal with conflict.
How do I talk about racism without being scary?
Getting hit by a car, fires, and tornados are all scary; however, road safety, fire prevention, and tornado drills are all often included within early childhood programming. At five years old my teachers had prepared me to respond calmly to a fire, but left me unprepared and terrified that something was wrong with my skin when another child told me I was dark because I had too much dirt on me.
Often families and educators worry that talking about racism too early will result in a loss of innocence. Learning about race, racism, and how to respond to racial violence early on preserves a child's innocence by equipping them with accurate information about racial and physical attributes and equips them with the confidence to respond appropriately when racist situations occur. Not engaging in discussions about race can lead to fearful encounters that don't end racism, but instead might sustain it and increase the likelihood it will occur.
For example, one research study showed that directly talking about interracial friendships improved race relations among five to seven-year-olds.2 Keep in mind that, by preschool, children are in the process of developing their identity, already beginning to make decisions about playmates based on race,3 and beginning to exclude children.4 This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds, if you have ever witnessed preschool children "uninviting" each other from their birthday party. Ironically, the loss of an invitation seems to happen even when it is not their birthday and there is no party scheduled.
Lastly, as a Black woman, I am also concerned about the message that is sent when, we as educators and families, discuss every other physical attribute except race or that those attributes associated with race are somehow considered scary. When some physical attributes are discussed and others are not it might send a silent message that these traits are "bad" or that to discuss them is "taboo," as opposed to being openly acknowledged or celebrated.
Why should I talk about race if children don't see color?
Talking about race can be as simple as pointing out or talking about skin, hair, or eye color. Children may not have a sophisticated understanding of all the distinct shared social qualities of a race, however, research shows babies as young as three months prefer faces that match their own.5 This isn't so hard to believe if you have ever seen a baby cry when encountering a person with a beard or a deep voice for the first time. Moreover, children might not notice attributes of anything at first until it is pointed out. And, just like discussing the physical attributes of animals helps children know and understand animals or discussing the attributes of shapes builds a strong foundation for math, discussing race and the physical attributes of people is a good foundation for understanding ourselves and others and being comfortable with all types of people.
As a Black woman, I don't want anyone to ignore, not see, or be "blind" to my color. Instead I hope no one will make inaccurate assumptions about me based on my color or respond in a negative manner that makes me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Use books, toys, everyday people, and events to spark conversations about race and purposely point out differences so children feel comfortable with them.
Start conversations about race that recognize and celebrate differences using these approaches.
For Infants and Toddlers:
- Purposely point out differences in a positive way. If your infant looks toward someone of a different race ask, "Did you notice his beautiful brown skin?" or "Yes, you are right. Her skin looks different than ours. Isn't it beautiful? Everybody's skin is a different color, isn't that amazing?"
- Share positive observations with your baby like, "Her hair has lovely curls." Or "Yes, his hair is different and beautiful."
- Build on your previous discussions by adding more information. For example, when a child asks why someone has brown skin you can say, "Her skin is brown because she has more melanin. Melanin can make someone's eyes, skin, and hair look darker."
- Expand conversations by explaining that, "Some people might be frightened that others will not be nice to them because they look different—let's show them how nice we are."
What else can families and educators do?
To combat institutionalized racism, we need to institutionalize these talks. For example, it is important for institutions that provide education and services to children and families to also provide training and tools to support educators in talking about racism. Prevention that comes in the same form as fire prevention or nutrition instruction is another way to ensure these talks occur to support the healthy development of all children.
About the Author
An educator since 1990, Dr. Angela Searcy has experience at all levels of education providing services to children and families as a teacher, child-development specialist, and independent consultant. A former neurodevelopment specialist, she is the owner and founder of Simple Solutions Educational Services, a professional-development company. She is a trainer, a speaker, and an adjunct instructor and seminar leader at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, Illinois.
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1 Tremblay, R. E., Boulerice, B., Harden, P. W., McDuff, P., Perusse, D., Pihl, R. O.,'Zoccolillo, M. (1996). Do children in Canada become more aggressive as they approach adolescence? In M. Cappe'I. Fellegi (Eds.), Growing up in Canada. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, pp. 127-136.
2 Bronson, P.,'Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock: New thinking about children. New York: Twelve
3 Hirschfeld, L.A. 2008. "Children's Developing Conceptions of Race." In Handbook of Race, Racism, and the Developing Child, eds. S.M. Quintana'C. McKown, 37-54. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Katz, P.A., & J.A. Kofkin. 1997. "Race, Gender, and Young Children." Chap. 3 in Developmental Psychopathology: Perspectives on Adjustment, Risk, and Disorder, eds. S.S. Luthar, J.A. Burack, D. Cicchetti,'J.R. Weisz, 51-74. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Quintana, S.M.,'C. McKown, eds. 2008. Handbook of Race, Racism, and the Developing Child. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Van Ausdale, D., & J.R. Feagin. 2001. The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
4 Winkler, E.N. 2009. "Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race." PACE: Practical Approaches for Continuing Education 3 (3): 1-8.
5 Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., Ge, L.,'Pascalis, O. (2005). Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Developmental science, 8(6), F31-F36. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.0434a.x