A Clinical Perspective on Talking to Kids About Racism
How to speak openly and tackle hard questions
As the nation mourns the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans, discussions of racism and violence dominate the national conversation as well as the conversations we’re having at home.
Talking to kids about racism and racialized violence is hard, but it’s also necessary — today and as kids grow up. Below, advice for parents on this topic from two of the Child Mind Institute’s expert clinicians.
Dr. Kenya Hameed, PsyD: Today we’re here to talk about what’s happening across the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. With protests over the violent deaths of black Americans dominating the news, it’s understandable that many kids are feeling scared, confused and angry about the situation. We’re here to help you as parents help your children process what they’re seeing and manage their feelings.
The discussions that parents and caregivers will have with their children are really going to differ depending on your child and your family’s racial and ethnic backgrounds. One broad thing is that it’s really important that we’re not sparing kids from the truth. It’s really important not to sugar-coat what’s going on by being vague. We need to be very purposeful and intentional about talking about race, using words like “white” and “black” rather than vague concepts like, “Some people hurt others.” We don’t want to have children read between the lines, because when you have to read between the lines things get confusing and then your message doesn’t get across the way you intended it to.
Also, when it comes to talking about these topics, it’s okay for parents to show emotion. These are very emotionally charged conversations. We would expect that you would have feelings of anger and hurt and sadness that you’re also conveying to your child. The reason why that’s important is because it allows you to normalize these types of feelings as well as validate what your child may already be feeling. For our kids who might be confused about how to process what they’re hearing, what they’re seeing on the news, you’re providing emotional context for how they may feel about what’s going on.
Additionally, it’s really important that we emphasize that this is not a brand-new issue. This ongoing problem has lasted for hundreds of years and that’s important to acknowledge, because it lets kids know that this is not a one-time thing. This is not something that we are going to have one discussion about or see on the news one time. These are ongoing problems, and it’s going to take all of us changing our mentality and mindset to work towards a better future.
The next thing I’ll say is that we have to emphasize how wrong this is. The killing of blacks unnecessarily — I can’t stress enough that the tone of the conversation needs to be, “This is wrong. We don’t agree with this.” To just keep mentioning this.
For families with black children, I have some other thoughts as well. First, it’s really important to instill pride in your black child and to empower them, because from a moral developmental standpoint, children are initially raised to think that when you do something bad there is going to be a consequence. Kids learn that this is why we want to promote good behavior, because it helps to avoid consequences. But these racial inequalities are much more complicated than that. We have bad things happening to good people, so that can be very confusing for a child. They want to be able to concretely make it black and white. Who is the good person in this scenario and who is the bad person?
If they’re constantly hearing and seeing that black people are being targeted and killed, the idea is that those blacks have done something wrong and they are bad. That is just not the case, so you want to make sure that it’s emphasized to all races — white children and black children — that blacks are not bad. Especially for black children, you don’t want them to feel bad about themselves, to have lower self-esteem because these types of injustices continually happen. So just making sure that we foster pride, that black children understand how special they are — even if they’re not valued by whites, they’re still meaningful people.
What I will also say to all parents is how important it is to talk about hope and the fact that we want to work as a society on making things better. We don’t want things to always be this way. So, we don’t want to tell kids, “Well, that’s just what happened. And unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about it.” There are things we can do about it. That sense of hope is going to be very important.
For black children as well — I’m sure many families already have to do this — it’s also important to make sure that they’re really mindful when they leave the house, where they decide to go, what type of clothing they decide to wear, just being very mindful of their surroundings. It’s upsetting, but that is the reality that we live with in this country.
Dr. Jamie Howard, PhD: We have a question that relates to this.
Question: Do you think these adult conversations can traumatize children?
Dr. Howard: When you’re a white parent talking to your white child, absolutely not. This cannot traumatize. Conversations in general can’t traumatize a child. I think of it as an incredibly important opportunity to discuss race with your kids and to discuss family values.
So often kids are preoccupied with the concept of fairness, and that’s sort of an umbrella term here, racism being a very particular kind of unfairness. So, we want to say to kids, “This is not okay. This is not what we believe in. It’s not okay to treat people any differently based on what they look like.” And to be really frank with them.
Sometimes there are these subtle comments that an extended family member makes and we think, “Oh, that’s pretty benign. I’ll just ignore it. He’s just a crazy uncle.” But we don’t want to do that, because racism builds. If these subtle, seemingly benign comments go uncorrected, that can really grow into a mentality that supports racism in adulthood, and we really don’t want that.
What I would say is talk to your kids, one hundred percent. Don’t wait. They’re seeing this and this an incredible opportunity that you don’t want to let go by. It won’t traumatize them. But you might want to give them a little nugget about something they can do, because a lot of us feel pretty helpless right now, seeing what’s going on and not knowing exactly what to do, especially in the context of a global pandemic.
One thing you can say is, “I don’t want you to do nothing. If you see a white kid treating a black kid unfairly, I want you to say something. That’s called bystander nonintervention. We talk about it a lot with bullying and it applies especially here with racism. Tell them: “I want you to tell me, to tell your teacher. If it is safe to do so, I want you to intervene and tell that kid to stop it.” That’s the sort of thing that you can do to stop racist actions and beliefs from building and building.
Dr. Hameed: I would add that these conversations are not going to traumatize children, but what is going on in the news, what happens on a day-to-day basis for black families — housing discrimination, racial profiling, police brutality, those types of events and experiences — those are very traumatic. So if we want to be able to work together to reduce those sorts of things, we have to have these conversations, because by not having them it allows these types of behaviors to perpetuate and that’s just not good for anybody.
Question: My son is frightened by what happened to George Floyd. What can I say to him?
Dr. Howard: Again, it’s a very different message depending on whether your son is black or white, and Kenya, I’m going to let you take what parents can say if their son is black.
For a white child, I would say, “It is frightening. I feel sad and I feel scared and I feel angry.” Really validate those feelings because they’re entirely normal to have. For parents, what we recommend is that you seem relatively in control with your own emotions when having these conversations. For example, every time I look at a video clip of George Floyd with the policeman who had the knee on his neck, my eyes well up with tears. So when I talk about this, my eyes are going to well up with tears. It’s just going to happen. But I will not be sobbing and need a box of tissues while talking to my kids about it, because that would be too much and that would probably make them feel scared, maybe a little overwhelmed.
What I would say to a white child is, “You’re privileged, so if you live your life with intention and you follow the rules, you’re probably not going to have something like that happen to you. Let’s think about what we can do to make that the case for everyone.”
Dr. Hameed: For a black child — and not just black children, for all children — once again it’s important to highlight the fact that this is not new. This is not an isolated incident. You give them some context around where exactly this is coming from.
You could say something like, “We live in a country where for hundreds of years, whites have looked at the color of your skin and seen you’re black and jumped to conclusions about who you are, what your intentions are, what they think you’ve done or even predictions about what you will do in the future. And that’s purely based on what you look like, and that is essentially what happened to George Floyd. Because of this, you’re treated differently. This is really scary. We are not okay with this. We can’t just sit by idly continuing to allow this to happen. So we need to come together to protect ourselves and make sure this stops and that there is justice for these types of actions.”
Question: How can I talk about this with young children in a way they can understand?
Dr. Howard: With young kids you always want to start with the basics and then let them ask for more, so that you don’t flood them with information they don’t understand. You can just start out by saying, “Everyone looks different and right now what people are angry about is that some people with darker skin are being treated badly and that’s not okay. And people are angry about it and they should be.” I would start out with that and let the child ask more and more questions.
Dr. Hameed: I would revise that a bit and talk about the fact that race is a big issue. We need to be very specific about that. It’s not just some people — we are talking about whites and that they are hurting blacks. The spectrum of skin tone changes very much, so I would say “blacks” and “whites” in that conversation to make it clear that we’re talking about racial groups. Just being more specific about it.
Question: How do we talk to teenagers about this in a way they will understand?
Dr. Howard: Here is where we can engage in a long discussion about the history of slavery and racism in our country and talk about what a systemic issue it is, how deep and pervasive and problematic it is.
Dr. Hameed: I would definitely agree with that. Also, when you’re talking to teens you have to talk about safety. Younger children are going to be adequately supervised by their parents ideally at all times, so as a parent you have much more control about where your younger child goes and plays. With teens, just developmentally they have so much more autonomy and independence, so there are things they have to be mindful of. For example, you may have a teen who decides to participate in a protest, so if they’re going to do that you have to talk about ways to stay safe.
Question: Should parents talk to their kids about what happened in Minneapolis even if they don’t ask about it?
Dr. Hameed: I think it makes sense once they’re school age and they’re starting to notice differences like gender and skin color.
Dr. Howard: You don’t want your kid to hear about this from other kids or from sensational sources like the news. We want to be the ones to talk to our kids, so we can present it in a way that is not unnecessarily frightening. We want to convey appropriate emotions and facts and also equip them with what they can do.
Dr. Hameed: What I would also say is that one of the reasons you always want to be the first to have that conversation with your child is so you’re the one setting the mindset. If they hear it from another child or another parent, it may not necessarily be the message that you intended for them to have. If they heard it from you first and then afterwards they see it on the news, online, from another child, then they already have the framework to say, “What I’m hearing is true. It’s just what my mom explained.” Or they might think, “That’s not what my mom or dad said, so let me go back to them and get more clarification. Let me ask more questions.”
Question: What can parents encourage teens to do other than protest in order to support this cause?
Dr. Howard: What I have done in lieu of protesting is make donations to several organizations, such as organizations that are paying bail to get protesters out of jail. That would be one thing you could sit down with your teen and research.
Dr. Hameed: You can also encourage your teen to get to know more information about your politicians. Our voice matters and voting is incredibly important, making sure the people in office have mindsets of wanting to end the systemic racism that we see. Our teens are going to be voters in the next couple of years so it’s about making sure that they are going to vote, but it’s also about asking: Who do we really want in office representing us, representing our notions and beliefs?
Question: How can I explain why people are demonstrating or rioting?
Dr. Hameed: These are not isolated incidents. Blacks are tired of being oppressed. For those children who don’t know what oppression is, you can say, “It’s prolonged unfair and unjust treatment to specific groups of people.” That is the whole purpose of the protest. What we are also learning from the news is that not everybody who is rioting has the same intentions as the protesters. So making sure that we’re not linking those two as the same thing.
Dr. Howard: You can also point out that many of the riots started out as peaceful protests. There have been many attempts at peaceful protesting over the years, and you can differentiate how different groups can end up forming in those uprisings.
Dr. Hameed: I also think it’s really important that we make sure to talk more about racism and racial injustice than we talk about the rioting or looting, because it can be really easy for kids to feel like people just shouldn’t be doing that. That’s a quick fix. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about something that we feel less helpless about. But those types of behaviors are a symptom of a larger disease. So just trying to treat the symptom is not going to eradicate the disease.
Question: My teenage son is very angry. I’m angry too, but I want him to be safe. What can I tell him?
Dr. Howard: It’s a very different answer depending on whether your son is black or white. And what safe means, exactly. If your son is white, I would just acknowledge that he is angry and say that it makes perfect sense. We become angry when people are under threat. That is the natural purpose of anger, so he wants to do something with that anger. What you want to do is help him do something effective. If he goes to a peaceful protest, you may be cool with that, but what happens if it turns into a riot? You would have to review a plan of action for that. Come up with some way for him to stay physically safe in case the peaceful protest turns.
Dr. Hameed: It’s also important to just remind him that whole goal of this was for the protests to be peaceful, so if he does go to a protest, he needs to make sure not to follow a small subset of other people who might not be peaceful.
Dr. Howard: Sometimes anger begets anger, too. The more angry we are, the more we focus on anger. It just gets bigger and bigger, unlike some other emotions that get smaller when we face them. So, we want to validate anger but not fuel it. We want to move to action.
Dr. Hameed: If he does go to protests, emphasize for him to keep his phone on him and keep his camera open, because we’ve seen on the news and social media that even at these protests there is still police brutality.
Dr. Howard: There are also a bunch of books and other resources that kids and families can look into, which we’re going to list at the end of our conversation. Certainly people are protesting, which is fantastic, but with the pandemic we’re somewhat limited in the amount of community gathering we can do. Some people who would otherwise engage aren’t doing that right now, but we want kids who are moved to participate to have an opportunity to do so, and there are ways they can do that from home.
Dr. Hameed: A final point I’ll add is that it’s really important for white families to understand that this is an opportunity to have these discussions, yes, but this shouldn’t be the only time that these discussions arise, because these sorts of racial injustices happen all the time. The sooner we can get kids to be racially sensitive, the better it’s going to be in the long run when they encounter instances of racial injustice. We want them to feel empowered enough to say, “I have been hearing my family talk about this over and over. And now I am seeing this. This is wrong. I need to tell somebody about this. I need to stand up for this other child.”
- From Colorlines: The Dos and Don’ts of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy
- From Safe Space Radio: Talking to White Kids About Race and Racism
- From the Center for Racial Justice in Education: Resources for Talking About Race, Racism and Racialized Violence With Kids
- From We Need Diverse Books: Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism and Inclusion
- From the Anti-Defamation League: Children’s Books Addressing Race and Racism and Activities to Promote Social Justice
- From the Oakland Public Library: Resources for Talking to Kids About Racism and Justice