5 Tips for Talking to Kids About Race

posted: 06/16/15
by: Courtney Reimer
multiracial Kids holding hands

With stories like the controversy surrounding former NAACP regional president Rachel Dolezal (who identifies as black despite having white parents), and ongoing tensions between police and people of color swirling around the daily news, you may find yourself wondering how to talk to kids about race. The good news is: kids are, by and large, very open-minded about people's differences, and are really just looking for some guidance from the grownups in their lives.

Some things to keep in mind as these topics arise:

1. Try to expose kids to different races early and often. My kids, a preschooler and a toddler, have been around people of varying ethnicities and nationalities since birth. They probably notice that their babysitter and our neighbors have skin that's darker in tone than their parents', but since it's been part of their lives pretty much since they came into the world, it's not something that even occurs to them as being different. If you don't live in a multicultural area, travel can present a great opportunity to expose kids to people of different backgrounds.

2. It's best to talk about race early. Ideally before they get too far into grade school. According to CivilRights.org, the sweet spot to start having this conversation is between age 3 and 5. After 5 they start to place value judgements on differences ("best," "worst," etc.)

3. Do as you say, and say as you do. As with most things parenting-related, the most powerful tool for influencing your child's behavior is to model good behavior yourself -- and to use sensitive language when you talk about other races. Lifehacker has some great ideas on how to do both of those things.

4. Engage their curiosity. Children love learning, and taking the opportunity to teach them a bit about different cultures may help take the bite out of racial differences. Among many other resources about how to talk to kids about race, Huffington Post notes there are several books that can help fuel this curiosity in a positive way.

5. Use verbal missteps as "teachable moments." If your kid somehow utters a racist word or phrase, chances are they either A) don't mean it or B) don't understand just how hurtful words can be. If your child is white and refers to a black child as "dirty," a Slate article recommends saying: "Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It's just a different color. Just like we have different color hair, people have different skin colors."

The best part of all of this is that children present an opportunity to help shape how future generations view different cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. Taking a moment to address their curiosity and confusion thoughtfully can go a long way.