As parents, my husband and I are committed to open and honest dialogues with our kids about anything and everything but there are times when we struggle to make sense of current events. We talk about friendships, money, our marriage, social media behavior, alcohol, sex, race, and so much more. We seize teachable moments that have arisen in the car, around the dinner table, and as we put our kids to sleep but I would be lying if I said there are times I didn’t hesitate, needing a moment to think of the most age appropriate ways to discuss important topics.
Our kids are old enough to read the headlines in the day’s paper. Emily often requests to watch the news. There’s nothing that makes sense about why two black men were killed by police officers in cities across our nation and why a peaceful demonstration in Dallas led to an assault on police officers.
While I can’t supply my kids with the reason for why these events have occurred, I know that they were looking to me as an example of how to think, act, and feel during this horrific cycle of killing and hate. I knew I had to say something.
In response to the violence that gripped our nation, my friend Thien-Kim Lam encouraged her readers to:
“Talk to your nieces, nephews, cousins, students–everyone. Teach them how our skin color matters. Teach them our country’s sordid history with race. Tell them how we can learn from our mistakes. Those of us with brown skin shouldn’t be the only ones teaching our kids about race. Learning about each other’s differences teaches compassion and empathy for others.”
Now is the time to have these important conversations. Since we’re searching for ways we can help to change the world that our kids are growing up in, I put together this list of how to talk to your kids about race, privilege, equality, and civil rights in an age appropriate manner. It is my hope that we— as parents— can raise our level of consciousness about the way we talk and think about all ethnic groups, and helpful resources for parenting during the most challenging times.
Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Understand Race and Diversity
While you may have a sophisticated preschooler or toddler, the week’s current events are graphic and disturbing. Shielding your child from media coverage is a good idea since their minds aren’t developmentally ready for such news. Turn off the news, be mindful that they may be looking over your shoulder as you scroll through your Facebook news feed, and put away the newspaper. These can be sources of graphic images that could frighten them and lead them to ask questions about what they’re seeing when their minds can’t fully understand. Switch off talk radio when you’re riding in the car, opting for their favorite music even if it drives you crazy. Even if you think they’re not listening and understanding, the words they’re hearing still could have an impact.
Toddlers and preschoolers may not understand the events of the world but they highly are impressionable. Their minds are like sponges and it’s the perfect opportunity to introduce issues of race and inequality in ways they make sense.
“Young children need caring adults to help them construct a positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others. They need adults to help them begin to navigate and resist the harmful impact of prejudice and discrimination. A person’s early childhood years lay the foundation for a developmental and experiential journey that continues into adulthood.”
—From Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards
Ask Yourself the Hard Questions First
In How to Talk To Kids About Race: Books and Resources That Can Help, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich recommends that we take stock about how we navigate race. Ask yourself questions like how your family discusses race and think about the types of conversations your child hears from you on a regular basis. She recommends using Harvard University’s Implicit Bias help you examine your own beliefs. This helps you be aware of any bias you might have before talking to your kids and potentially passing it along to them.
Celebrate Physical Diversity by Talking About How Colors, Shades, and Shapes of All People Are Beautiful
In their book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, encourage parents to “create a vocabulary that encourages children to look at themselves and others and admire their sameness and their uniqueness.” By looking at physical characteristics such as skin color, hair, and eyes helps kids understand similarities and difference among family members. By doing this helps kids understand how people within a family can be similar and different which will help them have a greater understanding about those in their classroom and neighborhood. Derman-Sparks and Edwards encourage parents to begin these conversations with their kids early but caution against singling out specific kids when you talk about physical characteristics related to racial identity and favor activities that are about all children, especially since everyone has a racial identity.
Diversify Your Home Library
Add multicultural and social justice books to your home library and add them into rotation with the classics and favorites. I’m Not the Nanny’s Thien-Kim Lam has 3 Tips for Building a Diverse Library for Your Kids and the Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books is also a helpful place to start. Also note the titles on these fabulous book lists so you can pick them up when you’re at your local library or book store.
- Early Childhood: Learning About Racial Identity from Teaching for Change Books
- Kids Like Me: 18 Books with Diverse Main Characters from Brightly
- 10 Diverse Picture Books About Gratitude and Giving from Thien-Kim Lam of I’m Not the Nanny
- 9 Picture Books That Celebrate Mixed Race Families from Thien-Kim Lam of I’m Not the Nanny
Resources for Parents of Toddlers & Preschoolers
- Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves — This book offers practical guidance to early childhood educators (including parents) for confronting barriers of prejudice, misinformation, and bias about specific aspects of personal and social identity; most importantly, it includes tips for adults and children to respect each other, themselves, and all people.
- The Girl with the Brown Crayon by Vivian Gussin Paley — Having read Girl with the Brown Crayon while I was pursing my Master’s of Arts in Teaching, it is a powerful story of a kindergartner and her teacher that includes “race, identity, gender, and the essential human needs to create and to belong.” It’s a must read for any parent with a young child!
Teaching Early Elementary Ages to Connect the Dots Between Our Country’s Past and Present
When kids can read, everything changes. Suddenly they’re reading everything and anything, trying to understand words that are strung together, making explaining why #BlackLivesMatter tricky to elementary aged children. As adults, we understand the reasoning but this concept can be hard for kids to understand especially since their innocence doesn’t contribute to bias.
But what do you do when they see a sign, bumper sticker, t-shirt, or lawn sign in someone’s front yard and they ask you what it means? You say something. You help them connect the dots between our nation’s past and present.
“Just as I am a story and you are a story and countries tell stories about themselves, race is a story, too…”
—Julius Lester in Let’s Talk About Race.
Seize the teachable moment when it arises to help your children understand the fight for racial equality but also have ongoing conversations about race and diversity to promote tolerance and acceptance of all. Easier said than done but here’s where you can start.
Understand What It Means to Be Privileged
Being born in the United States may be seen as a huge advantage, especially to those in other parts of the world, but we know from our country’s history and current events that some have been privileged to exercise all of their rights while others have not. The National Civil Rights Museum’s Privilege Aptitude Test serve as a way to start the conversation about what it means when people don’t have privileges because of their race, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or veteran status. I’d recommend printing the Privilege Aptitude Test, reviewing it, and reading the questions that you think will resonate most with your child. Even though it’s designed as a classroom activity for students, parents can choose a few questions to start a thoughtful conversation about how our lives differ based on the privileges we have or don’t have.
Provide Concrete Learning About the Fight for Racial Equality
In a world where children often view their peers as equals, the concept of inequality is hard. What a 5 year old kindergartener will understand differs greatly than what an otween or teen comprehends. One of my favorite teaching tools that can help elementary ages understand the struggle African Americans have had for racial equality is the National Civil Rights Museum’s Before the Boycott simulation. This eLearning activity allows students to view the 1955-57 Montgomery Bus Boycott from the perspective of a newspaper investigative reporter. Kids are guided through a series of bus stops where they are given scenarios of the unfair treatment and conditions under which blacks during a bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama.
Since there is some reading involved, preview this activity to determine if it’s right for your child. It might be beyond your kindergartener’s comprehension but could be the perfect activity for parents of 2nd or 3rd graders to do together.
Teach Why #BlackLivesMatter over All Lives Matter Using this Analogy
Elementary ages may see #BlackLivesMatter and wonder what it means. The next time someone says ‘all lives matter’ show them these 5 paragraphs is the best explanation I’ve seen for why #AllLivesMatter makes us shudder. Of course, read this analogy and summarize it in a way it makes sense for your elementary aged child but it’s a great example that is likely to make sense with a few alterations based on their age.
Read to Better Understand Our Country’s History
Brightly‘s Knowing Our History to Build a Brighter Future: Books to Help Kids Understand the Fight for Racial Equality helps elementary ages develop a deeper understanding of our country’s history. I also love these book lists from Thien-Kim Lam of I’m Not the Nanny that highlight diversity:
- 9 Diverse Series and Chapter Books for Boys
- 13 Diverse Graphic Novels for Kids
- 11 Inspiring Multicultural Biographies for Kids
- 18 Diverse Children’s Chapter Book Series for Summer Reading
Resources for Parents of Elementary Ages
- How to Talk to Kids About Race: Books and Resources That Can Help
- Race Talk: Engaging Young People in Conversations About Race and Racism by Anti-Defamation League
Providing Tweens and Teens with Perspective on the Civil Rights to Inspire Change
Savvy tweens and teens want to know what’s going on in the world and rather than shield them from current events, it’s always best to have a discussion to deepen their understanding so they can be more compassionate individuals who understand inequality and injustice faced by fellow humans in the world we live in. Encourage, rather than discourage, a discussion about race says Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In Teaching Tolerance she writes, “If we are ever going to overcome racial inequality in the United States, we first have to be able to talk about it, describe it and know what it is.”
Understand the History of Civil Rights
Earlier this year when I traveled Memphis as part of my trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, we visited The National Civil Rights Museum. Built around the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, The National Civil Rights Museum does an incredible job telling the story of discrimination and the fight for freedom that has occurred over centuries of our country’s history. It is a powerful place that encourages visiting parents to talk about violence, racism, and discrimination before entering the museum but until you’re able to go in person, these free interactive resources can help your tweens and teens understand the history of civil rights by putting them in the shoes of what it was like to live in the United States during these times.
- Standing Up by Sitting Down is a virtual interactive experience that walks kids through the lunch counter sit-ins that were used as a non-violent direct action strategy used by college students that spread across the U.S. in 1960.
- Before the Boycott allows kids to view the 1955-57 Montgomery Bus Boycott from the perspective of a newspaper investigative reporter. During this simulation, tweens and teens are guided through a series of bus stops where they are given scenarios of the unfair treatment and conditions under which blacks during a bus ride in Montgomery, AL
Identify Reliable Sources and Understand How Race is Portrayed by the Media
During a time when news comes at us 24/7 from a wide variety of sources, it’s important for our tweens and teens to be able to identify reliable sources and find information of value among the barrage of news that exists through print, social, and broadcast media.
- Teach Your Child to Identify Reliable Websites and Sources from Family Online Safety Institute
- From Michael Brown to the Central Park Five, race changes how victims are portrayed from PBS Newshour
- Racial bias and news media reporting: New research trends from Journalist’s Resource
- How Media Have Shaped Our Perception of Race and Crime from The Root
- Reliable Sources by Columbia Links
- Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice is a fantastic series of lessons by Teaching Tolerance that aims to expand knowledge of social justice issues by examining perspectives, exposing injustice, and confronting injustice.
Important Reads for Tweens & Teens
- Seeking Wonderful Young Adult Novels that Deal with Race from NPR’s CodeSwitch
- 16 Books About Race That Every White Person Should Read from Huffington Post’s Black Voices
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds doesn’t come out until January 2017 but already my book savvy friends are saying this is a must-read!
Resources for Parents of Tweens & Teens
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum taught at my college and her course on race that was one of the classes that everyone raved about and said it was one to take before graduation. Of course it lived up to every expectation and her book is a must for every parent of tweens and teens since it will help you and your better child have conversations about racial identity development and the challenges that can come with having meaningful conversations on race.
- Learning Links for Exhibits from National Civil Rights Museum presents overviews, questions to consider, activities, and artifacts for each of the exhibitions at the museum but contains historical information plus questions that can be used for family discussions or to deepen understanding of topics being learned in school.
No compensation was received for this post. Photos were taken at the National Civil Rights Museum during my hosted trip to Memphis with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Amazon Affiliate links are included in this post. All opinions are my own.