A Parent’s Guide to Discussing Racism

Talking about race with children can be overwhelming for parents. However, children ask questions about racism because they see and experience inequalities and inequities in the world around them. Parents may want to discuss these important issues with their children but don’t know how or when to start. Here, we discuss how race-related issues affect children, explore why discussions about race are important, and provide tips to help parents address racism with their children at home.

How race-related issues affect children

Some of the inequalities and inequities that children experience are linked to childhood trauma, disciplinary action and the lack of visibility of people who look like them. Data reported in SPEAK UP: Opening a Dialogue with Youth About Racism by the USC Rossier Master of Education in School Counseling online program underscores how children of color are disproportionately and adversely affected by such dynamics:

  • Black and Hispanic children are more likely to experience childhood trauma: Of the more than one-fifth of children in the United States who experience multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), children of color are disproportionately affected.
  • Black preschoolers make up one-fifth of enrollment but almost half of suspensions. A similar trend is present in children at higher grade levels.
  • While there are more than 50 percent of students of color, only 20 percent of teachers are people of color.
  • Although 1 in 4 children is Hispanic, just 1 in 17 children’s books is about a Latino character.

More evidence of the effects of racial disparities on children was demonstrated in a 2010 pilot study commissioned by CNN. The study found that White students more than Black students associated positive attributes with lighter skin tones and negative attributes with darker skin tones. Similar findings were more recently reported in two studies in which infants showed racial bias toward members of their own ethnicity and racial bias against those of another race. According to an article by ScienceDaily, researchers found that “6- to 8-month-old infants were more inclined to learn information from an adult of [their] own race than from an adult of a different race.” Researcher Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao noted the significance of such findings in the context of individual development: “When we consider why someone has a racial bias, we often think of negative experiences [they] may have had with other-race individuals. But these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals.”

Why discussions about race are important

Although parents may feel overwhelmed by the thought of having conversations about race with their children, many kids want to talk about this topic. This is particularly apparent at school, where 67 percent of teachers in high-need regions say racism and hate speech are relevant issues for their students and 37 percent of classroom discussions about racism are prompted by students. Despite these dynamics, only 11 percent of parents initiate conversations about racism and hate speech with their children.

In an excerpt from Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, authors Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards note that some adults may feel that prejudice, discrimination and anti-bias are adult issues. However, the authors underscore that since children are affected by the dynamics of bias early in their development, addressing these topics with young children is appropriate. This is especially true since adults have the power to influence the dynamics surrounding bias: “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,” they write.

Tips for addressing this issue with your kids

If the thought of discussing race with your children is still daunting, you’ll be better equipped to handle these conversations by following a few simple tips:

  • Be honest. Acknowledge what your child already knows: People are different, and the world is not colorblind. Pretending that the world doesn’t or shouldn’t see color detracts from the experiences of people of color.
  • Brace for impact. Being honest with children also means expecting an honest response — a dynamic for which children are notorious. Additionally, other adults may not be supportive of your discussion, so be ready by asking for help from supportive friends and family if you encounter obstacles.
  • Engage in self-reflection. You need to know where you’re beginning before you chart a path for your child. Start by asking yourself what biases, privileges and experiences you have that could affect how you think about racism. This important step is often overlooked but is essential — and it should be ongoing.



Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator at 2U, Inc, supporting outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health and occupational therapy programs. Find her on Twitter @HeyLexHey.

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