Get comfortable with the uncomfortable: How to talk with your kids about racism
“As the mother of a black child – having to talk to my 10-year-old son about ongoing racism is heartbreaking for me,” said Andrea N. Taylor, PhD, adult psychologist with UT Physicians and assistant professor with McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “I feel it literally in my chest that I have to explain to him that, because of a long history of events that we have not fully addressed as a people, he will likely be judged and treated differently.”
Taylor is faced once again with having a tough conversation with her son as the country is reeling from the death of former Houstonian George Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck and back for nearly nine minutes in Minnesota. Floyd’s death sparked protests in cities across the nation and has prompted people of all races to reconsider how they’ve perceived racism and where to start these discussions with their children.
“It’s healthy to feel upset and distressed by what is going on with racism in the U.S. The ‘put your fingers in your ears and cover your eyes approach’ doesn’t work anymore – and that applies when it comes to talking to our kids,” Taylor said. “One of the worst things we can do is not talk about it. We’ve got to get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations, and admitting that we don’t know everything.”
Below are some suggestions and resources from mental health experts with the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to help you broach the complex topic with your children.
Where to start
“As adults, even before we talk to our kids, there is some reflection that needs to happen,” Taylor said. “There’s a long history of racism in our country that is still present today, but what is that history? If you’re not sure, try to understand by researching it.”
Taylor also recommends taking an implicit-association test, a test used in social psychology to measure attitudes and beliefs that people may not recognize about themselves in order to understand what implicit biases you have.
“We all have biases – let’s take stock. That is important for us to understand. If we don’t understand where we are coming from, we can’t do anything about it,” Taylor said.
But the most important thing is to revisit the topic as your child grows.
“Don’t wait to have it all figured out to talk to your kids about it. In fact, it’s not a one-and-done thing. Talking about racism should be an ongoing process,” Taylor said. “Know your kids and what they can handle at different stages of their life. If they bring it up, don’t shut it down, because that will communicate that it is an issue that shouldn’t be discussed.”
“A great way to start the conversation if the child hasn’t initiated it is to ask what they know or have heard about racism – from friends, TV, their life, etc. Ask if they’ve experienced it, and go from there,” said Jennifer Hughes, PhD, a child and adult psychologist with UT Physicians and assistant professor with McGovern Medical School. “That can sometimes take the pressure off having to explain every single thing. Just remember to consider your child’s developmental level, and guide the conversation in a way that they can process. Simplify when you need to.”
“You don’t need to sit them down and tell them the entire history of racism and have them watch Roots. But when it comes up, whether they ask or you bring it up, ask them, ‘What did you think?’ or ‘How did you handle it?’ Kids often know more than we think they know,” Taylor said.
Put your own oxygen mask on first
“For parents, kids always seem to ask at the worst moment, like when we’re already worked up. It’s important to be aware of what’s happening in yourself emotionally if you want these conversations to be productive and positive,” Hughes said. “It’s important not to shut them down if they ask. If you are upset, try saying, ‘This is upsetting for me too and I want to have this conversation, but I need to calm down and then we will talk about it.’ Model how to manage your own emotions, which requires us to be really emotionally aware.”
Babies and toddlers
It is easy to think this is a topic to address when the kids are a little older, but research shows that by age 3 months, babies are already more comfortable with the race of their caregivers.
For that reason, Melissa Goldberg, PsyD, child and adolescent psychologist with UT Physicians and clinical assistant professor with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, has teamed up with friends to create an anti-racist playgroup for their toddlers for when it is safe to gather after the pandemic.
“Exposing very young children to issues of cultural diversity and racial inequality helps to normalize discussion of these topics and helps children develop positive attitudes to different racial groups, Goldberg said. “The hope is that this group will start with our young children, and continue for years to come.”
She also recommends exposing babies and toddlers to books like We’re Different, We’re the Same (Sesame Street Series), and My Granny Went to Market: A Round-the-World Counting Rhyme, and television specials like Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism (a Sesame Street and CNN town hall style program for young children and families).
Allow them to observe and be curious about race.
“As a black female, there’ve been a number of times where a white child has said, ‘Your skin is black.’ Or, ‘You are black,’” Taylor said. “And the parents are always embarrassed and mortified. But I just say, ‘Yes, let’s look at my skin. What does your skin look like? You are a good observer. Lots of people have different color skin. What would it be like if everyone had same color – that would be boring. This is what makes us interesting.’ If they bring it up, go there.”
“You have to be concrete with school age kids. We’re talking about basic facts about how people are different and sometimes mistreated for it, and the power of democracy. It’s also important to note that violence is not the answer, but we understand why people are angry and we want to listen,” Hughes said.
And if you don’t know the answer to something they ask, Hughes encourages saying, ‘I don’t know, but I will find out for you,’ and coming back to them when you have more insight.
“Especially with younger kids, I recommend against looking online together right away, since we don’t know what might pop up. Find resources on your own that you trust and then go through those resources together,” Hughes said.
And while you are educating them about history, be factual without trying to spark fear.
“When I talk to my son, I don’t want to scare him to not be himself in his own skin. But in a way, he has to be a little scared in order to be safe because society will not treat him the same way I will,” Taylor said. “I remember being in 5th grade and learning about the Ku Klux Klan. I was so sad, crestfallen. I thought, ‘How can they hate me when they don’t even know me?’ and then I got scared. My family lived in suburban area, but I still packed a little suitcase and stuck it under my bed in case the KKK came and we had to run out of the house. I didn’t tell anyone that I had that suitcase under there, but the concept of the KKK was so scary to me that I worried about it.”
“With teenagers, we can talk more abstractly and have more in-depth conversations. Get curious about what is going on in their brain because they might have good ideas,” Hughes said
These conversations will look different for each family.
“White people often feel uncomfortable talking about it,” Hughes said “‘Is it my place? How do I do this?’ And for minority families, there has to be realistic conversations about safety and how to be safe when approached by law enforcement officers. Even though it seems unfair, parents have to explain that most officers want to protect and serve, but some make mistakes, and you still have to obey them for your safety.”
“In minority families, this conversation about safety is often known as having ‘the talk,’” Taylor said. “This is not an easy thing to do, but it is extremely important.”
After the hard conversations, encourage them to find creative ways to get involved, whether that be participating in a peaceful protest, writing a letter to a congressman or a condolence letter to someone grieving, signing petitions, or making donations.
Scour resources and put your listening ears on
“If we try to pretend that racism is no longer a thing, or it doesn’t exist, even if you think you are not perpetuating it, then we are ignoring something that affects large portions of society and our fellow man,” Taylor said. “For nonblack people, I suggest learning about black history as an independent or family project. Use the internet – there are so many wonderful resources available to us now. If you know people of color who you think might be comfortable having a conversation to help you understand further, check in with them and see what place they’re in, and if they’d be willing to have a conversation with you. Better understanding the situation yourself will help you address it with your children.”
And don’t underestimate the power of listening.
“Listen without trying to debate. That’s what I do as psychologist – I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone but me. I listen to experiences that may be very different from mine and I try to have compassion and understand the impact,” Taylor said. “These conversations about ongoing racism can be emotionally exhausting, but we can’t afford to let up – for the sake of my son, the world cannot be complacent.”