As the protests over the killing of George Floyd continue nationwide, many parents are struggling with how exactly to discuss it all with their kids — particularly their young kids.
Parents know it is vital to teach their kids about race, racism and police brutality. But those conversations are hard and the stakes are incredibly high.
HuffPost Parents spoke with two experts who provided some basic guidance for parents as they talk to their children about the current national outrage, and the ongoing struggle against racism in America.
First and foremost, do NOT avoid talking about what’s happening right now.
Some parents may not feel ready to have “the talk” with their kids about racial conflict and police brutality and how it will impact them; others have grown up steeped in a problematic “colorblind” ideology and feel unsure about how to lead open, frank conversations with their own kids. Also, all parents just naturally want to shield their children from anger and violence.
But experts said that just about the worst thing parents can do is avoid talking about what’s happening in the United States right now, and about racism more broadly.
“I would always argue for the earlier, the better for having these conversations,” said Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
In part, that’s because kids are so much more aware than we often give them credit for. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies’ brains can pick up racial differences by the time they’re 6 months old, and between the ages of 2 and 4 most kids can internalize racial bias. By age 12? “Many children become set in their beliefs,” the AAP says.
The window to profoundly shape how children perceive and react to racial bias is brief. Have a plan.
“Embrace their curiosity. There is no taboo topic.”
Before you sit down to talk with your kid about race, racism and the current protests, it’s important to spend some time thinking about what you want to say. “Parents might feel overwhelmed if they haven’t really thought it out,” Stevenson said. “I think those who have thought it out are going to be much more useful.”
A few pointers: Try and be calm (though it’s also OK to show your emotions); try and be factual; and really consider your child’s age and personality when determining what level of detail you want to get into.
But don’t shy away from the really thorny stuff, like police brutality. You could say something like, ”‘Some police are very good and kind, and some [do] not always follow the rules,’” Stevenson said. Use that as a jumping off point to talk about examples that apply to their lives right now. Talk to your kid about how you’d like them to respond or behave if someone calls them a racial slur or if they witness someone calling a friend a racial slur, Stevenson said.
Kids have a lot of questions about the protests, about George Floyd and about race more broadly — and that’s a good thing, according to the experts. Don’t feel like you have to know all of the answers right away, and don’t shut down any questions they have, even if they feel hard or frightening.
“Embrace their curiosity,” said Reena Patel, an educational psychologist. “There is no taboo topic.”
One effective response if you want to think about things a bit more? Some version of: “That’s a great question! Let’s try and learn more about that together.”
Model the behavior you’d like to see.
Just about every parent knows that kids not only pay attention to what you say; they pay extremely close attention to what you do.
“It’s often true that children bring up racial stuff to parents before parents bring it up to them, and that is another way children learn about race — by watching how their parents react,” said Stevenson.
“Parents, this can be a really good time to reexamine your own behaviors and biases.”
They’ll pay attention to your more deliberate actions as well, which is why many parents opt to take their children to protests. (Here’s some guidance on how to do so safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.) Now is a good time to talk to them about what activism means to you and your family, and to invite them to participate.
“Protest is really about having a voice, so bring it down to their level. Say, ‘Have you ever felt the need to put your foot down and speak up for something that wasn’t right or fair?’” said Patel.
Make sure this is an ongoing conversation.
Parents can and should be talking to their children about race when they’re young — like, pre-verbal — and those conversations shouldn’t stop. Parents, this can be a really good time to reexamine your own behaviors and biases. (And white parents: Here is a good list of 16 books about race every white person should read.)
“Silence speaks volumes to kids,” Patel said. “It’s important to have a dialogue.”