It’s 2020, and more Americans are finally facing the reality that police violence against the Black community is a major problem in this country.
Black parents have been forced to raise their kids to face systemic racism for generations, but many other parents, particularly those who are white, are wondering only right now how to turn their outrage and empathy into meaningful action. Parents should address race with kids from their earliest years. Often the default, even among moms and dads who consider themselves allies, is silence, which allows harmful societal messages of white supremacy to take hold in the young. But it’s never too late to start doing the work to combat what kids absorb from the world.
HuffPost spoke to experts, activists and allies to identify steps that non-Black parents can take during this time (and always) to raise children who will stand against anti-Black racism. Read on for their guidance.
Resist the urge to shield your kids from what’s happening.
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from the upsetting realities of the world, but staying silent about racism and police brutality does kids a disservice. It’s also important to recognize that Black parents don’t have the luxury of avoiding these topics, as they directly impact their communities and families on a regular basis.
“Failing to educate our kids about racism forces them to make sense of it themselves,” said author and diversity consultant Tiffany Jana. “There is no dodging racism in America, so it’s best to share our own values with our children. If we don’t raise them to be part of the solution, they will become part of the problem.”
Jana noted that children tend to pick up on current events, like the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, from glimpses of the news, social media, overheard conversations between adults and interactions with other kids. If adults don’t help them understand what they’ve seen and heard, they may fill in the blanks themselves, assume racist behavior is OK or accept societal messaging that suggests people of a certain skin color don’t deserve fair treatment.
“Police brutality is a moral issue. Torture and murder should not be condoned by any civil society,” Jana said. “Kids need to know that their parents believe that such behavior is unacceptable. Otherwise, they may assume that since police are good guys, all the people they are hurting are bad guys. It’s not true, nor is it that simple. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Tell them how police should behave. Teach them about due process and innocent until proven guilty.”
“If we don’t raise them to be part of the solution, they will become part of the problem.”
Parents should use developmentally appropriate language when addressing these issues with their kids, advised Sachi Feris, the blogger behind Raising Race Conscious Children.
“We’re not focusing on the violence aspect with our youngest child, but we can still talk about this current moment in a concrete way,” she explained. “We say there was a man named George Floyd who wasn’t treated fairly and was hurt by the police, and people are very sad and angry about it. We feel that way too because we don’t want to live in a world where Black people are hurt and don’t feel safe, and that’s why we’re using our voices to say Black lives matter.”
Listen to Black parents.
“I believe that it is critical to be empathetic and imagine yourself ‘in the shoes’ of a person of color. We are being inundated with very harsh racial realities plaguing our society,” said Eboni Hollier, a board-certified developmental and behavioral pediatrician.
She recommended that parents who are white or benefit from white privilege consider how they would like their children to be treated and then work to teach their kids to treat people of color in that way through conversations and modeling in their own behavior.
“Remember that we Black parents want for our children the same thing that you want for your children: the very best!” Hollier said. “However, I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge that we just want our children to live long and happy lives free of hurt caused by anything, but especially not caused by racism, be it overt, covert or systemic.”
Of course, non-Black parents of color experience bigotry as well, which can help them empathize with the racial injustices facing the Black community. But as Awaken CEO Michelle Kim previously told HuffPost, it’s important for Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and others to take action and speak out against the outsized racism that Black Americans face.
“There are lots of universal things in parenting, but there are lots of things specific to this community,” said Nefertiti Austin, author of “Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America.”
“Society views Black kids differently,” Austin said. “One of the last things George Floyd said was ‘Mama’ ― he cried out for his mom. As a Black mother, that’s heartbreaking. Although she has passed, I’m sure his mom did the best she could to protect him.”
Educate yourself without placing the burden on Black people to be your guide.
In order to get comfortable navigating the issues of racism and police brutality with kids, parents need to educate themselves and spend time thinking and talking about these matters themselves.
“Increase your own cultural fluency by reading and educating yourself so that you can break the default cycles of racist cultural programming,” Jana advised. “Find age-appropriate literature and resources for your kids and discuss what you are learning together.”
Many anti-racism guides have been circulating on social media, including resources geared toward parents and kids specifically.
“We can’t take action in this huge structural way without first educating ourselves on what we don’t know,” said Feris. “Read books, go online, gather data, connect with people in your neighborhood or a different area, find organizations doing good things.”
She cautioned against putting the onus on the Black people in your life to educate you about racism. That’s particularly true in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events like Floyd’s death, which can take a physical and emotional toll on people in the Black community.
“Be conscious and reflective of this moment and the burden we may be putting on people of color,” Feris said. “Ask yourself, ‘How deep is our relationship? Is this something that feels fair and comfortable to ask?’ There are white people who need to lean on other white people for explanations and not ask people of color to take on the burden.”
Make race part of everyday conversation.
While it’s important not to shy away from discussing major race-related events in the news, it’s also vital for parents to normalize talking about race and diversity with their children in everyday life. Many well-meaning parents fear that if they bring it up, they’ll instill bias in their kids, but avoiding the subject simply allows societal images and messages of white supremacy to take hold.
“In the world we live in, our kids are or will be exposed to racism in some form ― whether your kids are watching the news and hearing about the racial injustices, seeing it firsthand in social situations, or worse, being the victim of racism if your kids are kids of color,” said Monique Chheda, a physician and children’s book author. “We need to teach our kids how to react, respond, and rise above it. We as parents also need to be introspective and look at all the biases that we may subconsciously or consciously hold.”
Parents should talk about differences in a positive way very early on and allow their messaging to become more nuanced as their children grow older. They can point out similarities and differences among people and highlight the positive parts of cultural variety, like foods and music genres.
Additionally, they should respond to their kids’ race-related questions and remarks (or ones that the kids overhear from others) in a calm, thoughtful manner. If caught off guard by a question from a child, they can say they need some time to think about it in order to give a great answer.
“Having open communication allows you to be seen as a trusted and safe resource for information,” Hollier said. “This allows for more open communication, which in turn makes it more likely for your child to come to you rather than coming to conclusions alone or receiving perhaps less empathetic information from someone else.”
Use the lens of overall unfairness in society to discuss discrimination with younger kids, rather than the notion of a few bad racist apples. Acknowledge that racial biases exist, and tell them that your family stands against racism and that you’re working to promote diversity and inclusion.
Create a home environment that challenges societal messages about race.
So much of media, art and culture is dominated by images of whiteness, which sends harmful messages of racial superiority. It’s on parents to actively combat those messages, and one simple way is to foster a more diverse environment at home.
Buy dolls and toys that represent different races and encourage your kids to play with toys that don’t look like them. Expose them to books and TV shows (preferably by non-white writers and creators) that feature diverse characters and highlight racial differences in a positive way. On the flip side, you can also point out the lack of representation in other offerings.
“Teach kids to be critical consumers of media,” Feris recommended. “When you read yet another book with white protagonists, say ‘I love this book, but I notice a lot of the books we read have white characters.’ You can also say, ‘Hey, I don’t like this message or hey, this isn’t fair, there’s only one kid of color in this picture book.’”
On these occasions, parents can ask their children to share their own thoughts and questions about various characters or plot points to foster discussions about inclusivity, discrimination, and multiculturalism.
Additionally, parents should be mindful of diversity in terms of the people invited into their home ― whether that’s in the friends they invite over or the playdates they arrange for their children.
Talk about the emotions of injustice.
As kids get older, they develop deeper emotional maturity and learn how to identify and articulate feelings. Topics like injustice tend to bring out a lot of emotions, and parents can empower their children to explore that aspect.
“It’s OK to let your kids see that you are affected. Ask them how they are feeling and provide outlets for emotional expression,” said Jana. “Don’t pretend you are a robot. ‘Why is Mommy sad?’ ‘Mommy is sad because a lot of people are sad right now. Some people are acting in ways that they should not. It’s not OK for people to be mean to each other.’”
Parents can instill coping skills by helping their kids to identify the feeling they’re experiencing and the one they’d like to have.
“Then brainstorm activities you can both do to invite the feelings you want,” Jana advised. “Identify fun activities or processing activities. Draw pictures together or go for a walk. Give them space to feel and be human together.”
Model anti-racist behavior.
“A key aspect of this conversation is that we know from the literature on racial socialization that a lot of communication to children about racial politics from parents comes nonverbally as opposed to verbally,” said Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
Indeed, actions speak louder than words, so in addition to having meaningful conversations about race, parents need to be mindful of what they do in the presence of their children.
“Kids often model their behavior after their parents,” said Chheda. “So we, as parents, need to make sure that we are setting the right example. From small things, like how we respond to events on the news, who we say hello to on our daily walks, the books we read our children, to bigger things, like the friendships we have and the communities we intermix with. We need to be inclusive.”
“It is important to have discussions around injustice and to ask them if they feel like their Black classmates are being treated equally as them.”
Parents should sign their children up for extracurricular activities with kids of different races. They should take advantage of playdate opportunities in different neighborhoods. And they should expose their kids to role models who don’t look like them.
“Parents and teachers also need to be mindful of their actions especially around children,” said Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist specializing in children’s mental health. “It is one thing to post #BlackLivesMatter on their social media and say they aren’t racist and then act a different way toward Black people. ... If a parent suddenly locks their car door when a Black person walks by their car, what message is that sending to a child? ‘Black people are dangerous.’ White parents and teachers need to recognize that talking about racism and then behaving racist sends a nonverbal message to children and is unconsciously teaching them to be racist.”
Teach kids to be upstanders.
Kids can master the art of “walking the walk” as well, particularly in school contexts. It’s all about learning to be an “upstander” ― someone who recognizes when something is wrong and takes action. Parents should encourage their children to stand up for others in the face of racism.
“It is important to have discussions around injustice and to ask them if they feel like their Black classmates are being treated equally as them,” said Nunez. “White parents need to have conversations with their children that when they witness bullying toward Black children on the playground, in the lunchroom, in their classroom, during an extracurricular activity, or see acts of injustice, that they speak up to a teacher, to a parent, etc. and help children of color have a voice.”
Brainstorm ways to be part of the solution.
There are seemingly countless ways for adults to take action right now ― from participating in virtual and in-person protests, to donating money to causes that support Black lives, to shopping at Black-owned businesses. Children can get involved in many of these efforts as well and learn how to use their privilege for good.
“When something isn’t fair, we talk to our children and ask, ‘What can we do to change it?’” said Feris. “One thing is to use our voices, and we can say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and make chalk drawings or signs for our windows. We’re inciting even our youngest to participate.”
Austin noted that kids can raise money and donate to organizations like the NAACP or a historically black college or university. They can write letters to their elected representatives demanding action to help Black citizens. Parents can help their kids learn about efforts in their own communities to dismantle systemic racism and identify future volunteer opportunities. There have also been many family-friendly protest events across the country.
Of course, raising kids to be anti-racist takes time and effort. Mistakes are inevitable and challenges will arise. But this work is necessary if you want to create a better world for your children ― and the children who don’t look like them.