8 Things You Need to Know When Talking to Children about Race

8 Things You Need to Know When Talking to Children about Race

Founded by Sigmund Livingston in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) aims to ensure the fair treatment of individuals regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. In addition to its original goal of fighting anti-Semitism, ADL works in areas such as LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, religious freedom, and criminal justice reform. Moreover, it offers a variety of resources for educators to help children grow up with a framework for how to acknowledge and eliminate racial bias and prejudice. Here are eight factors all educators and parents should consider when talking to children about race.


  1. Prepare for Tough Questions

Child development experts suggest that while nobody is born with prejudice, the problem of racial bias begins as early as preschool. In order to counter learned stereotypes, adults in a position of authority should understand that children are not color blind and might ask questions related to race and skin color at an early age. Therefore, parents need to be prepared to answer any questions honestly and openly. Since this can often be difficult or uncomfortable at first, it might be helpful to practice with another adult.




  1. Acknowledge Differences

While race-related conversations might be more difficult as a child grows up, it’s actually best to take a simple approach when they’re still young. In fact, if you make a big deal about any questions posed by children regarding physical differences, it might signal to them that there is something wrong with diversity. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard University professor of psychiatry and the co-author of the book Raising Black Children, suggests that the best message to send is that, although people may look different on the outside, they are all similar on the inside. One way of emphasizing that notion is to discuss race in terms of something simple like ice cream. While there are a variety of different flavors, they’re all equally good.


  1. Explore and Understand Your Own Biases

In order to accurately guide a child on the path toward racial acceptance and equality, it’s important to first evaluate your own cultural assumptions and biases to see what other factors may affect the way in which you see the world and if your actions match your words and beliefs. Children will often take social cues from the adults in their lives. If you respond to injustice with silence, they will likely follow suit and believe that type of response is appropriate. Moreover, when teaching children about the importance of equality, you should try to integrate the topic into your conversations throughout the day rather than setting aside a specific time to discuss it.


  1. Establish an Environment of Acceptance

Focus on creating an environment of acceptance. This applies to parents, too, but it is particularly important for educators. Some students might be unconsciously acculturated into stereotypical and prejudicial thinking and therefore unaware that certain actions and attitudes are harmful to others. Instead of ostracizing or punishing a child who makes a hurtful comment regarding one’s race or culture, you should acknowledge that intolerant thinking can surface on occasion and turn it into a teaching moment.




  1. Encourage Empathy

Empathy is one of the most important qualities to have in regards to eliminating racial bias and prejudice. Children who grow up with the ability to understand the struggles of others are less likely to tease people for looking or acting differently. One of the best ways to encourage empathy is to engage your child in conversations regarding how they would feel in a situation in which they were different from everyone else. Keep the conversations relatively basic, but make sure they understand how hurtful it can be to be teased based on physical differences.


  1. Emphasize Self-Esteem

Don’t focus exclusively on others. If you’re a parent, treat your child with love, dignity, and respect in order to help them build self-esteem. “Happy, well-adjusted kids tend not to be bigots,” notes Peter Langman, PhD, director of psychology for the nonprofit children’s service agency KidsPeace. “Kids who feel like they aren’t valued tend to look for targets—someone whom they deem to be ‘different’—to release their own anger and frustration.” A strong sense of self-esteem is especially important for children who might be in the minority at school or in social groups. When asked by her daughter why her hair wasn’t straight and long like that of her white friends, one mother emphasized the positive aspects of curly hair, noting that it stands up because it’s happy. “Now she thinks her hair is cool,” noted the mother in a blog post on Parents.com.


  1. Discuss Stereotypes

Without your knowledge, children might garner stereotypical ideas or notions from TV shows or popular culture. Even some cartoons that are suitable for toddlers feature villains with foreign names and features while, at the same time, showcasing princesses as blond and Caucasian. You should point out these media-based stereotypes and find exceptions to generalizations—even positive ones—that your child might suggest.


  1. Expose Children to Diversity

Even if you don’t live in a very diverse region or if your child doesn’t attend a diverse school, there are still ways in which you can help them to become more comfortable with people of different backgrounds. Read books celebrating different cultures, or take your child to cultural events and ethnic restaurants.