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Talking to Your Kids about Racism

Racism is one of the most complicated, heartbreaking, infuriating and important topics that parents must navigate with their children. For people of color, it is a defining but unavoidable element of society. Now, as protests against police brutality dominate the headlines, parents everywhere are talking to their kids about racism – many for the first time.

Maybe you’re wondering if you should talk to your kids about racism. The short answer is yes, you should. How you do it is a bit more complicated. But if you’re a parent or caregiver, you already know that simple answers are sometimes hard to find.

Why it’s important 

The urge to protect children from the harsh realities of the world is extremely strong. But sadly, racism plays a large role in our society, so your kids will learn about it whether you want them to or not. From firsthand conversations to news on the radio, television or social media, the subject of racism is at the forefront of our daily discussions. What you can offer is a loving caregiver to help put racism in an age-appropriate context. Avoiding the topic is not a good option. They will simply draw their own conclusions about what’s happening around them.

Put yourself in the right mindset

The news cycle can be infuriating – although racism should cause an intense emotional response. Still, it’s important not to unleash that anger in your child’s direction. You want to help your child approach the topic in a healthy manner. If you’re really upset, use deep breathing or other similar tactics to regain your composure. It’s okay to be angry about the situation; just make sure you can think and act clearly.

With younger children, keep it simple

For kids, the concept of race grows in a fascinating and nuanced way as they progress through each stage of development. But generally speaking, younger children find it more difficult to comprehend what they see and hear in terms of racism. What they do understand, however, is the sense of danger, urgency and anger that accompany it. Help them affirm that these feelings are valid and real and that you feel them as well. This goes a long way toward establishing trust. Beyond that, it’s important to stick to the facts and focus on your child’s feelings.

With teens, communicate – don’t preach

Older children and teens are witnessing a lot of media coverage on mobile devices or while communicating with their peers on social media. They will have more nuanced concerns than younger children, mainly because they can think more abstractly and have formed many of their lasting opinions by age 12. Instead of sharing a lengthy diatribe on race relations, try to get them to open up and talk to you about how they feel. This will help them navigate what they’re feeling in a healthy and positive way.

Talking to your kids about racism isn’t easy. But it’s vitally important – not only for their mental and emotional wellbeing – but also for our society. You might mess it up sometimes, and when you do your kids might be watching. But just like any mistake you make as a parent, demonstrate to your kids that despite your failures, you will keep trying. Above all, be honest, converse rather than preach – and make sure they know you will always have their back.

Looking for help with the conversation? Check out these great resources from NPR.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.