As we speak to our children about race, it can be hard to know what to say and how to say it. To get some input on how to address these complex issues in a way that kids can understand, we reached out to Dr. Carlin Barnes, MD and Dr. Marketa Wills, MD, MBA, both Harvard-trained psychiatrists, who recently co-authored “Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends”. Here’s what they had to say.
What is some advice you give parents on talking to kids about race?
As a parent, first ensure that you are able to introduce this topic with a good understanding and healthy, compassionate concept of racism. Be a good role model. Racist stereotypes and biases begin at young ages. A baby’s brain can begin to notice race-based differences at six months. Racial biases can be internalized during the toddler years. Therefore, we recommend that parents help young children learn about being in a world where people of different skin colors, in a positive and healthy light. Books are an excellent way to introduce this concept. In addition to books, movies and television shows are helpful as a starting place to begin to explore feelings.
If kids are asking about the riots, do you have suggestions on how to address this?
Start by asking your child, what he knows and understands about riots. Let your child’s answer frame and guide your response. Be curious about what is prompting your child’s questions. Are friends, the media, social media giving information and messages that warrant a deeper conversation? Is your child dealing with feelings of anxiety, fear, or worry? Understanding and validation of these feelings is critical. You’ll also want to limit exposure and media coverage of riots. Aim to broaden the conversation to include the societal context of racism and injustice in a developmentally and age appropriate manner. Focus your responses on the feelings of the people involved. Provide examples of peaceful protests and ensure that this is also a part of the conversation.
Do you have any advice for Black moms in terms of explaining the death of George Floyd?
As an African American mom, my advice on how to explain what’s happening in our country and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the white ex-police officers is to have an honest conversation about our country’s ongoing very serious problems of racism, oppression, and police brutality. This is the ugly reality. Plain and simple. My hope is that this is not the first conversation, or more importantly, the last conversation that African American moms are having with their children about these very real issues that plague us all. Media tools (books, movies, accurate news coverage) can be helpful resources tools to spark conversations and deepen understanding of these difficult problems. Explain, listen, and validate feelings. As a mom, be okay with not having all of the answers.
What else do you suggest moms do when trying to educate about racism/raise antiracist kids?
First learn yourself about institutional racism and how Blacks have been impacted in many different ways by racism and how Blacks continue to be impacted today – wealth gaps, health disparities, educational disparities, financial disparities, redlining, environmental racism, etc. Have an honest conversation about our country’s ongoing very serious problems of racism, oppression, and police brutality. This is the ugly reality—plain and simple.
Teach children to notice and value differences in race and culture. For example, as a white mom, make positive and affirming statements about your child’s playmates of different racial and ethnic groups. Celebrate and affirm differences. (“I don’t see color” is invalidating…don’t teach your kids to be color blind.)
Introduce your child to different races and cultures with real world experiences, for example, family outings to African American museums, dining at restaurants with different cultural cuisines, going to movies that highlight issues of race and culture.
Share stories with your kids regarding people of color that highlight positive, human characteristics such as kindness, respect, compassion.
Teach your child what it is to be an ally. Encourage him to join groups that support black causes and interests.
Start the conversation and keep it going—even when the stories have left the news front page and there’s no longer constant media coverage. In a safe space, have regular discussions with your child about race and racism.