Discussing Racial Inequality and Social Justice With Children

As protests following the death of George Floyd continue across the country, parents are deciding how to talk to their children about racial inequality and social justice.

To help families navigate these important conversations, developmental pediatrician Robert D. Keder, MD, returns to the blog.

It’s important to discuss racial inequality and social justice with children.

Research shows us that talking with children about the topics of race, inequality and social justice can make big changes and leave lasting positive impacts on a child’s development.

On the other hand, not talking about these issues can lead to “implicit biases” – subconscious thoughts and feelings that can affect how a child views racial, ethnic, and religious differences, and even influence their behavior. Talking about bias, difference and inequality from an early age can prevent these negative effects.

Children naturally notice racial differences, but their attitude toward race doesn’t become set until adolescence.

  • Children start to notice racial differences as infants. One study found that at birth, children tend to look at all faces, but by 3 to 6 months they prefer to look at faces similar to those of their caregivers.
  • By 2 and a half years old, children begin to use race to make decisions about people’s behaviors and to choose playmates.
  • From ages 2 to 4, they are internalizing what they learn about race, racial identity and differences from others (and they’re doing the same thing when it comes to gender, gender identity, and gender bias).
  • By kindergarten, ages 5 and 6, most children show similar racial attitudes held by adults in their cultural group, including associating some groups with higher status than others.
  • By adolescence, children start to become set in their beliefs. This gives families a good amount of time to discuss race and bias, and promote diversity and inclusion.

You can start talking with children about racial inequality and social justice at any age, as long as it’s in a developmentally appropriate manner.

  • For toddlers and preschoolers, it’s important to role model diversity and inclusion. You can read children’s books about promoting including others and celebrating diversity and differences.
  • Once children are school age, you can start having more explicit conversations about race, inequality and justice. Ask them how they feel about it. Ask what they think. Point out and discuss negative stereotypes that are demonstrated in movies and television shows. Celebrate when people demonstrated courage in speaking up for people who are different. Research shows that having explicit conversations with children about race between ages 5 and 7 can improve racial attitudes in a short time. You can call out examples of early bias and invite your child to make positive choices; developing this awareness is key.
  • For children 8 through 12, you can read children’s books about historical context of race and inequality. Discuss heroes like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • As children enter their teenage years, talk with them about the news, current events and further examples of bias and racism that they encounter. Discuss their own experiences and the experiences of their friends. Since teenagers are developing their own identity, it’s important to talk with them about where they see race and inequality in their own life experience.

If your child has questions about what happened to George Floyd, have an open (age-appropriate) conversation about it.

What happened to George Floyd is now a part of history. It is a tragedy that will be discussed for a long time. Avoiding the conversation enables further injustice to occur. If your child asks, talk to them about what happened.

  • First, check in with yourself. What do you know? Are you able to talk about it?
  • Check in with your child. How old are they and what do they already know?
  • Let them know as much as they need to know in a developmentally appropriate manner. Let them know that something bad happened and that it involved bias, racial inequality and injustice. Without overexposing a young child to the more graphic elements of what happened, you can talk about how George Floyd died and how all of us as human beings are going to learn how to make things better.

Help your child become aware of their own privilege.

  • First, check your own feelings about privilege. A common problem with privilege is that we don’t know when we have it, because it is a baseline part of our world view and experience. As a parent you have to be open to discussing this with your child. By doing so, you are role modeling that openness to understanding and humility are an important aspect of growing up in society.
  • Talk with your children about their experiences. Read books and watch programs and shows that focus on people of different identities and experiences. Talk about the perspective that others have. Talk about how life could be different. Talk about history and changes that have been made over time.

If your child is worried they might be a target, make sure they’re safe and supported.

  • Find out if they are in any immediate danger. If they are, talk with the right people, including their teachers, guidance counselors and primary care provider. Get them to a safe place.
  • Talk with them about their support network. Talk about who their allies are, who they can turn to for help and how they can rise above these grave challenges.
  • Let them know that you are there to help and protect them. There is a lot going on right now. The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stress of hearing about all of the civil unrest and injustices is a lot to bear, especially for a child.

Be a good role model.

As we help our children process the tragedy and unrest in our country, we are also processing it ourselves, and navigating our own implicit biases. This is a lot for any one person to handle on their own. Check in with yourself. Talk about what you’re going through with your spouse, best friend, family and other go-to support people.

Remember that although this subject matter is difficult to discuss, it is important to discuss. Confront your own biases and admit when you are human and make a mistake. You’ll be role modeling to your child the very behaviors you want them to use to make the world a better and more just place for everyone.

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