Talking to Children About Racism

It might be one of the hardest and most important things parents ever need to do

by Meg Meeker, MD | Updated 07 Feb 2017 at 1:15 PM

How your children will grow up to think about others and themselves relies greatly upon how you talk to them about race and diversity, what they hear you say about others, and how they see you act toward them.

This may be one of the most important things you do as a parent.

There is no doubt racism exists in our nation today, and racial tension seems to have escalated in the last ten years. I believe things will only get worse — unless parents intervene at the home level.

Believe me, your kids pay attention to how you treat people who are different from you.

During Black History Month, it’s a good time to start having this conversation with your child, if you aren’t already. If you need some tips on how to talk to your child about race and diversity, I strongly encourage you to listen to my latest Parenting Great Kids podcast, where I had the honor of speaking with my good friend, author and NFL player Benjamin Watson.

He is the author of “Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us.” He has played in the NFL for the last 12 years and is currently a tight end for the Baltimore Ravens. He is also a husband and the father five of children. He says, “When it comes to race in our country, I think that the living room is more important than the court room.” I could not agree more.

He shared with me that one of the best things his parents did for him and his siblings growing up was talk openly about issues of race: “When you’re black, you’re always aware of race, from a very young age. It was important for us to get a background and understanding of where we are to this day, and how we got here, collectively as a country, but also as black Americans. So one of the things I picked up from [my parents] is the importance of being the gateway for what my children hear, but not being a wall.”

This is an important distinction, parents. Don’t shelter your children from hard truths. Teach them the important facts, teach them the truth about history, and be a gateway for them to ask questions and understand better. We will never reconcile with one another if we don’t first understand where people come from and the beauty of our differences.

Modeling How to Love and Accept Others
You, the parent, have the power to raise a child who is empathetic, understanding, and accepting of all people no matter their skin color, ethnicity, or background. You also have the power to pass down judgement, prejudice, and bitterness. The truth is, kids aren’t born racist. But over time, children often naturally adopt the characteristics and behavior they see portrayed as “normal” in their environment. Racism and bigotry are products of nurture — not nature.

Related: Are You Really Listening to Your Kid?

Our kids often unfairly adopt our own prejudices much more than we realize or want to admit. Benjamin Watson explained that while we all want to pass on certain ideals to our children, we often fall short of those ideals. “And so we have to constantly examine ourselves,” he says, “and be honest with ourselves about what our kids are learning from us.”

How often do you stop and consider what your children are learning from you?

If they hear you make derogatory remarks against a certain people group, they will internalize that. If they see you act a certain way toward one person and a different way toward another, they will notice that. Our children are always watching us for clues about how we feel about things in the world. It is the same with prejudice. Believe me, your kids pay attention to how you treat people who are different from you.

As parents, we weren’t born with the attitudes and beliefs we possess today. And we get to choose whether to pass them on or not. Unhealthy attitudes about race may not have started with you, but they can stop with you. Teaching your kids to see and appreciate the beauty of our differences early on will set them up to experience life, relationships, and the world in a much richer and deeper sense later in life.

When it comes to racial reconciliation, we have a long way to go as a country. “It’s not a one-time fix,” said Watson. “We don’t just wipe the slate clean and become oblivious to race. There are going to be times when attitudes still creep back in … but the difference is, you can identify them, be willing to turn away from them, and call them exactly what they are.”

Related: Teach Your Kids Accountability, As Trump Taught CNN

And parents, it starts with you. Before it lands in the newsroom or the courtroom, it starts in the living room. Be intentional and be honest while being aware of your own prejudice, words, and actions. You have the power to raise a child who is loving and accepting of all people. Around your own dinner table, you can start a legacy of peace and reconciliation that will have a ripple effect in your children’s generation and beyond.

This is such a vital topic. Perhaps at no other time in the history of the world has it been more important to cut through all the noise, search our own hearts, and become keenly aware of how our own beliefs, attitudes, and actions — for better or worse — influence those of our kids when it comes to issues of race and diversity.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.

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