Talking to Your Kids About Race: A Guide to Age-Appropriate Conversations

Your kids need your guidance in understanding this tough, complicated topic. Make sure you're making it a part of your life!

Susan Kuligowski October 13, 2016
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Young children tend to follow their parents’ cues when deciding how they feel about anything and everything in the world around them. Consider the fact they’ll spend at least five years at home with mom and dad full-time, soaking in your experiences, your opinions as to what’s going on in the world, your personality, your views, and your love or hate of animals, taxes, meat vs. vegetables, and flu shots. And then, one fine day, they head off to school and realize it may feel socially safer to follow their friends in the classroom so as not to stand out. Like any other important issue, you should have a plan in place to talk to your kids about race—because if you don’t, you can be assured that someone else will. And as with any other complex and controversial subject, you should keep these conversations age appropriate.

Listen and Learn – Together

Young children are super observant and notice things that stand out—especially people who look, sound, or dress differently. One of the most important things a parent can do for her child is to really listen. Should your child point out the color of a friend’s skin at preschool or at the park, you should take the time to hear her and acknowledge her curiosity rather than trying to play it down. Playing it down signals that the subject is taboo and may subconsciously signal to your child that there is something taboo about people who are different.

Sometimes, parents try to avoid what they consider to be “awkward situations” by quickly switching the subject—which inevitably leads to children becoming even more confused. Others choose to teach their children to be “color blind,” and while the premise of that idea may be good in theory, it’s not realistic and leads to already confused children having more questions than answers. The truth is, acknowledging our differences is not rude or wrong or scary. There are, in fact, black people, white people, and brown people. What we should be telling our children is exactly that—that yes, we may look different, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s just fine. If you’re unsure how to bridge the gap and explain this to your child, consider researching age-appropriate media and literature. It’s a great way to allow your curious child to learn more about something she’s questioning, but may not yet know how to put into words.

Be the Example

We hear it all the time: us parents need to be the example for our children. One way to get the conversation going early is to make sure your home is all-inclusive. Race is truly more about culture than it is color and it’s important that you expose your child to multiculturalism in the home, as it’s something they will encounter throughout their lives outside of your home. In other words, make sure that diversity is not just a vocabulary word, but a way of life.

From the toys your child plays with to the shows she watches to the meals you make at home to the restaurants you frequent to the neighbors and friends she grows up with, make an effort to make sure your family is not living in a color-free bubble. While that isn’t always within your control so far as neighborhoods and school districts, you can easily look into local cultural events, church groups, and festivals. By fitting these learning opportunities into your world, you are opening the doors to grow together and showing, by example no less (Yay You!), that it’s more than okay to meet new people. It can be fun and interesting, in fact! The takeaway just may be a bigger and better understanding of the world around you.

Continue the Conversation

As your child enters elementary school and middle school, she will be learning about racial issues, including racism, starting as early as First Grade. While most teachers share with parents their set curriculum for the year, it will be helpful for you to follow up with what your child may have learned in school that day while sharing supper together that night.

Oftentimes, children are dismayed and fascinated by what they hear in the classroom and look to their parents for more information. What a great opportunity to continue to learn together. You can continue the lesson in a simple conversation, head to the library to look for appropriate literature, or even just get online together and “search it up” as my kids like to say. When my youngest learned about Ruby Bridges in second grade, she admitted that she cried during a movie they watched in class. I explained to her that Ruby was all grown up now and guess what–she has a Facebook page. My daughter was so excited to check it out and be able to place this character from a classroom movie into the world she lives in.

Talk to your Tweens and Teens

Despite the fact that tweens and teens like to think they know it all—as parents, we know better. While life is busy at this stage of the game, it’s probably more important than ever to carve out time to talk: Supper time remains a great time to engage in family chats even if they happen to fall between homework and swim practice. Listen to your child. Discuss news events she may be hearing about or talking about at school. Although some of these may be difficult to talk about, they are important and need to be discussed. Ask for her input and share yours. By now, your child has a better understanding of racial issues and can better grasp history and present issues. She may have even witnessed or been on the receiving end of a racial divide.

Still, don’t assume your child knows it all no matter how many times she rolls her eyes or slams her door. I’m not quite sure most adults know it all when it comes to race issues, and it’s okay to share this with your child. It’s okay to let her know that it’s all right to keep the conversation going for as long as it is necessary. There are so many books and movies available, not to mention articles and current events to choose from. Better yet, seek out cultural events where multiculturalism and race are celebrated and the norm that she can experience and process for herself rather than something distant she’ll only see through the lens cap of a news show or or read about in the newspaper.

By talking to our children, no matter their age, we are letting them know that we understand their concerns and providing a platform for them to speak, for us to listen, and for all of us to share. We can offer suggestions on how to learn from experiences they may have and we also be open to suggestions they may have should they wish to explore the topic further.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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