Talking to Children about Racism
Since the death of Nelson Mandela last week, my two older children have been asking me a lot about him. Questions such as why he was famous, why he died, how he died, and why his death is so significant all around the world. These inquisitive minds and inquiries are stemming from conversations from both home and from school, all of which I have been happy to answer. Or at least attempt to answer.
Since becoming a parent, this is the first time that I have had to begin the conversation about racism with my children. Not because the subject is a new one, but because perhaps my two older children are at an age where they can really understand a little bit about it and put it into proper perspective.
The significance of Mandela’s existence is one that I hope to explain to my children with the enormity it deserves. Nelson Mandela is a man who spent almost 3 decades in prison because of his desire and mission to end discrimination toward blacks in a country where the majority of the population is black. Such details are difficult to explain to children. Such details are difficult even for adults to understand. My 8 year old asked, “If the majority of people are black, doesn’t majority rule?” Smart kid, but life does not work that way. Having lots of friends and family from many different ethnic groups, my husband and I needed to give our children a little lesson in history. And this is where the discussion of racism started in our household. A conversation that I hope will be an open-ended one as my children grow and mature and continue to ask questions.
So, how should we discuss the subject of racism with our children?
First of all, parents should never be afraid to raise the topic when the opportunity presents itself. Similar to talks about puberty and sex and bullying, all topics which are difficult to initiate but necessary to execute, parents need not be afraid to raise the topic of racism. The conversation might be awkward at first, but it will open up the lines of communication. Do not be afraid to answer your children’s questions. And it is ok to tell your children if you do not understand something or that you do not have all the answers.
Parents can seek out teachable moments. If parents feel that their children are ready to learn about racism, they can look for subtle opportunities in every day life to teach them. For instance, when one of my children was 5 years old, she asked me if our nanny needed to wear sunscreen in the summer because she already has a tan. Innocent enough. Not a question, which is racially, motivated, just the innocence of a little girl who has noticed differences in skin color. This was a perfect opportunity to discuss with her that there are many different types of people in this world. And that we are all the same inside even though we are all born with different color hair and skin and eyes etc.
Lessons for our children, no matter what the topic, always need to be age-appropriate. There is no point discussing anything with our children which they are not going to understand. Just like we do not teach algebra to preschoolers, we do not teach about racism and persecution to preschoolers the same ways we would talk to our teens about it. Young children are much more concrete and need to build on their levels of understanding one level at a time. Younger children can learn about the importance of inclusion with all children on the playground. Whereas with older children we can dig a little deeper and they can be taught more about the need not to discriminate or judge others by the color of their skin.
Always be a role model to your children. If parents are inclusive with all races, children will learn to do the same. If parents do not use discriminatory language, their children will too learn as they grow to respect all people. Children learn to love from their parents. They also learn to hate. These lessons all start within home. Parents need to practice what they preach.
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