Before we even begin, I want to note that this episode/post is geared towards white parents with white children. Yes, a lot of what is said can be applied to other races & mixed races but those conversations will also look/sound differently as there would be conversations around being on the receiving end of racism & all that it encompasses (i.e. systematic racism etc), discrimination and more.
The conversation around race & racism has to start at home. Firstly, we need to start with ourselves by looking inward at all the things we've been taught, led to believe, think, feel and say around race and racism. I recently posted an article talking about this as well as listing resources for further education & reflecting. You can read the article here.
Once we have a better understanding of our own shadows and the areas we need to unlearn, learn & reflect on, we can then start focusing on our children. The sooner we start these conversations and role modelling appropriate behaviour...the better. But don't be worried if your children are older as it's never (ever ever ever) too late.
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How Young Can We Start These Conversations?
Let's start off by understanding the thoughts & feelings babies & children have based on their age.
0-1 Year: At birth: babies look equally at faces of all races. At 3 months, babies look more at faces that match the race of their caregiver(s) (Kelly et al, 2005)
2 Years: Children as young as 2 use race to reason about people's behaviours (Hirschfeld, 2008)
2.5 Years: By 30 months most children use race to choose playmates (Katz& Kofkin,1997)
4 -5 Years: Expressions of racial prejudice usually peak around 4-5 years (Aboud, 2008)
5 Years: Black & Latinx children in research settings show no preferance toward their own groups, as compared to white children who are more likely to be strongly biased in favour of whiteness (Dunham et al, 2008)
By kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes held by adults in our culture. They have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others (Kinzler, 2016)
5-7 Years: Explicit conversations with 5-7 year olds about interracial friendship can dramatically improve their racial attitudes in as little as a single week (Bronson & Merryman, 2009)
(Thank you to theconsciouskid on Instagram for putting these facts together.)
So it's pretty obvious that no child is too young to be having conversations and/or modelling appropriate behaviour. Yes, the way in which we teach our children needs to be age appropriate but we don't need to wait until they are "older" to start teaching.
Age Appropriate Conversations
Just like every conversation we have with our children, there are age appropriate things to say & ways to say them. This is important because if your child is really young they may not understand everything and that could cause confusion in them.
0-1 Year: This is less about the conversation and more about actions. We can expose our children to diverse environments. We can also ensure our children see us interacting with people of other racial and ethnic groups. This can be done at play groups, the grocery store, our friend group and more.
You can also have toys and books that showcase a variety of skin colours, cultures, genders and such. This goes for every age. Representation is key!
2-3 Years: It's natural around this age for kids to point out/start talking about skin colour, hair colour etc. When your child brings up these topics, respond in a calm, positive tone. You can say things like "Yes, that man does have brown skin. It's not the same as yours but it's a really nice colour too." It's important that we acknowledge, normalize & celebrate people's attributes that are different than ours rather than ignore or say things like "we don't see colour".
4-6 Years: It's not uncommon at this age for children to speak positively about other people's traits that are similar to their's and negatively about traits that are unlike theirs. This can be in regards to race, clothes, special needs, age, physical traits and more. It's important to have open conversations about these topics and how the words we say hurt other people. Kids at this age are just starting to understand that their words and actions affect other people so continue to remind them when they say something hurtful.
Furthermore, you can remind your kids that in your family you do not make fun of or leave someone out because of their skin colour or their differences. In fact, you stand up for those people and welcome them into your circle, activity, conversation etc.
It's also very important that you are aware of the way you are speaking about other people too. If your child hears you saying negative or inappropriate things about other people they will have a harder time understanding why it's ok for you to say these things but it isn't for them. Obviously the best way to prevent this from happening is to practice what you preach!
Furthermore, start highlighting the amazing accomplishments and progress that has been made by different races and cultures. Teach them about the obstacles Rosa Parks overcame to help end segregation in public places. Read them stories about how Malala Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner of all time and has become an icon in the battle for girls’ rights. Educate them on the inventor of their favourite toys, the authors of the favourite books, or the cast in their favourite movies and tv shows.
Lastly, don't be afraid to educate your kids on skin colour and why there are many different colours. You can explain that we have something in our skin called melanin and everybody has it. Some people just have more than others and that's why their skin is darker than yours.
7-10 Years: This is really important time in your kids life in regards to their identity, how they view themselves and the world around them...which means this can be a super powerful time to help raise your kids to be allies and anti-racist!
Prior to this you may be referring to racism as bullying but now is the time to start calling it what it is: racism.
When your kids bring up racial injustices and other things they may be hearing from their peers or other people, it's important that you have an open conversation about the topic. Spend the time listening, explaining why these things occur or educating on what is actually true.
Also, spend time talking about systemic racism and what that looks like as well as the history behind racism. Teach them about the systems, laws, institutions and more that have racism built into them. This is also a great time to educate yourself if you're not sure about how racism is embedded into our society.
It's very important that you ask questions and listen to your children as well. You want to foster a relationship that is open and allows your child to be comfortable enough to ask the questions that are floating around in their brain. Don't scold them for anything they ask instead use their curiosity as a way to educate them!
10 Years & Up
Continue having the conversations you have been having for years - don't ever stop the dialogue.
Around this age you can also expand more on white privilege and how that impacts your kids. You can explain how white privilege is something that is just given without being earned -like extra marks on an assignment for no reason. It's important for your kids to understand that white privilege is real and it means white people are often treated more favourably for no reason outside of their skin colour. You can also teach how we can use our white privilege to stand up for others who are being bullied.
Walk the walk. As I said before, the most powerful & influential way to teach your children is by being the example you are teaching them about.
I truly believe that best way to raise our kids to be allies and anti-racist is to model these behaviours ourselves. Our kids pay attention to our actions WAY more than our words. This is where the introspection really comes in. This is one reason as to why it's so important that we do the work ourselves so we can be good role models for our children. Your children are watching you, how you act and what you say...and they will replicate that behaviour.
These are the key points to remember:
Keep the dialogue open forever
Foster a relationship where your children feel comfortable asking questions
Listen to your kids
Remember: it's a journey. You will make mistakes & that's ok. Be open & honest when you do and keep pushing forward
Model the behaviour you are teaching your kids
Look inwards - the best place to start is with yourself!