Socially aware parents know that it is incredibly important to talk to your kids about race. Parents need to not only address racism but also point out and discuss racial inequality in the world. As tough as those conversations may be for many families, they are essential, and they need to start at a younger age than you might realize.
There’s a fine line between protecting your children’s innocence (something parents often strive to accomplish) and fostering a sense of social responsibility (something we should all be trying to achieve).
As you work hard to raise good, kind, empathetic human beings who will positively contribute to society, you will encounter situations where addressing tough topics is not only possible but very necessary. And while shielding our kids from pain and sadness, and also protecting them from injustice are natural instincts for parents, when it comes to racism in this country and the world, it is not a luxury any family can afford.
First of all, it’s important to note that if you are even having this internal debate or contemplating how and when to talk to your kids about racism, you’re in a privileged situation that many families cannot afford. Families of color often have to talk about the realities of race and racism from a very young age, even toddlerhood. And it really is never too early to begin having racial discussions, if you ask experts.
According to Miami-based clinical psychologist and early childhood and parenting expert Dr. Allison Mark, “children start seeing differences in skin color as early as infancy,” which is why having discussions about race, and acknowledging what makes people different is essential early on in a child’s life. From about six months of age babies start to notice different skin colors and notice that people do not all look the same.
So, it’s never really too early to start talking about race and what makes people unique. And then, as kids start socializing more, you can evolve your discussions. “I think we should start talking to children about race and racial differences when they start going to preschool and begin to develop more socially based language. Children can internalize racial biases as young as age 2. The ideal approach is to use age-appropriate honest language,” Mark suggests.
As far as what that actually means, and how you can actually start those complicated conversations, Dr. Mark explains you need to take into account your children’s age, what they are exposed to in their social interactions, and what language they will actually understand.
For infants, toddlers, and younger children, she recommends beginning the conversation “by explaining what melanin is and talking about how wonderful the world is to have different kinds of people who all look different.” And then, for older children in elementary school, “they may need more explicit guidance about race and racism. This is the time to begin teaching more specifics about racism and prejudice. You can introduce to them that people get treated unfairly based on their skin color, culture, or religion. It is important, to tell the truth using simple age-appropriate language,” she explains.
As with any topics that can be emotionally charged, confusing and difficult to discuss (mostly for parents but also for kids), allow your children to ask questions. Give them a safe space to share their own thoughts, concerns, and confusions. Be honest, be available, and be open to having the conversation whenever your child wants to learn and talk about it. After all, silence is the enemy as we all fight to end systemic racism and racial inequality. The first step to a solution is to simply sit down and talk to our kids about right and wrong. A better future begins with just one conversation at a time.
Author, poet, and activist Mahogany Browne knows this all too well. She has been vocal and passionate about empowering the black community and more recently helping parents raise little activists with her book Woke Baby. Her social media feeds are flooded with inspiring messages of empowerment and justice, and passionate poetry that sings to your soul.
We sat down to chat with Mahogany to hear her take on the current state of affairs in this country, the Black Lives Matter movement and the cultural shift that is happening the U.S. is waking up to the deeply-rooted racism that has existed for decades. And perhaps most importantly, we’re sharing her invaluable advice about addressing racism and racial injustice with your children from a very young age.
Her goal is to be a part of a conversation and a progression towards racial equity and equality. And it’s clear that her passion and words are going to help empower a new generation of anti-racists as the world begins to move in the right direction.
Are children ever too young to learn about racism and racial injustice, or is it a topic we need to address as parents from the very beginning?
Children are learning racism and biases from their parents, so really, the parents should be unlearning while reading and playing with their children. The books in our home libraries should reflect the world, not just the bubble we’ve curated. That means different abilities, cultures, languages, sizes — all need to be present in our children’s reading stacks.
Why do you think that so many parents (and adults in general) are uncomfortable discussing race with their children?
I think adults are afraid to admit we are wrong. We are all figuring it out. Some of us are truly scared of getting it wrong. So if we never address it, if we never admit it, if we never acknowledge it — then we can feign ignorance.
How would you explain the Black Lives Matter movement to young children?
The Black Lives Matter movement is a resurgence of the civil rights movement. The name was coined by three Black women and the many existing organizations galvanized and combined forces, using that banner to resource in community. This profound moment showcased the brilliance and power of groupthink and sweat equity when working towards racial equity and equality, in the act of eradication of sexism, racism, and police brutality.
How can parents teach their children to not only be accepting, empathetic humans, but also be anti-racist in their own actions as they grow up?
Attend playgroups in different neighborhoods. Join learning pods in spaces where different cultures are highlighted and celebrated. Learning to be a global citizen can be as easy as alternating the library you attend or joining a diverse book club for kids.
As a country, we’ve never needed tools to help guide tough conversations around race and inequality more. How do you hope that your work, in particular “Woke Baby,” will help families start these complicated conversations about racial injustice and activism with their kids?
I am interested in Woke Baby being a part of the continued conversation. Following the lineage of Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love which was profound in reflecting Black families, and a sense of self-love and mutual respect. Woke Baby starts out sweet — but within the first two pages, I wanted readers to recognize that babies are prepared to speak/stand up for themselves. So obviously, now in a time where so much requires the people to voice their concerns, we can tap back into the spirit. To rage against injustice is natural. I want this book to remind young people and their parents, that we should not stifle the truth from our kids.
During these troubling times many families are currently looking for ways to talk to their children about systemic racism. But the conversation can’t stop once it’s no longer covered in mainstream media and once the protests end. How would you encourage families to keep the conversation going so they can raise not only race conscious children but also a new generation of activists who will become a part of the positive change this country needs?
Our lives should change. We should be reading books that support an anti-racist and woke lifestyle, not just following a reading syllabus. Instead, we should be asking ourselves difficult questions and answering those questions with actions. What does more volunteering look like? How are you sharing your platform? What about your everyday practices? Who are your friends? When do you sacrifice for the larger picture, not just for your own household? Every step forward is a step. So, focus on the small steps forward. But make an effort at taking those steps, even in the most uncomfortable times. Even if you make a mistake.