Over the past week, our country has been rocked by the news of George Floyd’s unnecessary death at the hands of the police. This video, coming on the heels of countless others, shows the continued injustices and challenges faced by the black community. Our children are learning and absorbing information from the world around them and as parents, we have the unique opportunity to help guide them through discussions about the hard stuff that is necessary to bring about change. At times, our parental instincts are to shelter and protect them from the world when it gets scary, but that is a privilege that unfortunately, not all families have. Black families and children have been having deep conversations about racism and inequality from early on as they have faced discrimination on a systemic level for decades. Now more than ever, it is important to have conversations about race and racism with your children, particularly in households that have not been having these discussions. So, where do we start? Here are five suggestions on how to navigate this conversation with your children:
When talking about emotionally charged topics, it is often best to start by identifying facts. Let your child lead the way. Ask them to share the things that they know. Ask them what they understand about the things that they have seen on tv. Ask them about the things that they have seen at school, with their friends, on the playground, when out in the community, and even when they are together with family. Children often see and understand far more than we realize, so providing them the time and space to share their own experiences will allow you as a parent to understand their world a bit more. This will also allow you an opportunity to help provide facts and fill in information that they may not fully understand or have the vocabulary to express. Discuss the facts that you know about the current events, and do not be afraid to shy away from them, even when the facts are kind of ugly. Children are very much in tune with the concept of fair versus unfair, so use that as a framework upon which you can discuss racism and injustice in a fact friendly manner.
In order to understand where we’re going, we have to understand and talk about where we have been. Protests have been a powerful mechanism for change throughout the course of history. However, the images playing out on tv and online with the current protests can often be scary and overwhelming for children. Take the time to talk with your children about the historical significance of protesting. Talk about the protests in the past that have brought about positive change as that can help your child to better understand what is going on and to react with less fear and more hope. Help to explain to your child why the protest is happening, what change they are trying to bring and allow them to share their thoughts and feelings about this movement as well.
With facts, also come feelings. Big feelings, scary feelings, overwhelming feelings. Our country is having some big feelings right now, so our conversations with our children need to allow for space to discuss them. Again, let your child lead the way and allow them to share their thoughts and feelings about the things that they are seeing played out in front of them without judgement or correction. All feelings are valid. Children need to have open conversations with you about their sadness, their fear, and their anger over the injustices or unfairness that they may be seeing. We, in turn, need to show our children that we are also dealing with some big feelings and discuss healthy ways to express and cope with them.
Process with your child different ways that they too can make their voices heard, in both big and small ways. Children can be powerful advocates for themselves and for others, so take this opportunity to plan together how to support them and how you as a family can use your voices for change together. By having these difficult conversations early on, we can empower our own children to take those steps forward in order to become a better person and welcome in a better world.
Remember that it is ok to stumble through these conversations. Racism is a difficult and complex topic and it brings about some difficult and complex feelings. It is perfectly healthy to show your child that you too may be afraid, you may be angry about the injustices you are seeing, and that you may have some opportunities for growth in this area. Your children need to see that you are human too, and with that you will give them opportunities to practice compassion, understanding, and empathy. Take this time as an opportunity to learn ways to be anti-racist together and to promote social justice, fairness, and equality in your own family and community.
Need some additional help? There are plenty of amazing books and resources out there to help you to deepen your child’s understanding of these conversations about racism, and social justice. Here is a list of my favorite books for toddlers through teens:
Cynthia is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of Indiana. Cynthia obtained her undergraduate degree in Psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington, with a focus in early childhood development and relational violence. After taking a year to work with women and children in transitional housing, Cynthia went on to earn her Masters of Social Work from Indiana University in Indianapolis. Cynthia is now living in Carmel, Indiana with her husband, two children and their crazy dogs.