Black families talk with their children about race and racism early on. White families need to do the same.
My white kids walked down Main Street carrying a Black Lives Matter banner that typically hangs on our porch. I looked around the crowd to see who showed up for this march in our predominantly white, suburban neighborhood.
It was my first day home after multiple days of demonstrations 15 minutes away in Philadelphia. There, protesters were beaten, arrested, tear-gassed, and shot with rubber bullets.
Back home, militarized police weren’t patrolling our neighborhood’s streets like they were in the city. The National Guard wasn’t anywhere in sight. The change in scenery felt surreal.
I worry that these suburban marches offer privileged families the false impression that walking in solidarity is all the work they need to do. If we want to promote real change in our communities and throughout the country, attending protests, hanging banners, and reading books with our kids isn’t enough.
Tia Mathisen, co-founder of Philly Children’s Movement, explains that it’s time for white families to reconsider what it means to be in solidarity — doing more than standing or walking with Black families. She underlines, “Work with me.”
Mathisen urges families to go beyond what’s comfortable — asking themselves and their community to think deeply, address tough questions, and take action. “I like to think that being an ally means to choose love over hate, but love is an action word.”
How to turn feelings of support into action will evolve as children grow. Rhonda Boyd, PhD, child psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explains that the socialization of children begins in the home.
Home is where kids learn how to behave in society, how to express and manage their feelings, and where they develop foundational skills for assessing what’s happening in the world.
Boyd suggests decreasing exposure to violent news and events by limiting how much time young people spend online. Reducing exposure also means being aware of how much you are listening to or watching media coverage while children are present.
“Most kids know at least some of what’s going on. Ask what they know and how they feel about it. Help them work through it.”
Boyd explains that people of color often have conversations with their kids about race earlier than white families. “Kids recognize differences among people and recognize that people are treated differently, early on.”
Talk about the bigger picture
Parents can’t tip-toe into these discussions, notes Mathisen. It’s important to introduce our youngest children to terms, phrases, and experiences that promote our values.
That means defining terms like racist and anti-racist as both actions and systems. Rebekah Gienapp, a white activist whose free discussion guide helps white families talk about race, explains further.
“When white people talk about racism, especially to children, we often describe it only in terms of personal interactions. It’s important to introduce the idea that racism is a systemic problem, not just [being mean].”
It might seem like something that is difficult for young children to digest, but it’s possible to give examples that will help them understand — many of which come from pointing out disparities in life experiences.
Be honest and specific
“We need to say things like, ‘We want everyone to be treated fairly, but because of racism, Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American people are often not treated fairly,’” Gienapp says.
She explains the importance of avoiding generalizations. “Instead of saying ‘Be kind to everyone,’ we can say things like, ‘It’s never okay to tease someone or exclude them because of their skin color or the other things that make a person who they are.’”
Share bite-size pieces of information
When discussing race and racism with young kids, it’s often easier to address the topic and adjacent concerns in small bursts, rather than trying to have a more formal conversation.
Boyd says parents should look for everyday opportunities to emphasize the core values of empathy, understanding, perspective, recognizing differences, affirming diversity, and expressing feelings.
Give them opportunities to participate
According to Mathiesen, at this age, taking anti-racism action is mostly educating, but also bringing young children — even babies in carriers— to protests and other events. In these spaces, they’ll hear the words that will shape their perspectives as they grow.
A few years ago, I started showing up to rallies with bubbles, art supplies, snacks, playpens, and other supplies to make it easier for parents and caregivers to attend events with their young people.
Now a network of parents and caregivers brings similar supplies to our local events, meetings, and teach-ins, because parents need child care. The Philly Children’s Movement offers a toolkit for coordinating safe spaces to empower the youngest activists to participate.
At this age, it’s important we model the behavior we want our kids to practice. That means we have to be willing to examine ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for our actions.
Be the change you want to see
Modeling means owning up to mistakes, admitting when we’re wrong and taking tangible steps to improve. If we want our young people to be the best version of themselves, we have to commit to improving ourselves, too.
How you talk and behave teaches your children who you are and influences their developing perspectives. “Show them that it’s important to actually choose a side,” Mathisen says. “Go to PTA meetings and support schools that your child doesn’t attend. Call council members, contact state reps, and vote.”
Hold family accountable
Setting an example extends to awkward family moments. Mathisen challenges white people to speak up when people around them say something inappropriate.
Find teaching moments
Watching movies and reading books offer a good opportunity for education with members of the family of all ages. Mathisen reminds us to stop and reflect — even if we’re consuming media that wasn’t intended for teaching.
She notes that she has paused movies to ask her children, “What looks off to you in this scene?”
Focus on morals, empathy, and doing what’s right
Teaching children to act according to their beliefs can be emphasized at this age. Boyd explains that reasoning increases in elementary school, when children are more capable of determining what’s right and wrong.
You can highlight systemic inequities at this age, because children will be able to develop more empathetic responses to what they’re learning. Gienapp explains that we should explore how historical, systemic, and modern racism impacts Black families by pointing to current events.
“Black neighborhoods can’t get the same tests and help for coronavirus as white neighborhoods. Black kids are more likely to be suspended from school than white kids. Police give tickets, arrest, and even shoot Black people more than white people.”
Mathisen notes the importance of acknowledging privilege without trying to relate to the struggles of Black Americans. “You don’t have to understand my lived experience to validate and support me. Use your privilege in a humble way to make other people visible.”
Elementary school kids can take action using the skills they’re learning in school. “Children who are old enough to write can help you write a letter to your local elected officials asking them to ban dangerous practices like chokeholds, while increasing funding for schools, health care, and community programs,” Gienapp says.
Kids in this age group can use critical thinking to analyze modern events within the context of historical inequity. Mathisen says, “They need to recognize that moving from one socioeconomic level to the next has been challenging for an entire race of people.”
Help them digest the news
Teens and other children who have access to phones, social media, or the Internet will likely see overtly violent videos in coverage about current events. Try to limit how much they’re repetitively watching it, over and over, because it can be traumatizing.
Boyd says some young teens might be aware of what’s happening, but only understand pieces of it. You should keep discussing current events, while debunking fake news when necessary.
Seek out diversity
Another important discussion to have with your kids, says Boyd, is to point out neighborhood segregation, which often leads to discrimination.
Seek diverse environments as parents, and help young people do the same — but ensure they aren’t tokenizing Black classmates or community members.
White students should check on Black friends right now — just as they would with any friend going through a difficult time — but they shouldn’t inundate Black acquaintances or ask inappropriate questions.
Encourage them to listen
Boyd notes that if there’s only one Black kid or very few people of color in a specific neighborhood or school, white classmates and neighbors probably don’t know what needs to change because no one is offering space to talk about it.
Gienapp adds, “They can talk with their fellow students about changes they’d like to see in their schools. For white students, it’s important to find out what students of color are saying about the school’s culture.”
Help them find their voice
It’s important we encourage our white children to speak out after they’ve listened to their Black peers. Some teens have organized online petitions, demanding their schools hire more diverse teachers and implement curriculum that include Black culture and history.
At home, white families need to continue talking about race, racism, and police brutality with kids of all ages. As Mathisen says, “You have to have the conversation, and you have to have it often.”
Lauren Rowello is interested in sharing stories of authenticity and resistance. You can read her work in the Washington Post, HuffPost, Vice, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a writer, educator, and activist who is often reporting and reflecting on experiences of queer identity, parenthood, sex work, and mental health concerns. She is the founder of Quarantined Kids Magazine, a space for young people to share work during and about the COVID-19 crisis.