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How and Why We Keep Talking About Race With Young Children

As our culture increasingly comes to terms with the injustices faced by Black people in both everyday life and the long term impact of racism on economics, social-emotional health, and safety, we have turned to some experts to help us navigate these important discussions with children.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith

Dr. Allison Briscoe Smith is a child psychologist specializing in trauma. As the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and a full-time faculty member at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA, she lectures widely and leads workshops on these issues for parents, educators, and many others. She is also a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, where she serves as a guest host of the center’s popular Science of Happiness podcast.

Talking about hard things is a wonderful parenting skill to practice. 

As we bring the topics of race and racism into our children’s worlds, we will feel uncomfortable at times. We will ask ourselves if we are doing it right, and that will tempt us to not do it at all.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith reminds us, “We have to take into account who we are – what we bring to the conversation.”

She invites us to ask ourselves, “What does racial justice look like? If the world was racially just, how would it look different? What should my family’s life look like? Who will our guests be and what would our books and holidays look like? How do we get there?”

It’s important to differentiate this conversation for families who are impacted by racism as compared to families who are not impacted by racism.

Family Mission Statement

Dr. Alison Briscoe Smith suggests having a conversation that starts with “We”. What are we trying to communicate to our kids in terms of how we do things in our family?

We often frame our house rules in terms of “We.”

“We don’t hit.”

“We carry our dishes into the kitchen.”

Our mission statements are about values and goals instead of rules.

Parents can sit down and think about who are we. What do we want for our families? Around three years old, little ones begin to join part of this conversation at their own level. “We are kind. We like jumping.”

Open the conversation by introducing the idea of fairness.

Even young kids can tell you what fair looks like, and you can use that to talk about what to do when things are unfair.

Including children in this family discussion tells them that they can be changemakers.

Why tell our kids about upsetting things, like harm and injustice when they are so young?

We have evidence that color-blindness and thinking we are “done with racism” has not worked.

We need to teach our children how to be racially literate. Often times, well-meaning parents have created a diverse social life or school experience for their children, but refrain from verbalizing more about it.

Children as early as 6 months can notice racial differences. They are quickly making sense of race, but often without the support of their parents.

Parents need to explicitly say, “I see this person wasn’t treated fairly and we don’t agree with that.”

“We need to not allow our children to draw their own conclusions. For Black children, we need to support their sense of justice so that they know they deserve kind and fair treatment. For white children, we cannot simply let them observe injustice and conclude that that’s just the way it is.”

We are teaching our children about race as soon as we bring them into the world, and whether that is explicitly with our words or implicitly with our silence, they are learning from us.

Moving forward

Dr. Briscoe-Smith suggests staying connected with our children in this conversation. “How do we listen to our children? Ask them ‘What do you notice. Why do you think that happens?'”

“By showing them your curiosity, you are showing your child that you are interested in their experience, and that you are available.”

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