Many parents don’t realize that children recognize the breed at a very young age. In fact, research shows that at six months they notice racial differences; preschoolers exhibit “group” bias when choosing playmates; and in elementary school, children recognize the inequality of power in skin color.
Raising children aware of social justice issues requires open and honest conversations and modeling inclusive practices. Of course, there’s no surefire way to discuss the intricacies of breed.
This is why, as a teacher who teaches the development of racial identity, I always tell parents to be prepared for an ongoing and sometimes messy conversation. Yet the effort to create more belonging, inclusion and compassion in the world is worth it.
Here are four things parents who raise compassionate, inclusive, and self-aware children do when talking about race:
1. They are open about race
Children note physical differences, including skin color, facial features, hair color and texture. Creating categories is how they make sense of the world and attempt to name and rationalize those differences.
If your child notices and comments on someone’s skin color, support their curious questions and comments: “Hmmm, you’re right. That’s a great observation. It’s nice to see different people and skin types. .”
It’s also good to talk about the “why” and the “how”: “Did you know that everyone’s skin color is different because of the amount of melanin in their body? The more you have, the darker your skin. When you have less melanin in your body, your skin will look clearer.”
2. They unpack stereotypes
Our race and ethnicity are part of our identities and give us pride and a sense of belonging. But it’s also important to note that race is a constructed concept that has changed over time.
Race has been used throughout history to give unfair privilege to some groups while harming others. We all have biases and these ideas are passed on to our children through everyday interactions.
Talk about your own biases and stereotypes your children may have internalized: “Sometimes we make assumptions about people based on their race or gender. Have you done this before? Let me tell you about a time I did and how I remembered being aware of it.”
These times can be a great way to practice vulnerability and compassion with your children.
3. They create space for change
Anti-racism is the practice of actively working to eliminate the unfair treatment of people because of the color of their skin. It is the dismantling of laws, policies, attitudes, behaviors and practices that are unjust and inequitable.
The goal is to actively fight racism, not to be complacent in your position of belief in fairness. Support your child’s natural desire to help others with thoughtful conversations: “Sometimes we need to talk when things aren’t right, even when it’s hard. It’s okay to tell me you’re scared. I’m scared too.”
Another example of what you might say: “When you stand up for people who are different from you and want the world to be better for them, you become an ally. An ally is like a good friend who always makes sure you is treated fairly and is always on your side.”
Action, no matter how small, is the foundation of anti-racist work.
4. They prolong the conversation
Children rely on their existing schema to make sense of the world. Each time you reinforce your values around race or racism, you allow them to make connections and reorganize their existing knowledge.
The more gaps you see in your children’s knowledge, the more you know what specific conversations are needed.
Ask open-ended questions to see what they know, what they need to learn, and where more dialogue is needed: “Can you tell me more?” “What else do you know?” “Can you explain this idea to me? “How does that make you feel?” “What would you do?” “How can we help?”
When mistakes happen, reflect, apologize if necessary, be kind to yourself, and reaffirm that you are committed to learning and growing.
Dr Traci Baxley is a teacher, parenting coach and author of “Social justice parenting: How to raise compassionate, anti-racist, justice-minded children in an unjust world.” An educator for over 30 years with degrees in child development, elementary education, and curriculum, she specializes in diversity and inclusion, anti-bias programs, and social justice education. . Follow her on @socialjusticparenting.