Protestors have taken to the streets of New York in these last few days to protest the unjust death of George Floyd at the hands of police. The Black Lives Matter movement is not new, but this might be the first time your child is old enough to have questions about what’s happening in the news or how he can help. And, it’s never too early to talk to your kids about racism, race, and current events. Experts are here with strategies for starting a conversation, fostering empathy, and helping your kids create change. See the end of this piece for resources to help educate yourself and your kids, take action, and push for change and justice.
Meet your kids where they are. Ask them what they understand about what’s going on and build a conversation around that.
When Kenneth Braswell returned home from protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, during which he had been depicted on CNN, his 6-year-old son immediately asked him why he was in the same space as all the police and troops.
“He’s six years old, has some sense of what’s taking place, that something is not right about that. He’s heard us in our household talk about police and the narrative around police and Black boys, which he is,” Braswell says. “He was aware of what was going on and maybe even thought I was in danger or in trouble.”
Braswell is CEO of Fathers Incorporated and author of Daddy There’s a Noise Outside and other books about the rise of Black Lives Matter. He explains that kids are aware—from a young age—of race, maybe more aware than we think they are. But they can still have questions. Meeting your child where he is developmentally and making the situation easy for him to digest can help him understand concepts like protesting and police brutality.
“I had an answer [to my son’s question], but I didn’t have a six-year-old answer. And so I decided to talk to him about what was happening, but not why it was happening. At six years old, he didn’t need to know Freddie Gray’s name. He didn’t need to know the history of racial tensions in this country. He needed to be explained the situation in the moment that he was living in,” Braswell says. He explained that people were protesting for Freddie Gray because they did not agree with how Baltimore leaders were handling the situation and voicing their opinions—and that protesting is just one way to voice an opinion.
Concrete examples help kids understand concepts as well. Braswell gave his son an example of what a protest is by explaining how his son would probably react if Braswell asked him to do homework instead of play. His son immediately understood—and this conversation helped inspire Braswell to write Daddy There’s a Noise Outside to help more families have these conversations.
Annette Nunez, Ph.D., licensed psychotherapist and founder of Breakthrough Interventions, also advocates for asking your older kids about what they know about current events and using their understanding to spark a conversation.
“Have some of those difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Start asking: Do you feel like you’re racist? Why? How do you feel when you’re around people who look different than you? And why is it that you feel that way?” Dr. Nunez says.
It can be difficult to know how to start a conversation, Braswell adds. The most important thing to do is start one.
“Parents: Do not shy away from hard conversations,” he says. “Once you start the conversation, you will figure out what to say. But be transparent. Don’t be in protective parent mode.”
Acknowledge that racism exists and confront your own biases.
Children as young as 3 are aware of differences in skin color, according to Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, licensed educational psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst. But no matter how old your child is, one of the first steps in having a conversation about race is acknowledging racism exists, Dr. Nunez says. “It’s okay to talk about race and that racism exists. Don’t brush things under the rug. When we do ignore the problem and act like everything is okay, what we’re saying to children is that people of color are not being seen and not being heard.”
Beyond acknowledging that racism exists, continue to encourage your child to play with, watch, listen to, and engage with characters and stories that look different than her. Oftentimes we see “different” as “bad,” Dr. Nunez says, but in talking to your child, redefine difference as good. This will help her develop compassion and kindness and help everyone learn. Furthermore, you can talk to her about how injustices and inequalities feel so she develops an understanding of how other people live, which will further encourage empathy.
One of the most helpful things you can do for your child is confront your own biases, Dr. Nunez continues, and be mindful of your words. For Nathan Chomilo, M.D., a pediatrician and Minnesota’s Medicaid medical director, parental reflection is paramount.
“You have to be actively anti-racist. In teaching our children to be anti-racist we have to look at our own histories,” he said in a Common Sense Media panel entitled Helping Kids Process Violence, Trauma, and Race in a World of Nonstop News on June 2. “[Kids are] noticing differences in how people are treated based on the color of their skin. Talking about how you may be explicitly or implicitly sending messages about race is important.”
Talking to your kids about race is a continuous and evolving process.
Your kids’ questions will likely evolve as they get older, as their understanding of issues change, as your own understanding changes. So keep talking about race and racism. “Keep going back to this conversation with your children. It’s not a one-time conversation,” Dr. Chomilo said.
Allison Briscoe-Smith, Ph.D., the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at The Wright Institute Clinical Program, explained in the Common Sense panel that having small, foundational conversations with your kids over time will allow you and your family to be proactive, not just reactive.
“I think many families are concerned that their proactive conversations will incite or overwhelm children,” she said, adding that it’s important for all families to be proactive, do the work, and figure out what they want to communicate to their kids, especially if talking to your kids about these issues has not been a necessity.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith and Dr. Chomilo spoke on the panel with Jacqueline Douge, M.D., a pediatrician, creator of the podcast What Is Black?, and co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health. The panel was moderated by Jasmine Hood Miller of Common Sense Media and aims to help kids process violence, trauma, and race in a world of nonstop news. You can watch the whole discussion, including answers to questions from parents, on YouTube.
Remember that while discussion is powerful, talking is exactly that—talking. Modeling actions to create change and help others is even more beneficial for your kids.
“It’s not just about discussion. It’s taking a stand and doing something about it,” Dr. Patel says. “We are kids’ first models, first teachers. Just because you may have not done anything prior [to this] doesn’t mean you can’t now.”
These are great resources for educating yourself, helping your kids learn, and donating to the movement for justice.
This video is a great age by age guide for teaching your kids to fight against hate:
Books, tv shows, articles, podcasts, and more are great educational tools for both you and the kids. Here are just a few examples:
- Kids’ Books, Podcasts, and Other Resources About Diversity, Race, and Inclusion
- Dr. Patel recommends Daniel Tiger and Sesame Street as shows that are great at teaching kids kindness, respect, and inclusion.
- Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside features a guide for parents so they can work on educating themselves and talking about this with their kids. Each guide includes suggestions for materials that will spark conversation. Braswell also recommends reading I Had a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the kids.
- Here are some reading suggestions for parents looking to learn more about the historical context of Black Lives Matter and of racism in America. One popular suggestion is White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, and you can buy it and other illuminating reads at Black-owned bookstores in our area, such as Cafe Con Libros in Brooklyn. Doing your own research will help you have these important conversations with your kids.
To show solidarity and push for change:
- Get takeout from Black-owned restaurants in your area. Purchase from Black-owned small businesses.
- Donate to New York-based institutions that work to educate the public about race and racism. Braswell suggests the Brooklyn Museum and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
- Donate to organizations that are helping people fight for racial justice.
- Know your rights if you decide to protest in New York City.
- Amplify and listen to Black voices now and in the future. Remember the movement—and the conversation you have with yourself and your kids—does not stop when the protests end.
Jacqueline Neber is an assistant editor and a graduate of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. When she’s not focused on writing special needs and education features, you can find her petting someone else’s dog.