How to talk about racism with kids

Two mothers are trying to discuss race in these trying times.

From that moment in kindergarten camp at Teasley Elementary School in Smyrna, where they connected over wearing the same shirt, Cade, 5, and Grayson, 6, have been practically inseparable. Their bond is so tight that it’s also made friends of both of their mothers, Monica Langley and Alison Thomas. Caught up in the firestorm of the protests and riots that erupted on the heels of the deaths of two black men— Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia and George Floyd in Minneapolis— Langley and Thomas have found themselves facing new and different challenges as parents to young sons, one black and the other white, especially as they prep to enter first grade in these already uncertain COVID-19 times in a few months.

“For me, it started with Ahmaud Arbery because it was here in Georgia. That hit me first” Langley, who is black, shared via conference call with Thomas, who is white. “And it hit me because Cade and I love to run. I was just imagining him growing up and wanting to run around this area, [Vinings], and it just hit me, ‘What if [Ahmaud Arbery] was him?’”

Thomas also saw the video of Arbery’s tragic death by former police officer Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis, and she was shaken. When the George Floyd video surfaced of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes resulting in his death, the Smyrna native posted a message on Facebook the next night. “I’m a parent of 2 young children who will be growing up in a world that sometimes can and sometimes can’t respect each other. But I’ll be damned if my kids don’t understand that racism is not okay,” one part read.

Because their son is 6 years old and their daughter is 4 years old Thomas says that she and her husband Brent have not spoken to them about present-day events. “Between my husband and I, our opinion is that they are too young to know about what has happened. Would I ever let my 6-year-old watch the video of what happened to George Floyd? Not right now. Will he watch it at some point? Absolutely,” she said.

“My children are too young to know the actual two events with Ahmaud and George. However, they do need to know that racism is an issue and has always been an issue,” she continued. Since they were babies, Thomas says, she and her husband have read multicultural books with them, and her daughter plays with white and black Barbies.

“I’d like to talk to them about white privilege because we all know it’s there,” she continued. “I think they’re too young to know what that is right now. At some point, they do need to know that people are treated differently or wrongly or discriminated against because of the color of their skin. They definitely need to know that.”

While few parents know when the right time is, Langley, a relatively recent Atlanta area transplant who is divorced and has primary custody of her son, found herself discussing today’s events once her son began responding to her emotional distress. After Cade caught her tearing up about Ahmaud Arbery, she informed him that her sadness was because “something happened to this man.” After assuring him that the man was not one of their close relatives, he was calm for a few days. When he saw her upset again while watching the protests for George Floyd and questioned her, Langley explained what happened and even found the book, Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Justice, from three Atlanta area counseling and mental health professionals, Drs. Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, to assist her. Today, she regrets sharing so much with her son.

“I wish I hadn’t told Cade about what’s going on because I feel he is too young. Since I have talked to him, he has nightmares every night and has to sleep in my bed,” she shared. Discovering that there are some police officers who have harmed black people has been most devastating to Cade who has a beloved family member who is a police officer and has a great relationship with cops who police his community.

Programming like the recent CNN and Sesame Street town hall meeting, Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism, hosted by Van Jones, is helpful Langley says. "It's really more for the adults," she surmised, "to help us figure out how to talk to them about it."

“We’re not excited to talk to our kids about it because it’s not an exciting topic,” Thomas said of the nation’s racist history and current unrest. “It’s sad, but it’s definitely something that needs to be said.”

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Talking to kids about race

As protests in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police led by Derek Chauvin, police brutality and racial injustice continue, many parents feel compelled to speak to their children directly about racism. Dr. Marietta Collins, co-author of Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Justice, with Drs. Marianne Celano and Ann Hazzard, is a recognized voice in helping parents of young children especially address racism.

In conversation about recent events, the respected psychologist, who is an associate professor and director of Behavioral Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, noted that “black parents talk about race and racism with their children at earlier ages than white parents.” Below Dr. Collins offers five tips to help parents discuss racism with their children.

It’s never too early to talk about racism

“As early as ages two to four, kids began to notice differences in skin color. Even at that young age, they are aware of these kinds of differences,” Dr. Marietta Collins said. “At this time, parents can just simply include skin color in a matter-of-fact way if it comes up. When kids are around five to eight years of age, that’s when it’s really helpful to introduce the concept of racism to them. In our book, we explain racism by using the word “fairness” because most kids can understand what it means to be treated fairly versus unfairly.

Acknowledge the difficult parts of American history

“We also think it’s important that children know the history of the United States. White people have also been treated better than black and brown people and that’s not fair,” advised Collins as she acknowledged her co-writers. “Parents and teachers should be really honest about the difficult parts of our history, including the treatment of Native Americans and [the enslavement of] African Americans. And we also think it’s important for parents and teachers to acknowledge that this unfair treatment continues.”

Be aware that, with age, children develop their own racial identities

“As children get to be older, especially middle school-age kids and teenagers, they start to develop their own sense of identity. And by ‘their own sense of identity,’ that means they’re separating from their parents, and they’re trying to figure out who they are in the world. And that’s where they start to become more aware of what it means to have a racial identity…. [C]hildren’s books and other kinds of literature can really be a good vehicle for helping kids to understand all kinds of things and racism is one of them. The Hate U Give (the basis of the 2018 movie filmed in Atlanta starring Amandla Stenberg) by Angie Thomas is a great book for preteens and teens to read.”

Role model diversity for your children

“When kids are young, the kinds of books that you choose should show diverse characters. [They’re] not all white, within the books, the black person on the brown person [shouldn’t] always be the antagonist; they’re not always a bad guy. Even in your home, hopefully, your artwork can reflect diversity. Most important is that you walk the walk yourself in your friendships and your relationships,” stressed Collins.

Parents can seek additional resources

“There are [several] very good resources [specifically] for white parents raising white children that include Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey and the e-book Raising Antiracist Kids: An Age by Age Guide for Parents of White Children by Rebekah Gienapp,” Collins shared.