To mark the end of Black History Month we would like to reflect on why we should talk about race with our children and how to do it.
We are all increasingly living in multicultural societies and therefore we must give our children the tools to understand, embrace and celebrate different races, cultures and religions. One way through which children learn about these issues (and many others) is through conversations with their parents.
I feel a bit uncomfortable discussing race… Am I the only one?
You are certainly not alone! It is mostly white parents that do not discuss race with their children, indeed only about 10% talk about it. In contrast, about 60-80% of non-white parents discuss it with their children.
Why? Some parents feel anxious because they are worried they may not do it ‘right’, others want to shield their children, whereas others think that it is not relevant for their family. Some parents think that if they never discuss it, their children will never show racial biases.
Some families favour a ‘colour blind ideology’. This is the idea that we shouldn’t pay any attention to race because we are all the same. This may be problematic because children don’t know what their parents think about it, and they may end up thinking that they are racist or that it is a taboo topic that shouldn’t be discussed. There is also evidence showing that when parents don’t discus race, children begin to think that racism doesn’t exist.
It is important that we talk about racial differences with our children because as we are going to see next, children perceive race differences from a very early age. So, we are not doing them any favour by simply ignoring it.
When and how do children perceive race?
Children pick up on racial differences from a very early age. Indeed, 3-month-old babies prefer to look at photos of white babies if they are white and black babies prefer to look at pictures of black babies. This is because they prefer to look at what they are used to. Interestingly, babies raised in mixed communities don’t show this preference. This preference continues through development. Three- and 4-year-olds prefer to sharetheir resources with children of their same race than with children who don’t look like them. White children show this in-group bias more strongly than other race children.
Children as young as ten years old do not like to talk about race. In a study, researchers asked children to play Guess Who. They found that 10- and 11- year-old children did worse than 8- and 9-year-olds because they did not ask about race even when asking that question was the key to win the game.
As you can see, children perceive racial differences almost from birth, so it doesn’t make sense to ignore it. We must consider race as a ‘normal’ topic of conversation.
OK, so I get that I should discuss race with my child… But how do I do it?
First, consider that how you approach this topic is different depending on your background. White and non-white children have very different experiences with racism, so conversations need to be different.
If you are white and live in a mostly white community, your child will be noticing others who look different to them from a very young age. They will notice different skin colours, and different ways of dressing. When your child asks questions about why someone is black or Asian or why a woman is wearing a head covering, try to answer them by celebrating and embracing differences. Be factual about why we are different: “That child has dark skin because a long time ago his family came from a place where the sun was strong and dark skin is more resistant to the sun” or “She is wearing a hijab because of her religion; she is a Muslim”. Celebrate differences and note that the fact that we are all different makes life and our experiences much more interesting.
Reframe what children may consider as “weird” as being different and interesting. Doing this will help your child to understand other cultures and other perspectives. As much as possible try not to ignore or hush your child when they make these comments (even if they happen at awkward places like the bus or the supermarket queue). Remember that if your child senses that you don’t want to discuss that topic, they will perceive it as being taboo.
Another good idea is to expose them to stories about people from different backgrounds. Read books about people who look different and are friends. Draw attention to these differences (e.g., “Look, these children look different and they are friends”). Be explicit about it. Take the opportunity to talk about it when you are listening or watching the news.
For non-white families it may be a good idea to discuss your own cultural strengths and resilience. Help your child to develop pride in their background.
Don’t ignore the fact that we are all different. Discuss it with your child. Be factual about why we all are different, celebrate and embrace those differences.
This masterclass is based on Professor Harriet Tenenbaum’s masterclass. Have a look at it for more information and resources. At REC Parenting we support ALL parents and children. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, don’t forget to contact your REC Parenting therapist should you need support.
Ana and the REC Parenting team