Talking to children after racial incidents

July 13, 2016

Parents have a natural instinct to teach and protect their children. Police-involved killings, the shooting of Dallas officers, peaceful protests that turn violent — incidents that are often traumatic for adults — can make these two instincts feel in conflict.

Do we try to explain the strife our child sees on television? Or should we try to shield her from such “grown up” problems?

Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist at Penn GSE, studies racial literacy and racial trauma. He works with educators and families to help them understand the emotions that racial incidents can bring about, and how to reduce their negative effects on health and well being.  

We asked Stevenson what ideas he had for adults who are searching for a way to discuss racial incidents with their children.

Why is this a conversation parents and guardians need to have?

Stevenson: We can’t hide our children from the world. Your child is probably already more aware of race, class, and gender differences than you realize. This can be a time to teach your child about social justice, while also helping process how painful these events can be for them, and for you.

Why talk about social justice?

Stevenson: Adults often have a romanticized view of childhood that ignores how much children actually know. Our research, for example, has found elementary children are acutely aware of racial attitudes. Talking about injustice allows children to make sense of the things that don’t go right in the world.

At some point, your child will be treated differently. Or one of her friends will be. They will be exposed to or have a sense of unfairness or injustice that is rightfully upsetting.

 Explain that: “I’d like for you to be able to talk about it if someone treats you unfairly because of the color of your skin, or because you are a girl, or because of your religion, or because of a disability.”

Right now, as chaotic as things might seem, is a good time to begin having these conversations with your child. It opens the door to you saying, “Here’s what we are going to do. Here’s how we can face this. You might feel helpless, which is natural and OK. I want to talk to you about this so you can feel strong.”

Why talk about race?

Stevenson: We tell our kids not to approach strangers promising them candy. That’s a scary situation for a child to imagine. Why do we do it? So children will be prepared for what to do.

Talking about race in America can be scary. People don’t want to be seen as a racist or someone trying to start a conflict. But the less prepared we are to think about race and talk about race, the scarier those conversations are when they occur.  And children need tools for how to feel and speak about these issues.

Remember “Affection, Correction, and Protection”

Stevenson: Think of this as a three-step plan for conversations about race and social justice:

  1. Embrace your child’s difference. Make it clear how much you care about her, how her difference is a gift, not a liability, and how not everyone will view it as a positive.
  2. Correct misperceptions the world has about people who are diverse. We certainly know the adult world is filled with misinformation after a racist incident makes news. Kids hear that too. Help them better understand that no one is less human than another.
  3. Monitor your child’s emotions before, during, and after the conversation. Say, “this is an ongoing conversation.” You’re going to keep talking about these issues and they should too. When another incident makes headlines, follow up.

Reason it out

Stevenson: Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Rather than simply give them rules (“Don’t talk to strangers”) give them reasons (“I would be afraid that a stranger would misunderstand you.”) 

Explain the reasons and emotions of why you are having this talk with a child. Explain that you want them to be able to talk about what makes them afraid, because that will make them strong.

It’s OK if they’re upset by what’s happening in the world. You are too. Any reaction, as long as it’s not violent or retaliatory, is OK.

How can you partner with other parents?

Stevenson: Every parent feels isolated having these hard conversations with their children. When you have the chance, practice having a hard conversation with your partner or a friend before you have to have it with your child.

 Remember that other parents are struggling in the same ways that you are. Reach out to like-minded parents in your life at church, at your kids’ games, waiting to pick them up from camp. What are we trying to say? What do we think they need to hear? What feelings am I having? Can I model how to share those feelings? If we can’t communicate that, maybe someone else can. Who is that?

Avoid either/or

Stevenson: There’s a reason many simple stories are told in terms of good guys and bad guys: It’s easy to grasp. But this either/or construction doesn’t help children reflect on the complexities in the world. Everyone has a family and loved ones.

A useful lesson is to teach a child how to refute an over-simplified either/or characterization. For example, why can’t it be true that all Black, White, or Brown people act a certain way?

Many instances of injustice happen because a person dehumanizes someone else. It’s much easier to be cruel or unfair if you are thinking of someone as not human. Ask your child to think, what if that person were my sibling? What feelings would I have?

Or ask, how would you like to be seen if a stranger comes up to you? That’s how I’d like you to think about other people.


Stevenson: Don’t assume you are the only one with wisdom to bring to the conversation. Children teach us too.

The more you listen for what your child already knows, what they are concerned about, what they are afraid of, the more you’ll be able to help them speak and feel confidently about matters of social justice. And keep listening, because your child will need you to keep that conversation going.

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