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Addressing Racism and Violence with Young Children

June 4, 2020

While young children aren’t going to understand what’s happening on television they can and do pick up on the corresponding anger, fear, anxiety – those emotions being broadcast through people’s voices and actions that are a consequence of racism.  Because children as young as babies and toddlers communicate through emotion, we, as their adult caregivers, need to be especially sensitive to these emotions in addressing racism and violence with them. We need to be aware of how these emotions – theirs, our own, and all those that surround them – are informing our dialogue around race.

So where do we begin? We can start by recognizing that when it comes to race, there are two distinct yet overlapping issues that need to be addressed – the reality of racism and the reality of violence as its painful consequence. Such conversations with our children are undeniably a challenging task, but the good news for us, as our children’s first teacher, is that children, by their nature, are born students who are ready to learn. They are like sponges soaking up information all around them whether it be from older sibs, overhearing their parents and family members talking, listening to friends at school, or seeing violence on television. How they learn is through observation, imitation, guidance, modeling and “contingent reactions”, namely how we respond to them in the heat of the moment. What we say, what we do and how we behave impacts and shapes their ideas, beliefs and values.  We have a significant impact on what they learn and who they become.

So bearing all that in mind, how do we talk to our children about racism and violence to help them learn and understand issues involving equality, tolerance and acceptance of differences while trying to make sense of these complex, confusing realities ourselves? We start by understanding how our own feelings and emotions are impacting our experience and our dialogue around race. And we keep in mind these four points: 

1) What surrounds us can overwhelm us

Witnessing too much information through media with violent visuals and loud angry and scary sounds is overwhelming not only to children but to adults as well.  With young children although they are trying to understand, they lack the reasoning skills to accurately make sense of what is happening and why.  Access to news media and being privy to adult discussions about frightening events need to be limited particularly when not having an adult present to help them understand, process and manage what they’ve seen or heard. (Housman Institute has put together a list of guidelines and recommendations on children's media in its article Bridging Racial Divides with Diversity in Children’s Media).

2) Staying calm can help us carry on

It’s important to stay calm and focused when answering children’s questions.  Given that children are good at being emotional detectives and are picking up everything they hear and observe around them, they can sense our anxiety, fear and anger.  When answering their question, listen to what they are asking and respond truthfully. Often times they are wanting to know and be reassured that you and they are going to be ok and safe. If you are sad or angry you can respond with ‘I’m very sad when I see people being hurt or I’m angry when a person treats someone very badly or behaves in very bad ways.’

3) Answering what they are asking in developmentally appropriate ways helps children to understand

By answering what they are asking with developmentally appropriate words, they are better able to understand.  Your child may ask ‘why is he hurting that person?’ You may respond with ‘the person is hitting or punching the man because he may be angry or afraid but that is not ok. When we are angry or afraid we need to use our words not our fists so we can solve the problem.’ Your child will let you know if your answer was too much information by sometimes just walking away or enough information by asking another question. Often times children are very focused on the concept of fairness. Using fairness in responding to questions about how we treat others who may look different is important when talking about issues of difference, equality and racism. Being available to listen and understanding while offering comfort and reassurance will help calm your child’s worries that you’re there to help them and will keep them safe. 

4. Exposing our children from the start to see and experience people of different color in a positive light builds tolerance and acceptance  

Exposure to diversity matters and builds tolerance and acceptance. From the very beginning, you can expose your children to books that profile multi-racial characters.  When opportunities arise to talk about similarities and differences between us, use those as launch pads for continued discussions about equality, difference and racism and prejudice.  For example, you can start this conversation with children as young as toddlers by having them sit in a circle and asking them questions about who has brown hair, black hair, blond or red hair; who has light skin or dark skin; who has a red shirt on or a blue shirt; and then ask who feels sad when mommy or daddy goes away or when their favorite stuffed animal gets a boo boo or who needs something to drink when they’re thirsty or a hug when they’re sad.  Through these conversations, children can begin to see and learn that we can look different but share the same needs and feelings. Teaching and learning about how we are different but equal is one of the most important lessons to be taught, learned and experienced in helping to mitigate racism. It builds in all of us tolerance and acceptance that, at this moment, we so desperately need.

Lastly, as you have these conversations and engage in what will hopefully be an ongoing dialogue over the course of your child’s life, be patient. Learning about racism is a lot like learning a new language. It needs to be taught with understanding and empathy and, like any new language, it requires scaffolding and repetition for mastery, both for us and for them.

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