5 Tips for Talking About Race with Kids
Parents today know just how challenging it can be to shelter children from the social contentions that cause hurt and harm between people. By Brendon Jobs, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at The Haverford School.
Fear, anxiety, and related stress responses are normal feelings when talking about race, class, or gender in any context. It is not easy. Children notice these human responses as early as pre-kindergarten. We can learn to manage these emotions in ways that bring them together across lines of difference.
Race, class, and gender can provoke deep divisions in more rapid ways due to the rise of social media. For instance, the arrest of two black men last spring for awaiting the arrival of a colleague for a business meeting at an 18th Street Starbucks ignited a national dialogue about racism in America after footage of the incident went viral.
Increasingly, I get asked for advice from parents about the best ways to engage their children in productive conversations about race. Some parents ask proactively, imagining the questions and confusions that their children may have. Others ask after having been blindsided with questions or observations that they feel ill-equipped to manage. This feeling is natural, given the pattern of how racial conflict has typically been managed in the American context.
Historically and socially, race – like politics or religion – has not been a polite or comfortable topic of conversation for many, yet increasingly there is a need for kids today to develop a sense of competence and confidence in both navigating racially stressful situations and interpreting the realities of the world around them earlier in their own social-emotional development. In the 2014 article in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine, “What White Children Need to Know About Race,” Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli describe how the silence about race throughout our childhoods, which was intended to teach us that race shouldn’t matter, instead, led us to believe that race doesn’t matter.
How to Talk with Your Child
Here are a few suggestions for how parents can empower kids by supporting a healthy development of what experts today call racial literacy. Racial literacy is the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters in ways that promote healing over replicating patterns of silence, hurt, and harm.
1. Be Vulnerable
Be vulnerable and promote awareness with intergenerational dialogue. So often in an effort to shield our children from hurt and harm, race talks become lectures where adults take on the pressure of “having all the answers.” Engage kids in a more dynamic dialogue by allowing them to see that racial encounters can be difficult for you to navigate as well.
Resist avoidance or denial of your own emotional response in order to model for them how they can share their own experiences. Be honest when you feel hurt, confused, or stressed. And remember, not all questions have satisfying answers. Allow kids to ask what comes naturally. Don’t yield to the pressure of carrying all of the wisdom we are told that age and experience provides. It limits our children’s growth in encountering and navigating racial moments.
2. Manage Stress
Practice mindful stress management. Racial stress is a product of in-the-moment racial encounters or conflict. Often unacknowledged, such stress creates mental and bodily responses that, when accumulated over time, results in negative health effects.
3. Develop Awareness
Develop cultural and historical awareness across lines of difference. Seek out opportunities in your own neighborhood or take advantage of our proximity to the rich heritage and events that happen in Philadelphia. For instance, the African American Museum and the Jewish History Museum are among many sites that offer regular programing and present an opportunity to talk about the lived experiences of heritage communities. Another simple place to start is with podcasts (check out haverford.org/awareness for recommendations). Modern conversations about these experiences and this history are created everyday.
4. Have a Both/And Perspective
Adopt a “Both/And” over the traditional “Either/Or” orientation. Binaries can promote and prolong conflict by suggesting a “right and wrong,” where social realities actually prove to be more complex. Fluidity in social negotiation, or adopting a “Both/And” perspective for reading racial encounters equips kids to practice imagining that many possibilities can exist at once without denying their lived experience. Unresolved conflicts or the worsening of conflict happens when we are unable to imagine the perspective of the “other.” This perspective challenges us to get better at naming our own perspectives while also fully allowing for other realities to exist.
5. Show Grace
Be humble; be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn how to reflect on your own experience and social impact in new ways. Making space to engage directly (attending events) or indirectly (listening to podcasts/reading) with heritage communities is great practice. Beware of making your goal the elimination of the implicit bias or racism. Instead, imagine these challenges as realities to manage rather than problems to solve.
The Importance of Dialogue
Talking about race is not easy – and can even be a painful experience, but not talking about it leaves our children to learn how to manage challenging experiences on their own. Dialogue is support. You can develop a more skillful a ability to engage your children in meaningful ways when they notice or talk about racial encounters. Silence only suppresses the natural curiosity that children have around what makes it such a complex societal issue. These conversations should continue to shape a tomorrow that is driven by meaningful, inclusive relationships.
About Brendon Jobs
Brendon Jobs is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at The Haverford School, where he teaches Modern World History and Modern Black Lives in the Upper School. Jobs also teaches history methods at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (GSE) in the Independent School Residency Program.
His development as an educator has been shaped by experiences as a James Madison Fellow, Lehrman Fellow, a National Constitution Center Annenberg Fellow, an Education Pioneer with the SEED Foundation in Washington D.C., and an active member of Philadelphia’s teacher leader community via work with Teacher Action Group. Jobs holds a B.A. in Political Science from Columbia University and M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania.