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“We need to talk about parenting,” my friend texted me a few weeks ago in the wake of nationwide protests and outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “I have questions.” Like many parents, she was now explaining and answering questions about nationwide protests and going deeper than ever into conversations about white privilege and racism. Her 4-year-olds, like my own preschooler, had many questions: “If there’s a Black community, are we part of the white community?” “Daddy’s skin is darker than ours. Is he Black?” Her twins understood racism, but not why people categorize others by race, and their mother wasn’t sure how to explain the historic context of categorizing people by their race in an age appropriate way.

Many parents have undoubtedly found themselves trying to answer similarly tough questions. Meanwhile, research shows how critical it is to have these talks and answer these questions: by kindergarten, children express many of the same racial stereotypes as adults. By talking about race, racism and differences, parents and teachers have a unique opportunity to intercept harmful stereotypes and normalize differences.

Kenya Hameed, a clinical neuropsychologist with the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute Child Mind Institute, says age four is an ideal time to talk to children about race and racism. Credit: Child Mind Institute.

While parents can and should start introducing children from the start to different races through books and toys that have diverse characters and faces, four is “a really good age to start having these kinds of discussions,” said Kenya Hameed, a clinical neuropsychologist with the New York City based Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “That’s the time when kids are so observant…they’re asking so many questions about differences that they see.”

Last week, I posted a survey on various social media channels for parents to submit questions and statements they’ve heard from their children in recent weeks. I received dozens of responses from parents and reached out to three experts, to help with guidance. They are: Kenya Hameed, a clinical neuropsychologist with the New York City based Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute; Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor in the Health Behavior and Health Education Department at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health; and Mercedes Samudio, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, parenting coach and author.

“A lot of parents are being forced into this space because of the world and the way things are going. So before parents jump in and answer questions, it’s ok to say ‘You know, I need to do more reading on this and figure it out and we can talk tomorrow.’”

Mercedes Samudio, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, parenting coach and author.

Before talking to their children, Samudio encourages parents to take time to face their own biases and learn as much as they can about race and racism. “A lot of parents are being forced into this space because of the world and the way things are going,” Samudio said. “So before parents jump in and answer questions, it’s ok to say, ‘You know, I need to do more reading on this and figure it out and we can talk tomorrow.’ Spend that time looking at why are these things happening.” 

Here’s how Samudio, Anderson and Hameed said they would answer some of these tough questions straight from the mouths of kids. (The race of the child as described by parents is included, because experts say answers to questions during race and racism conversations will differ based on a child’s race. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

  • Why are some police unfair to Black people? Asked by a 4-year-old who is white

Kenya Hameed: I would say, ‘Have you ever heard of racism? Do you know what that means? Basically, it’s when you treat someone unfairly based on what they look like and what color their skin is. And so, police have been unfair to Black people for this reason. And it goes back hundreds of years.’ I’m sure a child would ask more questions about that.

Mercedes Samudio says parents should hold off on conversations about race until they have done research on racism and are more confident about answering questions. Credit: Mercedes Samudio

Mercedes Samudio: I would start out by explaining sometimes people who have power over others misuse that power. Also, explaining about how police are supposed to protect and serve and unfortunately, some police are taught that certain types of people are more dangerous than others…An example of this is sometimes if you think you’re bigger than another kid, you might push them because you can move them out of the way. Or the teacher yelled at the whole class because they’re an adult and they have more power. So when we have power, we have to be mindful of how we use it.

  • Why are all the garbage men I see Black? Asked by a 5 and 7-year-old who are white

Mercedes Samudio: One of the things to really talk about is access to resources, education and ability to continue on in your education despite maybe your socioeconomic status, or availability of resources to you. I would start out the conversation like that… We might have an overabundance of African American trash guys in our neighborhood for a myriad of reasons. Some of those reasons may be those are the jobs that were wanted or that’s what was offered to them and some of it may be because of racism. Racism isn’t always about people yelling out things and saying mean things, sometimes it’s also about people’s ability to get certain jobs, people’s ability to access resources for job training…I think for a 5 and 7-year old, what I would probably say is racism really affects every aspect of our lives. Some of the men you see might want that job…some of the men may have taken that because that was all that was offered to them and they wanted to provide for their families.

  • “Why are people saying “Black lives matter” instead of ‘all lives matter’?” Asked by a teenager who is Black and an 8-year-old who is bi-racial.

Riana Elyse Anderson:  We have to acknowledge again that if Black lives mattered, we would not see differences in the way that police treat them or we wouldn’t see differences in their quality of housing or schooling or opportunity to eat nutritious foods. We wouldn’t see these differences or disparities. We would all have the same rights and opportunities. But that’s not what is currently the case, so asserting that Black lives matter is in fact identifying and acknowledging that they do not currently matter and we have to change that…Children understand the idea of equal and equality, so if we focus on this idea that it’s not equal, it’s not fair that people are treated differently. Depending on age…really focusing on fairness and equality is something that children get a lot. ‘We believe that all lives should matter, but right now all lives do not matter the same way. Black children are not treated equal. We say, ‘Black lives matter’ to ensure they can be treated equally.’

  • “I’m not white. No one’s white. My skin is peach.” Asked by a third-grader who is white
Riana Elyse Anderson says focusing on the concepts of fairness and equality can help children understand systemic racism. Credit: Riana Elyse Anderson

Riana Elyse Anderson: “I think acknowledging, first, that the child has made an observation. ‘Isn’t it silly we would try to classify people in that way? Wow, you’re so right. A lot of people have a variety of skin colors. It’s silly we try to create ways of grouping people.’ So acknowledging the truth of what the child said…The world we live in has tried to create buckets or categories for us. Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.”

  • How do I know which police officers are good or bad guys? Asked by a 4-year-old who is white

Kenya Hameed: ‘You don’t. And that’s the scary thing. In this country, though, it’s much more likely that police officers would treat you better than they would somebody who is Black or has a different color skin than you, which isn’t fair.’ Honestly, a white kid wouldn’t even have to worry about this. It’s helpful to kind of keep it short so that they can kind of absorb what you’re saying, but they may ask more questions.

The one thing I think about though is I wouldn’t consider that question and answer your ‘talk about race’ [with your kids]…This is just a small question.

  • “We are discussing race and systemic racism a lot. The other day, my child was playing and came up to me and said, ‘I’m a white woman and you’re Black!’ and pretended to hit me with a toy. My child then said, ‘White people are mean to Black people!’ How do I explain why we don’t play pretend with that dynamic and situation?” The parents of a 4-year-old who is white

Kenya Hameed: First and foremost, what this child is demonstrating is not inaccurate of…what Black people have had to go through. We first want to realize that the dynamic that she is presenting is accurate. It’s now about reshaping the way that she thinks about this. So, we don’t want to necessarily tell her what you’re saying is wrong because it sounds like she has a good understanding of what has happened. It’s just about making sure she moves forward now, not repeating those sort of views. I would do some teaching here. ‘Honey, as a white woman, do you think that’s a good thing to be mean to Black people? How do you think we should treat Black people?’ I think this is a great learning opportunity, and then maybe they can even do more role playing. I can understand that a parent might feel very tense and think, ‘oh no no no no no.’ But this child, it seems like, has a very good understanding for their age about race, so you just want to now proactively teach them about it.

talking to kids about race and racism
Experts say books with diverse characters are an important way to introduce children to different races from an early age. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Mercedes Samudio: I think the first discussion is, ‘How did you come up with that statement? Where did you learn that? What do you think about that?’ A lot of times when we talk to kids, they set up their own narrative and it comes out in play. It’s a really good way to see how your kid is processing all those discussions. If this kid heard about race and the parent has been talking about race and now they’re thinking white people are mean to Black people, that’s how they processed it. You might want to do more discussion on what does it mean, why did it happen and what’s appropriate.

  • Daddy’s skin is darker than mine. Is he Black? Why not? Asked by a 4-year-old who is white.

Mercedes Samudio: You can explain it by saying almost every person and every cultural identity has different shades of colors in their spaces, so you can show them different types of people. You can say this is someone who might be African American, someone like Beyonce, who is fair, and Lupita Nyong’o, who is African American, but darker. Sometimes, based on a variety of things, people look different even though they identify under the same cultural identity.

  •  “Why did the police, or ‘the good guys,’ not intervene or arrest the officer, or ‘the bad guy,’ who murdered George Floyd?” Asked by an 8-year-old who is Hispanic and European

Kenya Hameed: I would explain to this child that racism is everywhere… Racism is everywhere and many people don’t either have the same views about other people, they have negative views [about other people] or they know something is wrong and they just don’t do anything about it…This is why the other officers didn’t do anything. Compare this to a bully at school or something they’ve seen on a kid’s TV show. ‘Remember that Nickelodeon episode where there was a bully and all the kids kind of laughed and none of the kids took up for the other child? That’s the same thing.’…Kids at least would be able to kind of relate to that from a TV show experience, something they see.

  • We’ve been talking a lot about race and racism and my preschooler is now pointing out various races everywhere we go. While I’m glad they are noticing, I feel like it’s a game to them…like ‘I Spy.’ Is this ok? Asked by the parent of a preschooler who is white

Kenya Hameed: This is one of those instances where doing something like this is going to make a parent really uncomfortable, especially if their child is loud, ‘Oh, there’s a Black person!’ As parents we’re always wanting to teach our children social etiquette and so I would want to tell my kids ‘Sweetie, I’m so glad you’re able to identify all these different races that you’re seeing, but what I don’t want you to do is point and list them. Because that could make people feel uncomfortable…Maybe we can find other ways to approach this. Before we get out of the car, we can point all these sorts of races or whisper this at the end [of our time outside.] See if you can keep track. But we can’t point and shout what each of these races are.’

What I would also recommend to this parent, too, is it if does happen, because this kid is four, it’ll likely happen in public, you just affirm that to them. “Yes sweetie, this is a white man.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about talking to kids about race and racism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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