On June 10, 2020, several EB staff and a member of the Parents’ Association came together for a webinar on the topic of “Talking with Children about Racial (In)Justice,” part of a special series EB has been offering to families during this period of sheltering-in-place. Our panel of experts included Christopher Colebourn, social-emotional learning (SEL) coach; Douglas Goslin, Middle School counselor; Carla Maia, diversity coordinator and Lower School counselor; Gabrielle Hedlund, Middle School English teacher and advisor; and Will Hammond, parent chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at EB.
With protests taking place throughout the Bay Area and around the world over the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, many parents are finding themselves having uncomfortable and unplanned conversations about racism with their children. The topic is fraught, and in addition to feeling unsure about how much to share, parents often think they lack the necessary expertise. They also worry about whether their children are too young for the subject matter, reasoning that such discussions might introduce ideas children haven’t yet encountered, and prematurely steal a piece of their innocence.
EB’s panelists shared a number of insights and tips for parents on talking to children about racism. They offered four key takeaways:
1. DO have the difficult conversations.
Carla notes emphatically that kids are not too young for conversations about racism. According to research, by the age of three months, babies are already able to recognize differences in skin color, and by the time they are two years old, children use race as a tool for understanding people’s behaviors. Further, by age five, children have learned to assign status to race and even use it as a factor in choosing friends. But studies have found that explicit conversations about interracial friendships can have significant impacts on racial attitudes in as little as a week.
“People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong,” writes scholar Brené Brown in Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. “Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.” When we challenge ourselves to have these conversations, we help to advance progress, in ourselves as well as our children.
2. Find out what they know.
While older children may be exposed to news coverage of events and protests—and even footage of the Floyd and Arbery deaths—younger children often are only peripherally aware of what’s going on. Christopher recommends asking open-ended questions to determine how much they know—for example, “what are you seeing?” They likely will have already devised their own interpretations of information and may need context and clarification.
Relating events, even broadly, to experiences they may have had or witnessed at school—such as teasing or bullying—can be a good way to ease into the conversation. And there are a variety of books and audio-visual resources available to families that can facilitate age-appropriate discussions. Christopher particularly likes the children’s book Something Happened in Our Town (watch a video of the book below) for elementary-age students, and for older students, Gabrielle points to the documentary Whose Streets (trailer below), which looks at the killing of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, from the perspectives of the activists.
3. Provide historical context.
When Carla’s family moved from Portugal to Brazil, she had the eye-opening experience of hearing Portuguese history from a wholly different perspective: instead of the proud conquerors of European lore, the Portuguese were portrayed as callous invaders and oppressors of native Brazilians. Similarly, many white Americans haven’t had a clear sense of their legacy of privilege and the inequity experienced by people of color. But exposure to different perspectives and a variety of sources on historical events can educate those in privileged positions, and generate understanding and empathy.
Will explained that the 2017 Women’s March—his kids’ first exposure to a protest—prompted family conversations about women’s suffrage, equality, and the right to vote.
“Kids have a way of connecting the dots if you can teach them how to map it,” he says. He asserts that when we’re having conversations in 2020 about police brutality, it’s important to acknowledge the through line that starts with the Middle Passage and the arrival of African slaves in the Americas in 1619.
4. Help children see they have a role to play.
The panelists agree that it’s important to be clear and honest when discussing difficult issues with children. Encourage them to ask questions, and don’t be afraid of admitting when you don’t know the answers—in fact, use such moments as opportunities to learn together.
The most important thing is to help children feel empowered, not fearful. We want them to feel confident about speaking up for themselves and for others—to be “upstanders,” not just “bystanders”—Gabrielle says. That can extend to making active decisions about diversifying our experiences, through our choices in friends, activities, places we visit, books we read, movies we watch, etc.
Both Carla and Gabrielle note that parents often find their children are more informed than they expect—and more radical than they are—and that’s a good thing. Today’s children are advancing society, the same way their parents advanced it from the previous generation. This is how they become leaders.