It can be hard to talk to your children about racism. Some parents worry about exposing their children to issues like racism and discrimination at an early age. Others shy away from talking about something they themselves might not fully understand or don’t feel comfortable discussing.
Conversations about racism and discrimination will look different for each family. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the science is clear: the earlier parents start the conversation with their children the better.
Babies notice physical differences, including skin colour, from as early as 6 months. Studies have shown that by age 5, children can show signs of racial bias, such as treating people from one racial group more favourably than the other. Ignoring or avoiding the topic isn’t protecting children, it’s leaving them exposed to bias that exists wherever we live.
being silent cannot be an option
The way children understand the world evolves as they grow, but it’s never too late to talk to them about equality and racism. Here are some age-appropriate ways to start that conversation:
Under 5 years
At this age, children may begin to notice and point out differences in people they see around them. As a parent, you have the opportunity to gently lay the foundation of their worldview. Use language that’s age-appropriate and easy for them to understand.
- Recognize and celebrate differences – If your child asks about someone’s skin colour, you can use it as an opportunity to acknowledge that people do indeed look different, but to point out things we have in common. Give your kids the vocabulary words they need to talk about what they see. Hair, skin and eye color depend on how much and what type of melanin a person has. Some people have more melanin in their skin than others.
- Be open – Make it clear that you’re always open to your children’s questions and encourage them to come to you with them. If your children point out people who look different – as young children can often do from curiosity – avoid shushing them or they will start to believe that it’s a taboo topic.
- Use fairness – Children, especially those around 5, tend to understand the concept of fairness quite well. Talk about racism as unfair and that’s why we need to work together to make it better.
Children this age are better at talking about their feelings and are eager for answers. They are also becoming more exposed to information they may find hard to process. Start by understanding what they know.
- Be curious – Listening and asking questions is the first step. For example, you can ask what they’re hearing at school, on television and through social media.
- Discuss the media together – Social media and the internet may be one of your children’s main sources of information. Show interest in what they are reading and the conversations they are having online. Find opportunities to explore examples of stereotypes and racial bias in the media, such as “Why are certain people depicted as villains while certain others are not?”
- Talk openly – Having honest and open discussions about racism, diversity and inclusivity builds trust with your children. It encourages them to come to you with questions and worries. If they see you as a trusted source of advice, they are likely to engage with you on this topic more. You can also address the belief that people who look different than you come from “someplace else.” Canadians come in all shapes and complexions, and the idea that someone is more or less Canadian based on the colour of their skin is a harmful one.
- Build a library - Read books together about racism and protest. Choose stories that explore other cultures and points-of-view. Further your own knowledge by reading books on antiracism and race and supporting bookstores owned by people of colour in your community.
Teenagers are able to understand abstract concepts more clearly and express their views. They may know more than you think they do and have strong emotions on the topic. Try to understand how they feel and what they know, and keep the conversation going.
- Know what they know – Find out what your children know about racism and discrimination. What have they heard on the news, at school, from friends?
- Ask questions – Find opportunities such as events in the news for conversations with your children about racism. Ask what they think and introduce them to different perspectives to help expand their understanding.
- Encourage action – Being active on social media is important for many teenagers. Some may have begun to think about participating in online activism. Encourage them to do so as an active way to respond and engage with racial issues.
- Teach your teenager to be an ally - Being an ally means making it clear that you care about other people and you're willing to stand with them. Teach your teens to be witnesses: if they see a classmate being treated unfairly because of their race, for example, they should say that's not okay. If they hear someone make a racist joke or comment, they should speak up and say that's wrong. Explain that what makes actions harmful is impact, not intent.
Try to find ways to introduce your child to diverse cultures and people from different races and ethnicities. Such positive interactions with other racial and social groups early on helps decrease prejudice and encourages more cross-group friendships.
You can also bring the outside world into your home. Explore food from other cultures, read their stories and watch their films.
Be conscious of racial bias in books and films and seek out ones that portray people from different racial and ethnic groups in a positive light.
Explore the past together to better understand the present. Historical events like the end of apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States can show how people have successfully come together for equality and justice. These shared experiences can further help your child build trust and openness to different perspectives.
You are the example your child follows
Parents are children’s introduction to the world. What they see you do is as important as what they hear you say.
Like language, prejudice is learned over time. In helping your child recognize and confront racial bias, you should first consider your own.
Take every opportunity to challenge racism, demonstrate kindness and stand up for every person's right to be treated with dignity and respect.