How to Talk to Children About Race – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 23

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Your child’s brain is hardwired to categorize things — so they’re going to notice and ask about differences. The question is: how should you respond? Join early childhood experts Rachel Robertson and Melanie Brooks to find out how to explore race with your child in a sensitive, positive manner. Plus, learn how to use play, books, images, and experiences to integrate important conversations on diversity, inclusion, and equity into your child’s everyday life.


You can also listen to this podcast episode on SpotifyAppleStitcher, YouTube, and Libsyn.

Resources: How to Talk to Children About Race 

  • Read this article for more ideas on how to talk to your children about race.
  • What will it take to raise truly anti-racist children? Watch our hour-long webinar, “Raising Anti-Racist Children: What to Say and Do” to hear from our early education and diversity experts. 
  • Looking for a list of books that help teach diversity? Take a look at our listcompiled by our Bright Horizons early education team. 

Read the full transcript

Rachel: Hi, everybody, it's Rachel. And I am so happy to be joined by a guest today, Melanie Brooks, she's a colleague of mine, an expert in early education, and also doing a lot of work around diversity, equity, and inclusion and what that looks like in early education. Nice to have you, Melanie.

Melanie: Thank you, Rachel. So glad to be here and to be able to talk about this topic because as you know, it's something I feel pretty passionate about as an educator. I've been in the field a little over 20 years, but then also as a mom of 2 young girls. So, I'm glad that we're having this conversation today.

Rachel: We're gonna talk about how to talk to children about race. I know we're getting a lot of questions, we have questions ourselves as parents. So, we thought it was important to spend some time talking about some really practical ideas on this tough topic. You know, at Bright Horizons, we are always talking about diversity and inclusion. It's kind of just baked into our culture, and our principles, and our philosophies, and supporting children being their whole selves, and developing all aspects of themselves and being good citizens. It's really one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of Bright Horizons a decade ago is because of this philosophy. So, it's not new to us, and we think about it pretty comprehensively. But this last summer, the murders of a number of people and culminating in George Floyd and watching our country's response, it was clear to me, really clear to me that there is more to do here as educators and as colleagues in a community and citizens with each other, and as partners with families, that we had a responsibility as educators, and there was more that we could do.

So, we started to task ourselves some deeper questions about what we could do. And I did this at home as a mom. I know you were, in your introduction, talking about yourself as an educator and as a mom. And I think we all share that in that we're juggling both roles. And I knew I had an opportunity and a responsibility with my own kids to take some different steps and have some different conversations than I had had before. You know, you and I have had some good conversations about how it looks a little different for us. We are different races, we have different age children, we live in different parts of the country. Tell me just a little bit more about what's been going on when you're thinking about what we need to do as educators and parents.

Melanie: Yeah, I think like you, Rachel, just saying everything that was going on around the country, I'll tell you, I was starting to feel helpless, starting to feel hopeless. What can I do? It's really thinking about what's causing...what causes the hate, what's causing, you know, the fear that we are seeing. And one of the things that helped me feel a little bit better is I just started thinking about my work with children, and I had the opportunity to impact children and help grow human beings as an educator, but then also as a parent in my home. So, I did start thinking about, you know, what kinds of conversations am I having or not having with my children. I have 2 daughters, very different ages, 7 and 13, so there are different places of understanding about these kinds of things. So, this really...everything that was going on really made me start thinking about it from that perspective.

Rachel: Yeah, this idea of being helpless and hopeless and that's, I think, how a lot of people feel, but there's something we can do, even if it's as small as just with our own children at home. That's influencing the next generation, or as educators, supporting the development of hundreds and thousands of children. And I just wanna clarify that while this topic has gotten pretty political, it's not about politics or telling children what to think or their value system. It's about teaching children about being inclusive, and welcoming, and being a place of belonging, and how to be a citizen and a community member. And those are just important human skills. And so, we've really thought about what that means for us, and not only for us, but part of our philosophy is to really partner with families. And this podcast is one of the ways we do it, just in general, taking complex developmental information, and educator insights and putting that into practical, useful terminology and strategies for families.

So, we're doing the same thing with the issue of race and diversity and equity and inclusion, and what that really means for early childhood and young children. We started with a webinar "Raising an Anti-racist Child." And we had lots of people join that live. If you weren't able to, there's a recorded session on our Bright Horizons websites. We started in that and having a discussion about anti-racism. And I do wanna just take a minute to clarify why we chose that terminology, because not a lot, we got some feedback, some questions about why we chose that. And again, it's gotten fairly charged. But part of our goal is to use the words that are accurate and reflecting what our intention is, and take the political charge out of them. Anti-racist just means against racism. There's nothing more about it. And we are against racism, and wanna be a little bit more transparent and overt about that. Again, it doesn't mean anything beyond that. I mean, it's pretty important what it means in general, but it's not loaded with all these adult expectations and adult interpretations.

It is truly just helping children, build the skills, knowledge, tools, resources, behaviors, competencies, whatever we wanna call them, that do not lead them to develop racist or stereotypical or biased behaviors.

Melanie: Growing good human beings, basically. I'm glad that you brought that up because I think sometimes we make the mistake of applying things that we understand as adults to children in a way, and it's so different. It's a whole different context. And I'm glad that we started doing these webinars because I think this was an area where we did find that we could do more, and give opportunities for parents to ask questions, and just understand from a child development perspective, what their children are thinking about, and how they're interpreting what's happening in the world.

Rachel: That's exactly right. And what a good segue, because I want to discuss a couple of questions that we've gotten a lot of, from parents, from families, and share some really practical knowledge and information about those topics. So, let's start at the beginning. How do kids notice race? At what age does that start to be something that they're paying attention to?

Melanie: That's such a great question. You know, the children's job really is to learn about everything, and including their own identity, which can seem weird, you know, what do young children know about identity. But it actually starts pretty early, where even as 1, they're identifying themselves as separate from others. I am me and you're mommy, and they're beginning develop that sense of self and self-awareness. And then also, they're starting to notice early differences. As early as 3 months old, they are noticing differences. And really, our brains are hardwired that way, to categorize things. So, thinking about it from a survival perspective, you know, this thing over here that looks different from me could be a saber-toothed tiger, you know, could be getting ready to eat me. So, our brains are wired to do that. And so, that's basically what's happening for children, even as I mentioned, as babies, is they're categorizing what looks different from me, what's the same, but they don't understand yet about race at that point. They're just really noticing differences. And that's okay. That is how we are hardwired, to notice those differences early.

Rachel: Yeah, that's a good point. And our brains are sort of working against us in this topic because, one, as parents, as teachers, we celebrate when kids figure out that all the circles go together, and all the squares go together, all the yellow things go together, and all the green things go together, but not about people. And so, that's a pretty complicated idea for a young child to understand. So the, you know, the most important thing is to recognize that as a parent, if your child has those questions, or notices them out loud in the middle of the grocery store, which of course they're going to, the important thing is not to shame them or tell them not to talk about it because then that sends a message too, and to just know that it's pretty normal. And maybe you don't have to fully go launch into a whole conversation right there, but you acknowledge that they've noticed a difference. That doesn't mean it's good or bad or anything else, they've just noticed a difference.

So, that leads into the next question. So okay, we get it, when they start to understand or notice, at least, differences. But how do I talk to my children about race and racism and how and when? It just seems like such a big topic and parents don't know when to bring it up or even how to bring it up.

Melanie: Right. Yes. And I can say as a parent, that has been top of mind, for sure, during this period, as well. As I mentioned, I have daughters, very different ages. And so, you never know when kids are gonna ask you about race, and you might feel like it's better to wait until they do, that you may also be surprised about when they do and even how early they do. As we mentioned, children are noticing differences, they're paying attention to everything, and they're curious about what they're seeing. So, it can feel perfectly normal to be caught off guard, or, like, feel like you don't have the answers. One of the things that's important is making sure that your answers are really relevant to the context in which you live. Rachel, an example I'll give is my youngest daughter. I remember her asking me, can a brown person be with a white person, as far as, you know, a relationship? I almost felt like that came out of the blue but then I remembered, she's seeing that with my sister who was married to a white man.

And so, I was thinking she's feeling really curious about this. And I said, "Yes, just like your aunt is with your uncle." And I remember her going, her aunt is very light complexion, she was like, "Well, she's not brown." She thought that they were the same color, because they physically look like they are, since she has a lighter complexion. Just the fact that we have a relationship in our family that we can talk about helped her to understand. So I think when we can attach it to something that they see, or something in their family or neighborhood, that that helps them to understand it a little bit more as well when we're thinking about race in particular. And then I would also say, letting your values really guide what you're saying. Kids are very tuned in to feelings. They're always thinking about what's fair versus what's not fair. So, you can really talk about it from that perspective. You don't have to get into anything super heavy, especially when they're really young. The other thing, Rachel, I noticed is in my own home is every child is different. The way that I communicated it, and even when I started talking about race was different for both of my girls.

You know, I knew one child, she could...we could have these conversations, and it wasn't gonna cause her any kind of stress or an anxiety, if she didn't fully understand what we're talking about. You know, so thinking about the temperament of your children. My very youngest, I waited a little while before having that conversation with her so she had more understanding around complex topics. So, it usually is around 6 years old when they can begin to understand some of those complex topics. So, that was my way of thinking about it for her is when will she grasp some of the things that I'm sharing with her. But then also just in thinking about how children develop. So, using clay, that's how they begin to process and understand the world. You know, using dolls or puppets to talk about or reenact experiences and seeing how they respond to it, or modeling ways to respond to situations, reading books. There's some really good ones out there that address the topic of accepting others who are different than you. And then children are always finding ways to express themselves.

I just, not too long ago, recently discovered that my youngest daughter created a video about Black Lives Matter. I watched the video. She made a song and she acted as if she was, you know, on a show just talking about race and differences and being accepting of others. And I learned a lot from watching that video about her thinking, and then was able to have some conversations. You know, children, actually, if we bring it up or not, they're thinking about it. And they're going to express themselves in all different kinds of ways about what they understand or don't understand.

Rachel: There's ideas about when your children bring up race and racism, but you're also talking about how to understand what they're thinking about, if they're not bringing it up, and how to bring it up yourself. You know, as a white family, my kids are having different life experiences. And one of the things we've been talking a lot about is how to stand up, how to say something, how to insert yourself even when it feels uncomfortable, how to be an ally, what does that even mean? How to be okay asking some things that you're not quite sure about. So, I think that message you were kind of ending with is an important one to emphasize too is don't wait. This is like other tough conversations with your kids. Don't wait until they ask the questions. Don't base it on what color your skin is at the family. Bring this topic up, talk about it, integrate it, pay attention to their play, pay attention to the language they're using, read books. And you don't have to read a book about racism. Read books that have diversity in characters, in gender roles, in ages, and in skin color and culture.

Another question that we get from parents a lot, and we've sort of talked about this a little bit, but we're gonna hit this one head on, what if my child does say something about skin color or other differences and points them out to me or other people? One, how do I deal with that? That's embarrassing, and it puts someone on the spot? And does that mean my child's being racist or biased? Or what does that mean? What does that tell me about my child?

Melanie: Well, it tells you that your child is very observant and that, you know, they're gonna point things out when they see it, and not always at the best of times as far as we're concerned, but yeah. So, it's not that your child is racist, it's that they're noticing differences, like we mentioned, and they wanna talk about it, they wanna point it out, they wanna say something about it. And so, that's why it's important to not adopt this colorblind approach. Color is a thing for children. And like I said, this is something that we ask them all the time, what color is this? So, they do see color and we actually point it out to them. So, you know, if you're out with a child, and the child points and says, "Look, she's got brown skin," you know, you can say, "Yes, her skin is a beautiful brown color." Having those conversations, providing the language for children, creating positive association with different skin color is really important and not, like you said, having shame around that topic, because that sends the message that we don't wanna send, that we can't talk about it or ask questions.

And if we can't, if we're not answering questions for children, they're gonna fill in the gaps themselves. So, you know, Rachel, when you're talking about having materials in your home, I started thinking about this, as all of this stuff has been going around, is what do I have in my home that represent different cultures or people that, you know, my children don't see on an everyday basis? And not even just skin color. You know, thinking about different cultural groups, but they do have books that have children or people in wheelchair. So, I think that what you're saying about the materials, experiences that you are providing, that's gonna help it not be so shocking for children, when they see people different in the world.

Rachel: Yeah, I had an incident when my kids were younger. We saw a person in a wheelchair, and very loudly, my child said, "What is wrong with that person?" And that was one of those moments that I thought to myself, okay, I know really what I should do and I'm mortified at the same time. So, we went over to that person, and I asked if we could ask them questions and learn about their wheelchair. And thankfully, that person was very gracious about it. And it turned into, like, a really sweet conversation, and she was over it, my daughter was kind of over it. She really just wanted to know and it wasn't a big deal. She was just literally curious. And if she had asked that question about anything that wasn't a person, it wouldn't have been a big deal. Just because it was about a person, so... And it could be, you know, I think, our fears that that person would get mad or offended and angry, and we have to have a little courage and that if we have best intentions, that might happen.

And that's that person's right to be frustrated and angry. It doesn't mean that we're taking the wrong approach, and to just go with humility, and curiosity and grace, and we're truly trying to learn is just really the only option we have. This question keeps coming up related to that is, what if we are a pretty homogenous family, and our social circle, and our community, we're all kind of the same, how do we then expose our children to differences? What do we do to broaden that experience for our children so they see diversity in their lives?

Melanie: I think that's even more reason to look at what's represented in the books and the dolls and the images that your children see in your home. You know, can they see themselves but also see others? There's this concept about windows and mirrors, so mirrors really being that seeing themselves and what's reflected in their family even, and then windows is looking at, you know, what isn't represented in their every day and how they can see examples of that. I think also just making a conscious effort to be part of groups that are diverse. I remember Rachel, my mom, I think did this very well. Well, she had all kinds of friends from all different backgrounds, all different groups. She would take us out of our suburban neighborhood and take us to places where she volunteered, where we saw all different kinds of people, and she developed relationships with those people. We watched her build those relationships. And so, that was a model for us, being purposeful and intentional about, you know, the people that you're surrounding your children with.

And, you know, so you can say one thing, like, we should respect differences and have that be a message, but they're also paying attention to what you're actually doing. And so, how to make sure that we're being intentional in that way as well. I think that has shaped so much of my own upbringing, and thinking about this in particular.

Rachel: Yeah, and it takes a little effort at first for us to do those things because it's great to start with things like going to different restaurants, learning about different foods, getting out of your own neighborhood and going to events or celebrations in other neighborhoods, and just getting out there, but it's not in your regular routine or rhythm, it's not with the people you know, so it does take a little bit of effort. And when you can start with those easier things, like going to an event, or going to a restaurant, or going to a museum, and reading a book, and then you start to get interested, and that takes you somewhere. So, also don't feel like pressured to do it all at once. And how am I going to teach my children about all these other cultures is just start, just start introducing those things. They'll ask you good questions, you'll get interested in yourself. My mom, I was lucky that my mom was a nurse, and she traveled all over the world with nursing students, and she'd bring back such interesting stories. My brother and I would get somewhat interested in those cultures and communities. My brother ended up going with her on one of those trips because of that.

So, he ended up on a trip with nursing students to Nicaragua because my mom was just doing this as her work and exposing it to us. And he just built this interest and that has influenced his whole life, his work, his family life, everything. But we didn't know that at the beginning. She just started doing this as part of her profession and started telling us about it. So, don't try to do it all at once or know where your end goal is. Just start, just start with that curiosity.

Melanie: Such a good point. That curiosity is gonna take you far, too, even just the questions that you ask other people and how the wheelchair example that you gave, really coming from a point of curiosity and good intention.

Rachel: So, we hope that was helpful to all of you and we will continue this conversation about how to raise anti-racist children, how to ensure that our children are growing up to be participating and positive community members and citizens in this world. So, thank you, everyone.


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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
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