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July 3, 2020

How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism and Social Injustice

By Dr. Nekeshia Hammond

If we are going to set our kids on the path of being world changers, we need to have honest conversations with them about racism and social injustice that poisons our society today. We turned to Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, founder and CEO of Hammond Psychology and Associates, best-selling author, international speaker and mom, to find out what we can do as parents to help our kids make a difference so no parent has to raise their child in fear.

At what age do we start talking to our kids about race? When are they old enough to understand?

Children start to understand that their skin color is perceived differently by others at quite early ages. Early preschool age is a good time to start talking to children about race. Many families may be surprised to think of starting a conversation about race and racism as early as 3, 4 and 5 years old, but much research has shown that young children begin to form ideas (some very false!) about what skin color means.

I urge everyone to check out the video of “the doll test” – easily found on YouTube in different variations. The doll test experiment was originally designed in the 1940s by Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Clark, two black psychologists at the time doing research to illustrate young children’s perception of race and how racism already impacts children’s view of themselves and others.

The experiment has been replicated in more recent times and in various parts of the world, and it is eye-opening and heart-breaking to see the results of young children’s thoughts about the color of one’s skin.

What are some ways we can get the conversation started? Do you have favorite toys or books to recommend? 

One of the best ways to get the conversation started is to have books with diverse characters for young children. Start to ask them questions about the characters in the story. They may surprise you with their level of understanding about how physical features like skin color, hair texture and eye shape are interpreted. Along with books, start to draw pictures with your children and explain racism and social injustice. Many young children learn concepts through drawing and artistic expressions. Crayola has recently developed a “Colors of the World” set which represents different skin tones throughout the world, and children may benefit from coloring a multitude of skin shades in their art projects. Movies and toys are wonderful too. I would highly recommend that every parent make sure that their book collection, movies and toys (think Lego characters, dolls, action figures) have characters of all different backgrounds. Too often, many superheroes or the “good person” in stories are all white characters, and children of diverse cultures do not get to see people that look like them. Children need to see a variety of people in their stories doing incredible things—with people who look like them and people who do not look like them. 

Favorite books:

  • “Daddy Why Am I Brown? A healthy conversation about skin color” by Bedford Palmer II, PhD
  • “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers
  • “A kids book about racism” by Jelani Memory
  • “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America” by Jennifer Harvey, PhD
  • “Teach Your Dragon About Diversity” by Steve Herman
  • “This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World” by Matt Lamothe

How do parents of non-white children approach the subject? 

Many children understand the concept of “fairness.” When you start to talk about an idea like “It’s not fair that kids like you with a different skin color than white people are treated unfairly, right?” children can begin to understand that idea. It is equally important to have positive affirmations for children from diverse backgrounds. Sadly, some people in the world are going to tell them they are not enough, but of course that is not true. Remind them they are loved. Tell them often they are beautiful for who they are as a person and what they look like. No, it does not erase racism to tell your child how precious they are, but it is one tool in the toolbox for kids to help with their self-esteem. Remind them they can come to you at any time to discuss the subject. 

As a parent, what have your conversations been like with your child?

When I look at my young son filled with so much joy (he is always smiling) and innocence, it makes it more difficult to have conversations about race, racism and the injustices in the world. Nonetheless, with my son being almost 8 years old, we have had multiple conversations about skin color, racism and the overall treatment of people.

It was heartbreaking when at just 4 years old, he came home from school upset and wondering why he did not have “peach skin” because “peach skin is better.” “Peach” was his way of describing white people. We had multiple conversations reminding him that just because he looked different did not mean that he was “less than” in any way. In preschool, he had already observed he had different skin color and hair texture than most of his other classmates. Recently, our family decided to show him some of the protests on TV and explain what happened recently with the death of George Floyd. He asked very innocent questions, which also made the conversation that much sadder but needed.

We also watched the recent CNN/Sesame Street townhall on racism (a good watch and would highly recommend to all parents with young children!) with the Sesame Street characters talking with children about racism and racial injustice, and I believe my son learned a lot from that dialogue as well. The reality is, I recognize that having a black son will mean frequent and ongoing conversations about his physical features and racism, teaching him how to respond when others quickly judge him based on his skin color and how he can respond when he sees injustices in the world.

We role play a lot: “If someone calls you a name, what do you do and say?” “If someone says something bad about someone else, how do you help?” The psychologist and mother in me wants him to be as emotionally healthy as possible throughout his life, so I stress how amazing he is (because he is!) and how he can cope with his emotions from different situations he will encounter in life.

How do we move forward as parents to ensure we are raising anti-racist and inclusive children? How do we continue to educate ourselves?

Recently with George Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests throughout the world, there are many anti-racist resources that are now more visible and shared, like books, podcasts, movies and websites. It is imperative that parents learn about the history of racism and how to help children develop anti-racist attitudes going forward.

Children and families should be listening to others as they share their life experiences. Teach children how to appreciate the differences in others and how they can become better individuals by understanding the impact of racism, prejudice and discrimination. If your child is white or white passing, teach them how to be an “ally” to other children who are not in the white majority group. When children hear insensitive racial jokes about others, teach them how to respond and take a stand on what is right. 

What is your hope for the future?

My strongest hope for the future is for a world with true equality, justice, respect and more love. My hope is that with all the momentum from the recent events of racial injustice, communities begin and continue work to erase systemic racism. I am hopeful to see the education, healthcare and legal systems (just to name a few) begin to have leaps and bounds towards changes for the better.

When parents teach children from an early age how to stand up for one another, appreciate diversity, recognize racism and love one another, we can begin to change future generations. 

Our kids have a lot on their plates right now with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing. At what point should a parent seek professional help to help their child deal with the stress and anxiety of current events?

Children have indeed been through so much uncertainty, confusion and emotional pain over the past couple of months with the coronavirus pandemic. Parents should seek professional help for their children when they see red flags for mental health distress: problems with eating and/or sleeping, significant behavioral changes, increased irritability, heightened anxiety levels, thoughts or signs of wanting to hurt themselves or someone else or increased aggression.

Parents should seek professional help when they have noticed these symptoms are interfering with their child’s social, academic, emotional or mental functioning. Consulting with a mental health professional can answer many questions for parents, including: “Is this just normal behavior because of the coronavirus or a much more serious concern?”

Is there anything we did not ask that you think is important for parents to know?

Parents should continue to have hope to raise anti-racist children and remember that children learn by watching behaviors. Parents should also model who they want their children to be. Look at your own life and the movies you choose, the people you associate it, and the foods you choose to eat, for example. Do you also show children how to experience different cultures? Have difficult conversations with your own friends and family about racism? Are you talking about solutions with others?  Kids learn by seeing. 

Self-care is also vital right now for parents. As a parent dealing with raising children during a global pandemic, global protests related to racial injustices and numerous changes over the past couple of months, it is critical to find the time to take care of your mind, body and spirit. You can only bring the best version of you when you are making sure to practice self-care in the way that works for you. 

If I have already had the conversation with my child, why is it so important to keep the conversation going and how can we continue to grow and learn as a family?

Having “the talk” about racism and social justice is not just a one-time conversation. While the conversation should start the first couple of years of life, this conversation should be often and adjusted with age. Continue to promote the positive values in your family through different means. Let your child know that you are there for them always, even with the difficult topics.

Should we be talking more about these issues in the classroom?

Yes! Right now, all schools, starting with preschool, should have curriculum in place that specifically addresses racism, racial trauma and social justice. While it is a start to have kindness and empathy as a part of the conversation, we need to teach all children about racism, prejudice and discrimination in a language they understand. For the tweens and teens, we need to continue to have “difficult dialogues” in the classroom, with ground rules put into place (being respectful of others, listening to one another). Ideally, there should be anti-racism education for preschool and K-12 classes. 


About the Author: Dr. Nekeshia Hammond is the host of BWE Mental Health Moment, international speaker, Amazon international best-selling author and psychologist. She is also the founder/CEO of Hammond Psychology & Associates, and her current focus is completing psychological evaluations (with subspecialties in ADHD and learning disabilities). Dr. Hammond has enjoyed traveling to speak to various groups about mental health and wellness. She is the author of “The Practical Guide to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children” and the Amazon International Best Seller: “ADHD Explained: What Every Parent Needs to Know.” Dr. Hammond is the former President of the Florida Psychological Association, and she has been featured on NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and a variety of magazines and radio shows throughout the country. To learn more, please visit: HammondPsychology.com

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