An Age-by-age Guide: How to Talk to Kids About Race and Racism

July 15, 2020

Race and racism can be a touchy subject.

Often, parents are nervous about broaching the subject because they are not sure how to do so sensitively and thoughtfully. Others think that they should avoid speaking about it, so as not to draw attention to it.

However, that approach sends the message to kids that race and racism are not important, or that it is someone else’s problem.

How can we discuss race and racism with our children so that they get the right idea?

Why It Is Important to Address Race and Racism With Kids

Many parents think that we should teach children not to notice skin colour, but that can backfire. From early on, our children naturally recognise that people come in all sorts of shades and tones. Do not shy away from this understanding as it is factually true! Rather, celebrate differences and teach them that all shades are beautiful – just as flowers are all beautiful no matter what colour they are.

Help them to understand, respect, and appreciate the natural differences between people, which bring variety into our world. This helps them to grow a sense of empathy and compassion for others so that they better understand when things are unjust or unfair – and they can act to correct the problems.

Living in a multiracial country, it is even more crucial that we do our utmost not just to live with each other but to accept, understand, and welcome each other.

Read also: 4 Questions to Ask to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Your Child

Check Yourself First

Educate yourself about race and racism. When people feel uncomfortable or that they lack knowledge about a topic, we are more likely to avoid it. No matter how hard we try, everyone has biases. However, the starting point is to acknowledge that you have these biases, that these biases are inherently wrong, and actively work to change them.

Read widely and listen to what others have to say about their lived experiences of racism in Singapore. If you are of the majority race, understand that you have privilege in escaping much of the daily microaggressions that minorities face. Their experiences will be different from yours, and the first step is to accept that this is true.

Speaking to Your Preschoolers About Race and Racism: 0-6 Years Old

In these early years, your task is to lay the positive foundation of compassion and tolerance, so that there is no room for hatred or discrimination.

Children are born with a wonderfully innocent outlook. They are aware of the ways people are different and may point out that someone has freckles, or a beard, or a darker skin tone than theirs, or has long hair as opposed to someone else with short hair. These are all simply observations and carry no judgmental weight.

Exposing your children to a range of different kinds of foods, culturally diverse shows, and multiple languages is a great start. A 2014 study revealed that children who hear multiple languages in daily life are more accepting of people whose language differs from their own.

For many of us, it can be as simple as bringing our children to the neighbourhood playgrounds or parks, where they can mingle with others who are of different races and speak different languages. Reading books together such as ‘Happy in Our Skin’ by Fran Manushkin is also a great place to start.

Remember always that our children parrot our behaviours and attitudes. If it is something you would not want your child repeating elsewhere to others outside of the home, then perhaps it is something we should not say at all.

When they ask questions, seize the opportunity to talk about other races or explore these topics together.

Preschoolers at MindChamps PreSchool embark on excursions in order to understand more about the world around them. For example, the kindergarteners from MindChamps PreSchool @ Changi Terminal 3 went on a trip to the National Museum to learn about the close-knit kampung life of the 1950s and 1960s. This excursion gave them a glimpse into the lives that our elders lived, helping them to understand that other people can have different experiences from their own.

Speaking to Your Primary School Children About Race and Racism: 7-12 Years Old

Children have an in-built ‘justice meter’. If you have ever seen your kids argue about who gets a bigger serving of ice cream, you will know what this means!

Children in primary school have a strong sense of what is fair and what is unfair – but this is also an age where they have no filter and often say hurtful things without really understanding the impact of their words.

Use practical examples from everyday life to help school-age kids understand how they would feel if they were the target of discrimination. Ask questions like, “How would you feel if everyone else made groups to eat at recess and refused to let you join their table?”. Then link these questions to examples in real life, showing them how real groups of people have been discriminated against. These conversations help to spark empathy and compassion and grow a sense of justice to help ensure that others are not left out.

In this age group, our children are much more aware of the different opinions that others may hold that do not align with what they have been taught at home. A classmate may repeat a racist opinion she has heard, while a relative may spout something discriminatory against a neighbour. Our kids can get easily confused – if someone they love and care for says something wrong, does it mean it is okay?

It is important for us to address these disparities while keeping language neutral. Remind them that we may love the person, but people make mistakes. We can think differently from someone else, and we should stand up for what we believe in, especially if we think that they are being hurtful to others.

Speaking to Your Secondary School Tweens and Teens About Race and Racism: 13 Years Old and Up

As our children become – well, no longer children, they seek to develop personalities and identities that are their own. Part of finding their independent footing in the world means that they may diverge from what they have been taught at home and look for alternative voices and opinions elsewhere.

If your child begins to display biases or even spout hate speech, it is crucial that you speak up, but engage your child in level-headed, gentle discourse. Offer them a chance to explain themselves and remember that teens often are unable to see a fuller, wider picture. Keep the conversation open but make it clear that you do not condone stereotyping and racist language out of respect for others.

It is okay to tell your children that you do not have all the answers. If you have no clue how to answer something, be honest and admit it – and then look for the answers together and share what you have learnt. Show your kids how to filter what they read, so that they can tell for themselves when something has a dangerous message, or comes from a problematic source.

Read also: How To Raise Your Child To Be A Problem Solver

Race is certainly a sensitive topic but it is something that absolutely must be addressed starting from home. None of this is easy or comfortable, and it is complex to tackle. However, it is a parental truth that we cannot only teach our kids what is easy; we have to teach them what is important.