February is Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating the stories and accomplishments of Black Americans throughout history. Black History Month is also an opportunity for us to dig into our country’s history and commit to fighting for a future defined by equity, justice, and respect for all. At Bene, Black History Month is a family affair! In that spirit, we’re answering three big questions about engaging with your children around race. We hope the insight we’ve compiled helps you and your family honor the spirit of Black History Month in the coming days and throughout the year.
When is it age-appropriate to start talking to your children about race?
We know children are aware of differences in skin color starting at a very young age. At six months old, most children recognize varying shades of skin. Between ages two and three, many children begin to prefer playmates of the same gender and race. At age three, children start forming judgments based on race. It’s crucial that parents are proactive in addressing their kids’ quickly-evolving awareness early on, and that you meet them on their level by addressing the topic in an age-appropriate manner. Whether your family reads books with a diverse cast of characters, engages in cultural traditions outside of your own (such as musical performances, restaurants, and art exhibitions), or initiates intentional conversations about social justice, bias, and discrimination, your efforts will shape the way your children think about race.
Traditionally, many parents, particularly white parents, have avoided race-related discussions with children. Yale Assistant Professor Yarrow Dunham explains: “Many white parents are very uncomfortable talking about race. As a consequence, they do not put in the work to support the emergence of a structural or justice-minded understanding of racial disparities and of racism more generally.”
Silence about racial differences can send a message that race-related conversations are off-limits or unimportant. If parents don’t shape the narrative around race, ultimately their children may absorb racial stereotypes and biases that are harmful to people of color.
How should I engage with my children around race?
Share your experiences. If you’ve experienced racism or discrimination, share this with your children. Talk about how you felt, how you responded, and what you’ve learned. Your vulnerability will bolster the bond and trust between you and your kids.
Create a spirit of safety. When children verbalize differences in skin colors, don’t shame them. Instead, engage in a positive discussion about differences and the beauty of diversity. We want our children to come to us when they have complex questions about race and other topics, so be a soft spot for them to land and meet their curiosity with warmth and understanding.
Speak up. When you witness racism, call it out, even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable. If a family member or friend makes a derogatory comment or joke, speak up. Author Beata Mostafavi suggests that “it doesn’t have to be confrontational. It can be as simple
Racism is such an important topic. How do I avoid saying the wrong thing? And how can I know that I’m doing enough?
Accept that you’re going to make mistakes. You don’t know everything—that’s okay! Embodying a spirit of openness and willingness to learn is more important than saying the exact right thing at the perfect moment. Also know that these conversations are ongoing and that our collective learning about race is a lifelong process.
Celebrate equity and inclusion as non-negotiable values in your family. Prioritize regular participation in activities and events that celebrate diversity. Volunteer as a family with organizations fighting for change. Make a collective decision to donate to specific advocacy organizations whose missions resonate with you and your kids. Write letters to your representatives.
Check yourself. Take time to practice mindfulness and reflect on your own heritage and experiences with race. Attune yourself to tiny moments of bias and judgment in your everyday life, and then start making shifts that embody the spirit of inclusion you’re trying to foster within your children.
Want to learn more about Black History Month and talking about Race? Here are a few more resources:
Do you have helpful tips for talking to children about race? Leave them in the comments below.