Over the past few weeks, protests against racism and police brutality have taken place across Canada and the United States. Everywhere we look, we are reminded of the injustices people of colour, and specifically black communities, face on a daily basis. Our news feeds are full of updates, opinions, and acts of solidarity. Television and radio stations are reporting on riots and demonstrations. Conversations are centered around these current events and our own experiences of racial identity. While we’re surrounded by these images and messages, we often forget that children are absorbing them as well, silently constructing their own ideas and opinions based on what they’re seeing and hearing around them. So, what can we do to help them understand and make sense of what is happening in the world? How can we talk to children about diversity and multiculturalism? How can you possibly begin to explain power and privilege to a three-year-old?
How you approach these conversations will obviously depend on the age of the child. You may think it’s too early to talk to a toddler about race, but it’s important to remember that children’s brains are sponges at this age, constantly absorbing information, and “learning” racism is something that can happen even without parental input. It’s never too early to teach them acceptance and inclusivity instead!
Don’t deny differences. Embrace and celebrate them.
Children are going to notice and point out physical differences — skin tone, hair texture, and so on — rather than dismissing them, acknowledge and normalize these differences. “This doll has brown skin, this one doesn’t. Look at them playing together” or “your friend, _____, has dark, curly hair. It’s different from yours, but it’s really pretty too”. Teach children that one isn’t any better than the other, they’re just different and that’s what makes the world wonderful and interesting!
Explain race, racism, and racial inequality.
What is race? What counts as racism? Why doesn’t everyone have the same opportunities and access to resources? This isn’t an easy or comfortable conversation to have with children, but it is important for them to gain a better understanding of what’s happening and what needs to change. Here are a few resources that can help you answer these questions:
- “The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences” book by Carolyn B. Helsel & Y. Joy Harris-Smith
- “Let’s Talk About Race” book by Julius Lester
- “Antiracist Baby” book by Ibram X. Kendi
- “Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside” book by Kenneth Braswell
- The National Museum of African American History & Culture’s “Talking About Race” web page: https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/audiences/parent-caregiver
Talk about black history. Teach them about important contributions and events, as well as the history of oppression.
Educate yourself first! Research black history and the individuals, groups, and movements that have helped shape that history. Find the language to talk to children about slavery, segregation, and the ongoing discrimination in a way that is accessible for them. Teach them about black leaders, scientists, artists, politicians, and so on. There are many books and online resources that can help you do so, such as:
- “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” and “Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History” books by Vashti Harrison and Kwesi Johnson
- “28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World” book by Charles R. Smith Jr.
- “The Youngest Marcher” book by Cynthia Levinson
- “Child of the Civil Rights Movement” book by Paula Young Shelton & Raul Colón
Check-in with the children in your lives. What have they noticed? How are they feeling?
Children are aware of more than we often realize! Whether they’ve heard the urgency and sorrow in the voices of people on TV, or they’ve simply peered over their older sibling’s shoulder as they scroll through Instagram, they’ve been exposed to media and conversations about current events and likely have some idea of what’s going on in the world right now. It’s important to check-in with children, especially during times like these. Ask them what they’ve noticed. What do they think is going on? Do they have any questions? How are they feeling? You may not have all the answers, but you can be honest with them and share how it makes you feel too.
Finally, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge our own racial identity and any biases we may have. We’re human — we’re not perfect! We need to keep educating ourselves, have those hard conversations, and continue to act out of solidarity and the need to put an end to racial injustice. We all want a better world for our children!