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Why Talk to Your Children About Racism?

“You can’t play on this fire truck because your skin is brown,” a preschool classmate told my older son.

“You can’t go through this tunnel because your skin isn’t peach color,” a kindergarten classmate told my younger son.

“You’re really smart for a black girl,” was a common phrase I heard most of my school years.

These are personal examples of why I talk with my sons about racism.

As parents, we want to protect our little ones from harm and any cruel realities in our society. As an African American mother, wife, and pediatrician, I know firsthand this can be a difficult feat. My husband and I have conversations regularly with our boys to let them know what to do when they’re treated unfairly. We also build self-esteem by encouraging them to be proud of their heritage and history. We started these conversations during their preschool years, much sooner than I ever thought I’d have to.

In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement on “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health” that affirmed:

“Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.”

In addition, the AAP noted that these experiences not only affect those that have been targets of racism but “bystanders are also adversely affected” by what they may have witnessed. This highlights the effects on all children, regardless of race or ethnic background. These conversations are important for everyone.

In our home, we check in with our boys about their day. We simply ask, “How was your day today?” That’s always a good starting point. If something comes up that’s concerning, we ask:

  •  “Did something make you feel sad or upset?”
  • “I’m sorry that happened, but thank you for telling me. Tell me more about it, or what it made you think about.”
  • “I experienced (or heard) something like that before and I remember how it made me feel.”
  • “What are your thoughts on why that may have happened?”
  • “You know what they said was wrong/not right/not fair…. you know the truth or what’s right.”

With the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, and the senseless rise in violence against Asian Americans, all our children are exposed to the impacts of racism. They may be affected personally, hear about it on the news, or through conversations overheard from family members or other kids.

As a pediatrician and mother, I want to make families aware that it’s important to start conversations about racism with your children, regardless of age or background. Our kids look to us for comfort, guidance, and encouragement. As parents, we don’t always need the “perfect” answer or words all the time, but we should be a trusted source they can always ask for help.

Resources for Parents

American Academy of Pediatrics
Talking to Children about Racism: The Time is Now
Talking to Children About Racial Bias

This post was authored by Latasha Williams, M.D.

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