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4 Common Mistakes Parents Make When Talking About Racism With Kids

It's easy to slip up when engaging in discussions about racism. Here are some common errors parents should keep in mind.

As protests rage on and more and more incidents come to light about the unfair treatment of black, indigenous and people of color in the U.S., more and more families are talking to kids about racism. This is, objectively, a good conversation to have. But said conversations are not always easy, particularly for those who have learned to feel an inherent discomfort when talking about race. This, notes author Jelani Memory, makes parents more likely to gloss over issues or not engage in difficult conversations with their kids at all.

“Parents tend to latch onto the incorrect notion that their discomfort says something about the inappropriateness of a topic or the fact that they shouldn’t talk about race or racism,” he says. “But they must enter into that uncomfortable space with the knowledge that their kids are not uncomfortable about these discussions at all — that they’re just reading their parents signals around that discomfort.”

Memory is a father and author of A Kids Book About Racism as well as the creative mind behind the larger A Kids Book About… series, which seeks to make it easier for families to start conversations about thorny topics around identity, race and inclusion. The books are approachable and insightful, and serve as a wonderful tool for parents to understand how to start talking about the pressing contemporary issues that have found voice in the streets.

Fatherly spoke to Memory about some common mistakes parents make when discussing racism with their kids and some tactics they should employ instead.

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The Problem: Parents Refuse to Discuss, or Try to Minimize Discussions of Racism

Some parents simply refuse to talk about race or racism with their kids, whether because of an overall discomfort with the topic or because they don’t believe there’s more to say to kids than: “We’re all equal’. Similarly, many parents try to minimize the discussions or stop them before they start, going so far as to tell their children “We shouldn’t talk about that.”

“This is the biggest mistake I see parents making,” says Memory. “This type of behavior creates all these barriers for kids. They have a topic, you don’t talk about it, and, eventually, they may start to believe that it’s not a real thing or a real topic. So then when people of color start to talk about issues, they think, Oh, that’s not real, which not only minimizes what the other person is saying but also makes them unable to validate any racial obstacles for anyone else because, for them, it was such an unaddressed topic that it doesn’t exist.”

The Solution: Have Regular Conversations and Get Comfortable with Discomfort

The simplest answer here is also the correct one: parents need to have more discussions with their children about racism and diversity. But Memory notes an important caveat, which is that parents first need to decide to be uncomfortable for a little while.

“Parents tend to latch onto the incorrect notion that their discomfort says something about the inappropriateness of a topic or the fact that they shouldn’t talk about race or racism and that once they’re comfortable, they should talk about it,” he says. The only way to shed discomfort is to have regular discussions, he notes. “The more frequently parents can have discussions about racism with their kids, the more reps they put in, the more comfortable they’ll get,” he says.

The Problem: Parents Immediately Correct Children’s Racially Charged Awkward Behavior

Kids notice things. That’s their job. It helps them develop. So they might point out a person’s difference, wether it be the color of an individual’s skin or the way they talk, eat or behave. And they can point out these differences in awkward and inappropriate ways which can cause parents to shut it down quick. Memory notes that, when these situations arise, many parents tend to immediately correct a child’s behavior, shush them, or respond to their questions, comments, or concerns with closed statements that don’t invite a dialogue.

The Solution: Answer Questions with Questions and Find Answers Together

“The number one tool parents can employ at this time is to ask their kids questions,” says Memory. He says this could be as simple as ‘Why did you say that?’ Or ‘What does that difference mean to you?’ Or ‘What else do you notice? Have you noticed this before?’ The options are seemingly endless. “The point is to start to plumb your kids’ thoughts and feelings on the topic and get them talking and sharing so that they can discover stuff,” he says. “Once you offer them that and they get talking a lot, then they ask you questions and there’s a space to go ‘Yeah, huh, well, I think…’and you share your opinion. Importantly, when there is a topic that a parent doesn’t know, they must say those magic words: I don’t know and follow up with But can we find out together? This way, there’s an understanding that this is a journey together, that parents don’t know everything, and that there’s a way in which to grow and learn side-by-side.

The Problem: Parents Think a Child is Too Young to Have Discussions About Racism

It’s natural for parents to want to postpone conversations about race until the child is old enough to understand the topic completely. This does no one a service. “There’s been a lot of research done on how early kids perceive race and what they start to do with that, even as young as one-year-old,” says Memory. “They are aware of it. Does this mean that you have to have big conversations with them about all the topics? No. But it means that it shouldn’t be ignored. There’s no too early.”

The Solution: Start a Conversation About Differences, Judgement, and Acceptance from an Early Age

“Having a conversation about being able to notice differences, talking about differences, qualifying differences, and not attaching judgement to differences is important at the earliest age,” says Memory. “So is leveling up that conversation as they grow older.”

Most parents, Memory notes, would be surprised if they heard their unfiltered five-year-old talk about ideas about race and racism and how many ideas they actually have about it, even if that parent has never talked about it.

“It’s also important to note that when parents don’t talk about racism, kids are still learning about it implicitly from their parents, their friends, their books, and the world around them,” Memory says.

The Problem: Parents Want to Overeducate Themselves About Racism Before Engaging in Discussions

Memory notes that there is a specific kind of hyper conscious parent today who wants to learn everything there is about racism so they feel prepared to engage in discussions. “They say, ‘I’m going to read all the books, I’m going to do all the research and participate in the webinars and do Q and As and get ready, ready, ready and spend a couple years doing that and pick an age that we are going to start that conversation and we are going to say all the things and my kids going to know all about racism,” he says. While the intention is certainly pure, Memory says that this approach is flawed because parents miss out on engaging in long term discussions and let implicit biases slip past.

The Solution: Start the Conversation From Where You Are

Discussions about racism need to take place regularly, where parents and children ask questions, find out answers, and learn and grow together. “I understand where these parents are coming from, that they want to feel equipped to have the discussions,” says Memory. “I’d encourage these parents to start where they are at and start talking to their kid and know that it is an evolving conversation. And as you learn, you can communicate new things with them and you can go back and say, ‘You know what? I shared with you that idea but that was wrong or untrue. Here’s this thing I learned. What do you think about that?’”

The big question parents need to recognize is this: Do they want to participate? Or do they want to be left out, and have the lessons their children learn be nothing but of the unconscious and implicit kind that kids pick up and learn from them or the people around them? “I think any parent would opt for the former, even if it’s my vague or basic ideas that they picked up along the way themselves.”