Empathy builds allies. Empathy fosters understanding; understanding of both the good and bad aspects of making our way through the world. With empathy in our hearts, we have an easier time recognizing and calling out discrimination and inequality. We also have an easier time grasping that a variety of cultures and myriad, diverse stories make the world a richer place. Another way of putting it, one that kids can understand readily, is that the more that you can feel what your friends feel, the more friends you will have. Another word for this type of conscious friendship is allyship — and it’s a powerful trait to pass on to our kids. But how to do it? It starts with a little time in the mirror.
1. Perform Some Self-Interrogation
Kids learn about the world by watching their parents. A parent’s emotions, attitudes, and behaviors all impact how a child learns and develops.
“From parents’ modeling and guidance, and how children’s actions are responded to, children learn to navigate the world,” says Rashelle Chase, a content architect for KinderCare’s education team and a member of the organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion caucus.
In order to do the work, parents must ask themselves questions: What tendencies or biases do I have that my kids may be picking up on? Is my social circle diverse enough? Do we discuss other cultures as often as we should? Are we having the right conversations? Do I shy away from subjects because they make me “uncomfortable”? Am I modeling kindness and empathy? By looking inwards, asking these questions, and making a conscious effort, parents can start to model the right lessons for kids.
“Implicit biases are something we all carry, and it doesn’t make us bad people,” adds Chase, “It does mean, though, that we must be intentional about recognizing our biases and checking ourselves before acting on them.”
Thankfully, there is evidence that, like many harmful beliefs, bias is malleable. That means you can think and behave differently, and teach your kids to do the same. The key lies in understanding what implicit biases you may have, acknowledging those biases, and creating different behaviors to evict old ones from your brain.
“As a parent or caregiver, it is important to be mindful that our attitudes, emotions, and behaviors impact how a child will learn and develop,” says Child psychologist Donna Housman, founder of The Housman Institute. “They hear our words and tone, watch our actions, and pick up on our feelings.”
2. Have Discussions Early and Often
“Kids understand race even at an early age,” says pediatrician Dr. Jacquline Dougé, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement on the impact of racism on children. “We know that kids as early as 6 months of age already start to notice differences in color. Over time, they’re starting to understand that their parents look a certain way and that a stranger might look different.”
By the time that children are around the ages of 2-4, adds Dr. Dougé, most children are starting to internalize racial biases. And by the time they are 5, especially children of color, some already begin to understand the negative stereotypes ascribed to their own racial identity.
This is all to say that creating a healthy understanding of and respect for diversity should start early. Otherwise, children are left to form their own opinions. For parents of young children, emphasizing that people come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, and finding moments to point out and celebrate those differences is crucial. Parents must encourage empathy and compassion. They should never shush a child or shy away from questions about race because they feel awkward or uncomfortable. Showing and telling your kids that you value racial diversity early, is the important groundwork that will enable your child to accept and celebrate others.
3. Look to Books, Food, Art, and Toys
“Using tactics like media, books, toys, and food is a great starting point for teaching our kids about diversity,” says Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America. “As we’re engaging in diverse spaces, as we’re engaging with diverse books, we begin to talk with our children and point out differences, to name it for them, so they start to recognize that talking about differences is something we do as a family, that diversity is something important in our family.”
Reading books that highlight rich portraits of diverse characters, celebrating, enjoying, and discussing foods from different cultures, playing with dolls and figures that have different skin tones or hair textures are all excellent ways to start these conversations and normalize inclusivity.
“We have this language developing with them that gives us a scaffolding to begin early to develop a lifelong conversation with our children,” adds Harvey. “And our child understands and begins to appreciate that difference and diversity is good and that this is something that we can embrace and learn about.”
4. Identify — And Correct — A Child’s Biases
As parents introduce the concept of diversity to a young child, parents might notice their kids already hold certain biases or stereotypes. Use these moments as teaching opportunities. Allow your kids to share their thinking and then correct their biases by explaining the importance of acceptance and tolerance. “After a child understands what diversity is,” says Housman, “It’s the parent’s role to help them be accepting of all diversity.”
“When we’re intentional about having conversations about bias and differences,” adds Chase, “We can help our kids understand how these biases are unfair and impact people.”
5. Always Encourage Empathy
Your child is naturally empathetic, however it is still a trait that needs to be nurtured. The reason is simple: Children who are empathetic can understand the feelings of others and share similar feelings of their own; they’re able to see issues from both sides and tend to build healthy relationships with — and respect for — people of all identities and backgrounds.
To develop empathy in children, parents should make a habit of encouraging them to speak openly about their feelings, and to name — those feelings. Parents conversely, need to exercise patience when a child is experiencing a big emotion like a tantrum, thereby modeling for their child what an empathetic presence can be. Modeling empathy and compassion should be a daily practice. . Parents should regularly offer various scenarios and ask, “What would you feel like if this happened to you?” or offer them real-life situations of injustice and say, “That’s unfair. Don’t you think that’s unfair?” It’s also important to notice — and affirm — moments when a child acts with kindness and compassion.
6. Model Allyship Yourself
It’s important to take up causes that are in no way self-serving, to investigate and see the plight of other adults — friends and strangers — who are experiencing injustice. When you have kids, it’s also important to do this out loud. To explain what you see, what you want to dig into, and what you’re doing about it. Are you donating to nonprofits, volunteering your time, going to a protest, or writing letters to people in power? Great! Now let your kids know that you’re doing it and why you’re doing it. You don’t need to get them involved, especially in places where protests could be dangerous or the letters would go over their head. They’ll see what you’re doing and, one day, they’ll follow in your footsteps. That’s what parenting is all about.
For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, check out From the Start.