The struggle for racial justice in America is playing out in real time on the streets and on television, leaving many parents wondering how to talk to their children about racism and privilege.
The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have parents searching for the right words.
“Since kids can learn both unhealthy habits or develop healthy habits, talking about issues of race and promoting awareness about differences and systemic problems related to differences can actually help quite a lot,” said Dr. Robert D. Keder of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
Keder, who specializes in developmental pediatrics, said there is no perfect age to start talking about racism with kids, as long as it is done in a developmentally appropriate manner.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, has two kids who are 11 and 8. She said she was able to talk about the idea of race when they were much younger by talking about how diversity is a good thing.
“I would talk about the color of skin just like, ‘You have blonde hair and my daughter has brown hair and you have blue eyes and she has brown eyes and some people have black skin and some people have brown skin and you have white skin,’” Gilchrest said. “I always, from the beginning, tried to talk about it as we’re all different and difference isn’t bad. DIfference is what makes us special.”
As part of a white family, Gilchrest said that it is important for her kids to grow up understanding their privilege. She said the current protests create a perfect moment to address the opportunities her son, who is 11, has afforded to him just because of how he looks.
“I am trying to use these situations to make him aware of privilege,” Gilchrest said. “He has black friends and I will say that the conversations that they have their whole life are much different and that we need to use that privilege to work against racism and be as kind as we can be.”
Gilchrest noted that her strategy of sprinkling conversations about race into her household dialogue when the opportunity arises is privilege in and of itself. She acknowledged that black families do not have the ability to avoid the conversation.
“My heart breaks when I go to these events and I am thinking about how challenging it must be for a parent who doesn’t have the privilege of bringing it up in sprinkles,” Gilchrest said.
Keder recommends that parents who are unsure about how to talk about privilege should start by recognizing that it exists.
“Even though it’s not an okay phenomenon, racism is a phenomenon that people are biologically and psychologically susceptible and the first step to addressing it is acknowledging it and talking about how to undo it,” Keder said. “The issue with privilege is, we don’t often know we have it.”
Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford has three daughters, and while he said they’ve always been aware of the world around them, they have been particularly aware about George Floyd’s death and its aftermath. He said he’s been putting current events in a historical context to talk to them about racial injustice.
“I try to put it in the context of slavery and civil rights being violated at the founding of our country and certainly the unfair way African Americans have been treated by police departments historically,” Rojas said.
If your child has been learning about historical concepts related to race in school, Keder said this is a good starting point for a conversation, but then it is important to go beyond and explore.
“When families can get excited and start researching a topic, go to the library, look stuff up on the internet, find resources about celebrating ethnic and racial diversity, that is really helpful,” Keder said.
Gilchrest and Rojas have taken their kids to local racial justice marches this week to demonstrate that the history of racism in America is still alive.
“They are seeing it up close and you can see them reading the signs. Some of the signs use more colorful language than others, but it is putting it in very real terms for them,” Rojas said.
For parents who aren’t comfortable attending protests or haven’t yet started talking to their kids about racism, there are resources available. Rojas and Keder recommend the CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall about racism that can be streamed online. Keder said the most important thing for parents to do is to not stay silent on the issue.
“As a developmental pediatrician, I’d like to think the roots of all things start early, so the earlier we do this, the more we can see change as a long-term investment,” Keder said.