Racism: How to talk to your child

Last week we marked International Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and part of the European-wide Action Week against Racism 17th-25th March. It can be hard to talk to your children about racism. Some parents worry about exposing their children to issues like racism and discrimination at an early age. Others shy away from talking about something they themselves might not fully understand or don’t feel comfortable discussing.

Conversations about racism and discrimination will look different for each family. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the earlier parents start the conversation with their children the better. Ignoring or avoiding the topic isn’t protecting children, it’s leaving them exposed to bias that exists wherever we live. Children who encounter racism, can be left feeling lost while trying to understand why they are being treated a certain way, which in turn can impact their long-term development and well-being.

The way children understand the world evolves as they grow, but it’s never too late to talk to them about equality and racism. Here are some age-appropriate ways to start that conversation and explain that racism is always wrong:

Under 5 years

At this age, children may begin to notice and point out differences in people they see around them. As a parent, you have the opportunity to gently lay the foundation of their worldview. Use language that’s age-appropriate and easy for them to understand.

  1. Recognize and celebrate differences – If your child asks about someone’s skin colour, you can use it as an opportunity to acknowledge that people do indeed look different, but to point out things we have in common. You could say, “We are all human, but we are all unique, isn’t that amazing”!
  2. Be open – Make it clear that you’re always open to your children’s questions and encourage them to come to you with them. If your children point out people who look different – as young children can often do from curiosity – avoid shushing them or they will start to believe that it’s a taboo topic.
  3. Use fairness – Children, especially those around 5, tend to understand the concept of fairness quite well. Talk about racism as unfair and unacceptable and that’s why we need to work together to make it better.

6-11 years

Children this age are better at talking about their feelings and are eager for answers. They are also becoming more exposed to information they may find hard to process. Start by understanding what they know.

  1. Be curious – Listening and asking questions is the first step. For example, you can ask what they’re hearing at school, on television and through social media.
  2. Discuss the media together – Social media and the internet may be one of your children’s main sources of information. Show interest in what they are reading and the conversations they are having online. Find opportunities to explore examples of stereotypes and racial bias in the media, such as “Why are certain people depicted as villains while certain others are not?”.
  3. Talk openly – Having honest and open discussions about racism, diversity and inclusivity builds trust with your children. It encourages them to come to you with questions and worries. If they see you as a trusted source of advice, they are likely to engage with you on this topic more.

12+ years

Teenagers are able to understand abstract concepts more clearly and express their views. They may know more than you think they do and have strong emotions on the topic. Try to understand how they feel and what they know, and keep the conversation going.

  1. Know what they know – Find out what your children know about racism and discrimination. What have they heard on the news, at school, from friends?
  2. Ask questions – Find opportunities such as events in the news for conversations with your children about racism. Ask what they think and introduce them to different perspectives to help expand their understanding.
  3. Encourage action – Being active on social media is important for many teenagers. Some may have begun to think about participating in online activism. Encourage them to do so as an active way to respond and engage with racial issues.

This article was written by the Limerick Integration Working Group on behalf of Parenting Limerick, a network of parenting and family support agencies. For more information go to www.limerickunitedagainstracism.ie.