In fifth grade, I profiled a local business for social studies. This was Georgia in 1980, and most kids reported on Coca-Cola or an arcade, but my mom talked me into profiling M&M Products. Not the candy — the makers of Sta Sof Fro. Mind you, I’m not black nor were any of the kids in my class, so I’m sure everyone wondered why I was talking up Afro care. But none of that mattered: My mom taught me that there’s always more to learn about people who are different from me and sometimes it takes courage to learn it.
Talking about race has always been a natural part of my family: I grew up in a biracial home (my mom is white and my dad is American Indian), and now I’m married to a man who’s African American and white. We’re lucky that our two kids are growing up in a home and a city that celebrates diversity, but even we sometimes struggle when it’s time to explain tough issues. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of practice. Here are some of the strategies we use that you might find helpful, too:
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Invite conversation. If you happen to have friends and family from many cultures in your life, that's great, but don’t assume the exposure alone teaches kids what they need to know. Knowledge-by-osmosis doesn’t work. Kids will eventually see differences and have questions, and who better to answer them but you? Your family’s discussions will be based on your own heritage, so base your discussion around the values you want to teach — fairness, respect, ways people are the same or different — and decide which of your own experiences you want to share, too.
Create diversity. Look at your children’s toys, books, and movies. Take a page out of my mama’s book and look at their school projects. Are they diverse beyond the token minority? Buy dolls of different races or crayons with different skin tones. Find books like Momotaro by George Suyeoka, the Princess Cupcake Jones series by Ylleya Fields, or (my fave) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Bringing diversity into our home has, honestly, felt forced at times. But it has always provided us a thoughtful way to keep talking about race.
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Stick to the question. When my daughter was in first grade, a biography of Abraham Lincoln gave her an unfamiliar vocabulary word: “assassination.” The only thing that halted my 10-minute monologue about the Civil War and slavery was my kid asking if she could play with my iPad. If I could do it over, I’d keep her attention by sticking to the question she asked and waiting for her follow-ups. It’s important to answer every question but resist the urge to over-explain, especially to younger kids. Add more historical context as they age. The race talk is an ongoing conversation, not a one-time download. What you don’t cover today will surely come up again.
Fact-check your kids. If your child makes an insensitive comment, knowingly or not, firing back with “don’t say that” is a conversation killer, and it sends the message that it’s bad to talk about differences. Instead, as embarrassing as it may be, ask why he said it. He may just be parroting something he heard in school or misunderstanding something he saw on television. Once you’ve heard his reasons, correct them and end on a high note. Say your child comes home and says, “The new kid in class looks/talks weird.” You can explain how “different” and “weird” do not mean the same thing, then encourage him to imagine what it would be like if he were the new kid and how that might be hard. Ask him how he could make it easier for the new student. The more kids can imagine themselves in other people’s shoes, the more open and welcoming they’ll be.
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