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Talking to children about racism

Published on Psychology Today

The recent murder of George Floyd has triggered some of the largest protests against racism since the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, we’ve been seeing article after article about what people can do to support Black Lives Matter, and to actively work to be anti-racist. As a white woman, I grew up with all of the privileges that white people are endowed with. I don’t know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the way I look, and I don’t know what it feels like to worry about my children’s health and safety because of the color of their skin. I do know that my children are growing up in a country where people of color are still discriminated against, and where parents have to worry about their children’s wellbeing because of their race. The burden is particularly heavy on the shoulders of Black families. So as a developmental psychologist, I’ve been thinking hard about the lessons we’ve learned from child development over the years, and how we can use them to actively help raise the next generation to be anti-racist. No one has all the answers—if we did, we wouldn’t be in this predicament—but here are a few lessons from developmental science that might help parents talk to their children about racism, and to be active agents in promoting anti-racism at home.

Children recognize differences in the way people look early in development

Decades of research suggests babies are especially attuned to people’s faces right from birth. Only a few hours after seeing faces for the very first time, newborns already prefer to look at faces than at other objects, and over the first few months of life, infants become fast experts at recognizing the faces of the people most familiar to them (Johnson & Morton, 1991). One consequence of this rapid learning is that infants begin to prefer the faces they know best by 3 months of age, which tends to be faces of their own race (Kelly et al., 2005), and they begin to have trouble distinguishing between two faces of other races by 9 months of age (Kelly et al., 2007).

Part of why infants begin distinguishing between the faces of other races so early in life is because there are groups of facial features that make people look different from one another. We often use cues like skin color and the shape and spacing of a person’s facial features to identify them as belonging to one racial group or another. Before children understand what makes people the same or different on the inside, they rely heavily on these perceptual similarities or dissimilarities to group people. In other words, children notice physical features that often determine things like race and gender early on, and they use these physical features to distinguish between themselves and others, and to build their own identities.

The good news is that diversity in infants’ everyday experiences can shape the way they learn to look at faces, and exposure to the faces other races can help make those faces just as familiar as the faces of a child’s own race. For example, if children live in neighborhoods where they are exposed to people of other races, they will maintain the ability to differentiate between their faces (Bar-Haim et al., 2006). Similarly, if infants get brief daily exposure to photographs of individuals of other races, they also maintain the ability to distinguish between them, even if they live in communities without a lot of diversity (Anzures et al., 2012). The take home message here is that babies are so good at learning about faces, that their daily exposure to particular faces makes them become fast experts at identifying faces like those in their experience. But this rapidly developing expertise comes at a cost; they lose the ability to recognize faces that are uncommon. One potential solution is to make sure that facial diversity isn’t so uncommon in children’s lives.

Talk to children about race, but be careful of racist language

Since children will begin noticing physical differences between people at an early age, it’s important not to ignore these differences in an attempt to promote “color blindness.” By teaching children that differences in race shouldn’t be noticed or acknowledged only creates more confusion. Children do indeed notice that people have different characteristics and might begin talking and asking questions about race as early as the preschool years, just around the same time they notice differences in gender. It’s important to note that it’s not racist to notice and talk about how someone looks different than you, so if your child points out that someone has dark skin while someone else has light skin, it’s okay to acknowledge their point and to even use it as a way to start a conversation about race.

But, at the same time, it’s also important to be careful not to make value judgements based on race, and not to make generalizations about people based on race. For example, research suggests that using generalizations about people of a particular group, like “girls are good at math,” and “Latinos live in Union City,” even if they are positive or neutral, can encourage children to think of girls and Latinos as homogenous groups, with distinct features that are different from other groups (Rhodes et al., 2018). Instead of saying something like “Latinos live in Union City,” try using more specific language that isn’t about a particular race or gender, like “Her Grandma is Latina and lives in Union City.” And if you hear your children make similar generic statements, bringing it back to a specific individual (instead of a group of people) can help.

Teach them empathy and fairness

Another way we can promote anti-racism at home is to teach children about empathy and fairness from an early age. Both fairness and empathy stem from understanding what another person might be feeling or thinking, which is something that develops slowly, and doesn’t come easy for children. This understanding starts to develop in infancy and continues into the preschool years. Empathy predicts all sorts of positive outcomes, including sharing and fairness, as well as positive social relationships, close friendships, cooperation, and even school success. However, an important downside of both empathy and fairness is that we don’t dole them out evenly. In fact, most of us are more likely to feel empathetic toward people who are like us—members of our family, community, race, or ethnicity. On top of that, empathy for in-group members can even result in experiencing less empathy towards out-group members (e.g., Bruneau, Cikara, & Saxe, 2017), which might even make racism more likely (Bloom, 2017).

To combat this potential issue, contact with individuals who are different from us can help us to behave more empathetically. Further, talking to children about their emotions and the emotions of others can help promote empathy as well. Indeed, parents who talk to their kids about their emotions have children who are higher in empathy, and behave more prosocially (Brownell, Svetlova, Anderson, Nichols, & Drummond, 2013; Garner, Dunsmore, & Southam-Gerrow, 2008). A secure, warm, and responsive relationship between parents and children is also related to empathy (Stern & Cassidy, 2017; Spinrad & Eisenberg, 2019). In fact, some researchers have suggested that parents might be able to model prosocial behaviors for their children (e.g., Eisenberg, VanSchnydel, & Hofer, 2015), so promoting a fair and empathetic environment at home might produce more fair and empathetic kids, and maybe even a kinder, fairer, more empathetic you.

Include diversity in every aspect of your life

The message that ties all of these issues together is that including diversity in every aspect of children’s lives from an early age can help promote an anti-racist future. This might not be as hard as you think. Consider looking for books to read with your children and look for tv shows and movies that feature people from many different races and backgrounds. Further, being conscious about the way we talk about diversity and model fairness and empathy at home can help mitigate the fact that children will inevitably notice differences between people purely based on the way they look. If we acknowledge these differences, but don’t associate them with particular groups or stereotypes, children have a better chance of growing up without confounding differences in how people look on the outside with differences in who they are on the inside, or how they should be treated. Finally, don’t be afraid to talk to children about race. Use their curiosity as a tool to encourage conversations about how they can be active agents in promoting anti-racism in their communities.

Photo by hepingting/Flickr


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