Racism, Riots & the N-Word: The Talk You're Afraid to Have With Your Kids

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My son just started kindergarten -- a bittersweet moment for just about every parent out there. We are so happy that our kids are becoming big boys and girls, yet sad to lose the toddler that used to cling to our legs. Will he share? Will he make friends? But those are not the only concerns I start off with this school year.

I find myself facing a scary dilemma: in the wake of Michael Brown's death and the racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, how do I talk to my child about race? Even more basic than that -- should I? For so long I have shielded him from those things. But what if it comes up at school? What if an older kid on the playground starts talking about police shootings of black people? How do I prepare my son for that? So I went to some experts for help.


"We should talk to children about Ferguson if they are having questions or are presented with information about it from outside sources," advises Stacy Haynes, therapist and CEO of Little Hands Family Services. "I ask most parents, 'What else in the news do we share with our children? Traffic jams? Celebrity drama? Natural disasters?' Many of us do not share the daily news with our children, so it is important to balance if we do share and not only share when a situation like Ferguson emerges, but share other news so our children do not become hypersensitive or over-aware of race issues in society. Being age-appropriate is important when having a talk with children. Always, always, always answer a child’s question with honesty."

Fortunately, my son hasn't uttered a word about it. To my relief, he's still safely ensconced in a world where Dora, Boots, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles battle all evil. But that blissful ignorance can only last so long. When is the right time, I wondered? There must be an age when there is just no avoiding the topic or doing so would make us negligent as parents. John Mayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, recommends holding off until third grade for two reasons. "One is social," he explains. "Before grade three kids are not as social. Their relationships are ‘me’ centered and the feelings and needs of others are not primary. The second is cognitive. Since they are ‘me’ centered, trying to get them to think and empathize about the plight of others is wasted effort. Noble, but wasted. And these same principles apply to children of all races."

Though, it does concern me that my son is certainly being confronted with the fact that he is "different" than many of his peers. During a playdate, a pal said to him, “You are supposed to have pink skin. Why don’t you have pink skin like me?” I was a little stunned, but I told them that everyone has different skin and that is the way it’s supposed to be. Not sure I handled it properly, but I wasn't sure what else to do. "You said the right thing," informs Dr. Haynes, author of Powerful Peaceful Parenting: Guiding Children, Changing Lives. "I have heard parents say things like, 'We all have the same red blood, and a heart which makes us all human.' Or 'Cats are different colors but they are all cats, right? It is what makes each of them unique.'"

But before any conversation on the topic, "parents also have to deal with our own issues of race," warns Dr. Haynes. "I have had an experience where a parent thought a child was racist and really the parent overreacted to a very benign comment by the child. Children are learning about race just like the rest of the things in the world. We need to teach them by modeling as well. I have a culturally diverse family and we still have conversations about race as they have come up with our children in school settings."

Adds Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, former president of the American Counseling Association, "Children are not aware of racial differences and the political meaning and social status associated with those differences until about kindergarten. Until then, children see difference but don't ascribe a qualitative difference. Once they do become aware of the socially embedded beliefs about racial differences, it is important that we help to make meaning within our own familial contexts." 

So basically, children learn to assign a certain value to being black, white, yellow, whatever, from us. Interestingly "studies have shown that African American children whose parents inform them about racism and how they may be perceived as 'threatening' or 'less than capable' by members of the dominant group tend to perform better academically than their peers and demonstrate more resilience when encountering racism," says Dr. Cirecie, Academic Program Director of the Counseling Program at the University of Cincinnati.

That was certainly my own experience. I still remember coming home my first week of kindergarten and asking my mother, "Why aren't I white?" She asked why in the world would I ask something like that. I told her that some of the white children won't play with me because I was black and that the teachers seemed to like the white children better. The next morning, my mother had a conference with the teacher and the principal. This incident stayed with me. Throughout my academic career, I strove to be the best, better than all the other students.

My son, however, is growing up in a different day and age. Things have come a long way and I don't think he will face the same thing, but race will still come up at some point. He is already highlighting certain differences between him and his classmates (he attends a predominantly white school). For example, during a party, he mentioned that we were the only ones with black eyes. I pooh-poohed the comment, but that wasn't the best way to handle it, according to the experts. "I would respond, 'Yes, we look different, but also look at the other boys, did you notice that everyone looks different?'" advises Mayer. "One has glasses, one has curly hair, one has blue eyes, one has blond hair. We are all different and that’s so great, everyone is unique. When I talk to school kids in anti-bullying assemblies, I start out pointing up these differences -- the students ‘get it.’ So, you are laying the foundation for good anti-bullying prevention."

That is fine and well, but I still fear the day someone calls my son the N-word. No matter how progressive your town or school, most parents tell me it inevitably happens. "Report this to the other child’s parents immediately," says Haynes. "I find that we can use this as a teachable moment. Racial slurs hurt everyone as there are some for every race. The victim needs to be able to express their feelings of sadness, rejection, or confusion related to it. I encourage parents to just listen and to teach your child in that moment that it was not nice and that it hurt so we need to be assertive in asking that person not to say those things. I try to teach children assertive skills versus aggression even in situations like this. We want them to walk away the winner."

However, that only addresses half the issue. What about the kid who uses a slur? The experts agree, there should be some kind of consequence, but that requires the school (if it happens on grounds) and the other parents being on board. I know that doesn't always happen. Other moms have told me that people often get defensive. ("He didn't mean anything by it. He probably doesn't know what it means.")

This is such a touchy subject and I imagine it will continue to be for the near future. Eventually, I will have to teach my son how to cope with racism and ignorant assumptions. For my family, now is not the time. Now is the time for blocks and ABCs and big boy kindergarten things. But when the time comes, this mom will be ready.

How do you talk to your kids about race issues?


Image via © Max Power/Corbis

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