"What is Diversity?"

How to Discuss Race and Culture with Your Kids

Regardless of your viewpoint on the issues of the day, race is once again front and center on the evening news. In the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island unrest, our kids have been increasingly exposed to very adult conversations about race. 

This reality may beg the question, how do I talk about race with my child? As with any issue, behaviorists tell us, the first rule of thumb is to model the behavior you want. 


1. Practice diversity.

Be a positive race-relations model in practical ways by demonstrating diversity in your own life. Ask yourself: Do I have friends of other races? If most of your friends are from your own race and culture, you may want to consider opportunities for you and your child to interact with a more diverse social group. One way to do this: Attend a different church on Sunday. Observe how the congregation worships. Find something to appreciate about the service or customs and comment about it to your child. 

Openly and verbally appreciate other races and cultures in front of your child. Watch a TV program that features a different culture, then compare what you see with a similar circumstance from your own family life. Pinpoint one thing that you like about the show and state it out loud. 


2. Listen first.

Don’t assume shared understandings about race. Sociologists assert that children process differences and similarities in their own distinct way. Here’s an example: A teacher noticed that a group of 6-year-olds on a playground were not including one classmate in particular, an African American girl. Before intervening, the teacher listened to the girls and found that the majority preferred to play with other kids who wore ribbons in their hair, which the African American girl did not. She was therefore excluded not because of race but because of ribbons. 

To adult eyes, the game looked racist, but race was not a factor to the children controlling the game. In fact, after one girl became aware of this, she began sharing her own ribbons with the African American girl, who then joined in the play. The astute teacher praised the sharing behavior and used it as an object lesson about inclusion.


3. Answer questions in an age-appropriate way.

Race-relations expert Alvin Poussaint, MD, professor of psychiatry and faculty associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School, identifies two critical development ages when race and culture questions are likely to occur: when kids are between 6 and 8 and the teenage years. These stages are times when a child’s world is expanding and her values are forming and solidifying. Responding to questions in simple, honest terms is important. “I don’t know” and “Give me a chance to think about that and then we will talk” are appropriate responses to race-related questions from time to time.

If your 7-year-old comes home and states that a classmate has an Asian mom and a black dad, “Isn’t that weird?” you may choose to say, “Not weird, just different from us.” If your teen asks what you think about his school renaming its sports teams because Native Americans find the term “Redskins” to be offensive, use the question as an opportunity to discuss your own beliefs about racial slurs while demonstrating respect that others might not see things the same way. Visit Civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children for more advice.


Laura Reagan-Porras, MS is a clinical sociologist and freelance writer. She and her husband raise two daughters in a bicultural, bilingual home.

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