How Children Understand Race and How Adults Can Help

On January 30th, many families attended Professor Erin Winkler’s webinar, “How Children Understand Race and How Adults Can Help,” that Ms. O’Toole shared in the January 29th newsletter. The recording is available here with a high-level summary provided below. (Prof. Winkler’s talk begins at about the 11-minute mark of the video and is 1 hour before Q & A).

Prof. Winkler shared studies that demonstrate that children begin categorizing race as early as three months old through non-verbal tests and that by three to five years old, children of all backgrounds begin to show racial biases.

Our silence as parents is backfiring!

Before 9 yrs old, few parents are likely to discuss the racial inequities that their young children see in the media, on playgrounds, at school, in stores, between neighbourhoods, etc. However, research suggests that children’s ideas are forming early and societal messages are already getting in. If we do not discuss race and inequities early-on, children make presumptions on their own. Young children are not intentionally bigoted; they are simply learning the world and observing adult silence.

What can we do?

  1. Work on ourselves. If we do not understand or feel comfortable talking to issues with our peers, it is difficult to talk to kids in age-appropriate ways. Educate ourselves – commit to a concerted, ongoing effort.
  2. Normalize anti-racist talk. Avoid silence and colourblind language. Parents are generally fine talking about gender inequities but less comfortable talking about race. Bring it up and address it directly. Use the concept of fairness to help (kids are attuned to what is fair and what is not).
  3. Empower! Always couple discussions of unfairness with empowerment tools. Talk to your kids when they mention an injustice. For example, say to your child, “Glad you see that this is unfair and other people see this as unfair too. There are people working to change this unfairness. We can do things to help too.” Young kids need concrete examples – need to see it, feel it, touch it. Show and involve kids. How are we going to be part of this work? This is a societal responsibility – not about being mean or nice.
  4. Connect the past with the present. When we focus on racism in the past, this actually increases racial bias in children. Therefore, we must explain how racism in the past still affects us in the present. When we see something in the present, try to tell kids why this happened. For example, the issue of blackface. If a child asks why green makeup is okay for a superhero costume, but black makeup is not okay to dress like someone they admire, explain why. Parents can share that a long time ago, white people used black makeup to make black people feel less human and this was wrong and it caused a lot of inequalities and unfairness. We have to remember the effect of these things that happened a long time ago. We still see some people today that don’t believe that black lives matter and we want to make sure they do. Help children recognize, name, and work against racism today in all its forms. A lot of racism today is more subtle and might not be intentional.
  5. Model! We are teaching children about race all the time, even if we’re not talking about it. What choices are we making about our environments and theirs? How are we reacting to racialized situations? Are we sending a “do as I say, not as I do” message? For example, we may tell kids to have a diverse group of friends, but then, as grownups, we only invite people over who look like us. Acknowledge your feelings and show you’re always learning. Kids understand if you say, “I feel upset that I don’t know the answer to this, and I think I should have learned about it in school. I want to learn about this, let’s learn about it together.”
  6. Help kids process and prepare. Help kids process feelings if your child experiences or witnesses racism or unfairness. Talk about how you felt when this happened to you or when you witnessed it. Think about how you might react and engage if you see this in the future. Help them think about strategies in their everyday lives. Ask questions such as: “What makes you say that?” This question helps you understand your child’s thinking, as sometimes as adults we misunderstand children’s thinking.
  7. Teach critical race literacy. Teach kids to pick out and critique racially biased messages (whether in the media, laws/rules, the curriculum). For example, ask kids: What doesn’t seem quite right here? What are the patterns we are seeing and why are we seeing them? Can we make suggestions on what we can do to take action as a family?
  8. The APA recognizes that we are all at different parts in this dialogue. The newly formed APA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee is here to help the Allenby community engage in difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. We look forward to organizing a speaker for the Allenby community and we will include relevant resources on the new Diversity, Equity & Inclusion section of the APA website.