How to Talk to Kids About Racism, Protests and Injustice

For many parents, talking to their children about the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd may seem daunting. Racismpolice brutality and civil disobedience are big topics that some parents might feel afraid to broach. Yet experts say it is essential to address them.

“Not talking about it sends a message that maybe what (children are) feeling isn’t right,” Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, a Maryland pediatrician and an author of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health, told TODAY Parents. “It also sends a message when it comes time to deal with hard conversations and hard issues … that perception that child has is, ‘I'm not going to be able to open up my (parents).'”

Sometimes parents shy away from a topic because they might not understand it well. But admitting to not knowing shows kids that parents are human — and are willing to look for an answer. Both the AAP and the American Psychological Association have talking points for parents to discuss race, for example.

“It is OK not to know how to talk about (a topic) and not exactly know what to say,” Dougé said.

But being silent can give children unrealistic views.

“If we brush it under the carpet … the message we are giving to our children is racism doesn’t exist, races don’t exist,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, told TODAY Parents. “Racism does exist … it’s really important to talk about it.”

Dougé and Nunez shared ways to talk to children about the protests, Floyd's death and racism.

Preschool and kindergarten

Research indicates that even infants notice racial differences, so kids are noticing it way before many parents even think about it. With younger children, books and toys can be good tools to help recognize and celebrate differences.

“Kids are starting to see what other people look like and what's normal. A white kid can ride a bike or black kids can ride a bike or Hispanic kids can ride a bike,” Dougé said. “Kids need to be exposed to differences that are normal and celebrated.”

To talk about racism and the protests with kids this age, Nunez suggests using the concept of fairness because little children understand this.

“Explain it in terms with experience that they've had. So maybe you talk about the time their brother got something and they didn't. Start explaining the concept of inequality and then to relating it to the protests,” Nunez said.

Elementary school

When it comes to older children, parents can talk more specifically about what their children have heard or watched.

“Then parents can say, ‘Let's talk a little bit more about your thoughts about that,’” Dougé said. “We’ve got to talk about it with them to validate their feelings.”

It’s important for parents to listen to their children and respond to what they say while still relating it to their children’s experiences.

“They need to know they are being heard and have a safe area to process these feelings and ask a question,” Nunez said.

Middle school

As children get older the conversations will be more advanced, but it is still important for parents to keep an open mind. Parents should encourage middle school children to ask questions.

“See what they're feeling, then gauge your conversation based on that,” Nunez said. “They need to know they have can a voice about it, they know they're being heard, they know they have a safe area to process these uncomfortable conversations.”

Dougé says it’s important for parents to watch media with their children or simply talk about what they’re watching.

“Let them, perhaps, direct the conversation,” she said. “There's also an opportunity if your son or daughter is telling you about this video they saw on YouTube to say, ‘OK, I haven't seen that, can I see that?”

High school

Again, it is important to ask questions to high school students, but parents should expect that teens are familiar with protests (and racial inequality).

“You've got to be honest with yourself that they know about it. This is everywhere,” Dougé said.

But understanding what they know and adding context can help.

“It's really important to hear their voice, but then also use books to show them images of historic protests,” Nunez said. “Really start showing the history of race and racism and protesting because it's not something that's new. It's something that has existed and it's a part of our history.”

It can also be a time where parents talk to their teens about critical thinking and media literacy. Parents can say something like: “Oh, that's interesting. Where did you get that information?” Dougé suggested.

“These are opportunities when they're starting to become independent and parents are helping them develop those skills,” Dougé said. “You're shepherding your kids so that they can become an adult that's a free thinker and can make the world a better place. I think that's what all parents want for their kids.”

Books that can help

The authors of the book "All American Boys" joined TODAY to discuss how to talk about racism, protests and police violence with kids. Their book is about two boys, one black, one white, whose lives are forever linked and changed by an act of police violence. Here are Jason Reynolds' and Brendan Kiely recommend the following books for further reading by parents and kids:

  • "Ways to Make Sunshine," by Renée Watson
  • "Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures," by Natasha Marin
  • "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You," by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • "Let's Talk About Race," by Julius Lester and Karen Barbour (for very young readers)
  • "This Side of Home," by Renée Watson (for Middle Grade and YA readers)
  • "So You Want To Talk About Race," by Ijeoma Oluo (for adults)
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