Start Somewhere: How to start the Conversation with our Children about Racism

. June 1, 2020.
Smiling little girl

I tell my children often that change starts with small steps in the right direction. 

Viral videos showing unwarranted deaths, caught on camera, of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and countless others, highlight on-going racism in our country, sparking outrage across the globe. As an educator, mother, and professor in the department of early childhood education, I, like many of you, are deeply disturbed by continuing acts of hate in our country, and which are prevalent across the world in 2020.

Reflecting on the situation, I ask, how do we make changes toward this giant societal problem? As an advocate, championing the capabilities and strengths of our youngest humans, I know one clear way is to start with our children.

An approach to early childhood education, Anti-Bias Education, implements a classroom environment that helps young children respect and honor differences in others while at the same time teaching children not to accept unfair beliefs. Anti-bias education seeks to form positive self-identity, accept others’ diversity, support children’s identification of bias and build empathy for the hurt bias causes. These are the tools to help children stand up and speak out against bias. Implementing the anti-bias educational approach at home helps children to gain confidence in themselves, while also identifying bias and providing tolerance of difference in others.

How do we support our children and teach them to appreciate differences? Here are some very practical strategies that families can follow at home:

  1. Identify racism and call it out. Read books about racism and ask open-ended questions to help your children understand and process the actions of others.
  2. When children notice differences in others, do not shut down the conversation, rather talk about it. Allow children to discuss and ask questions in a safe space. Talk about differences and focus on what makes your own child unique. The goal is to celebrate differences in themselves and in others. 
  3. Study and research history together from non-biased sources, which, admittedly, are difficult to identify these days. Look for causes of racism and patterns that continue to exist in society. Education is power.
  4. Look for real opportunities to learn about past injustices and leaders who stepped up to push back against systems that oppressed black Americans. Make this a continuing exercise, NOT just on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. 
  5. Reflect on your own biases. How do your upbringing, experiences, and family of origin impact your thoughts?
  6. Create an anti-bias environment in your home that is rich with possibilities for exploring race/ethnicity. Materials offered to your children matter. Books, art materials, and dolls that show diversity in people of color and skin tones are great places to start.

Racism can feel so heavy and difficult to explain that we may not be sure how to respond. If families band together to stand up to racism and systematic bias, by pointing it out to our children, we will raise a generation that celebrates difference and honors people for who they are, regardless of their skin color. Help us to remember the names of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and to mourn their lives. By observing and participating in this mourning, we will stand up to the giant called racism, to facilitate a change, through our youngest and most capable humans. 

Heidi Alene Harris, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor at Ashford University, Northwest State Community College, and Spring Arbor University.