Although children don’t come with instruction manuals, there are, thankfully, an unlimited number of books and online resources to help parents navigate the ins and outs of parenting. Many popular resources are focused on topics such as sleep training, nap lengths, feeding, discipline, and how to handle a 2-year-old’s blazing tantrum. But what about instructions for raising socially conscious children? How do you talk to a 5-year-old about skin color, diversity, or equity? Karen Tao, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the U, can help.
“Kids are complex thinkers, and they are really observant at a very young age,” says Tao. “They are watching adults and other kids, trying to make sense of how to operate and navigate their own interactions. For really young children, they’re looking at what’s right and wrong and what’s fair and not fair. It’s important to provide a space for them to have open conversations about these matters.”
Tao studies how children talk about and understand race and their other social identities. She has collaborated with elementary school teachers, students, and parents in the Salt Lake School District to implement a classroom-based program focused on topics such as race and gender. She also conducts research on how parents and kids discuss these issues. Tao stresses the importance of starting conversations about diversity early, since children as young as 2 years old are beginning to articulate their ideas about difference and developing judgments on what these differences might mean.
“Kids are hearing a lot of misinformation through media, books, and playground interactions, so it’s essential to ask questions and engage with them about these topics,” Tao says. “These conversations can build empathy, compassion, and kindness.”
Tao’s TEN tips:
Examine your own understanding of race.
If race wasn’t discussed in your household growing up, do some research on your own and reflect on what it brings up for you. The more you understand what race means and how it operates in our society, the better equipped you are to teach your children about it.
Become comfortable with terminology
and familiar with how certain concepts are used. For example, race and culture are not synonymous. It’s important to be clear and provide children with accurate terms so they can learn how to apply them.
When your child brings up a topic related to race,
don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going. This lets children know it is OK to talk about what they notice. Instead of telling kids to keep quiet, refrain from using particular words, or make specific observations out loud, talk to them. Ask them what they noticed and discuss it.
Find opportunities to ask questions.
For example, when reading a book to or with your child, ask them why someone is being treated a certain way. Is it because of their gender or skin color? Let this lead into a rich conversation.
Let children take the lead.
They will probably be the ones to initiate the conversation, so spend some time on what they bring up. Validate what they note or ask about (“That’s such a great observation...”) and then move into a discussion. Statements and questions such as, “I’d love to hear more about that,” “That’s really interesting, what made you think of this?” or “How did that make you feel when you saw that happen?” are helpful ways to deepen your conversations.
Involve your children in activities
to help them learn about their own cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. This will help them develop a greater sense of who they are, which will then enable them to create more positive interactions across various racial-ethnic groups.
Help your children to think critically.
In describing others, it is common for children to focus on concrete and visible features, such as skin color or assumed gender. Challenge them to think about other important personal dimensions. For example, if your child refers to a friend as “my brown-skinned friend,” ask her to tell you more about her friend (e.g., “What does your friend like to do?” and “What kinds of things do you play together?”).
Recognize your child’s limits,
and know when to stop. Depending on age and attention spans, conversations with children about these topics may only last a minute or two.
Initiate a book club or conversation group
with other parents who are interested in learning how to talk with their children about race. Challenges you encounter while sharing your ideas with others will normalize the difficulty in talking about socially charged topics.
It’s OK to make mistakes.
Many of us did not grow up discussing racial issues, so there is quite a steep learning curve. You will stumble over your words and may share wrong information. Let your child know that you, too, are still figuring out how to talk about these important topics, and that you are so happy you get to have these conversations together.
RECOMMENDED READS FOR KIDS
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut
Can I Touch Your Hair?
Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship
The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
The Other Side
Separate is Never Equal:
Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Freedom in Congo Square
The Year of the Dog
Brown Girl Dreaming
Save Me a Seat
Inside Out and Back Again
—Jana Cunningham BS’04 is a communications specialist with University Marketing & Communications.