Now is a good time to talk with kids about race

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The highly publicized killings of Ahmaud Arbery (February 2020), Breonna Taylor (March 2020) and, most recently, George Floyd (May 2020) have resulted in children asking their parents poignant questions about injustice, racism, bigotry, oppression, discrimination, protest and civil unrest. These are new questions for some parents, so they are often caught off guard.

For other parents, these are old questions that they thought had evolved and dissipated into the fabric of our melting pot American society. For years, black parents have debated whether they should introduce race and discrimination to their children in hopes that not talking about these topics would insulate them from the pain experienced by previous generations. These murders, shown repeatedly on all types of media, have resulted in a fury of peaceful and violent protests nationally. Along with the demonstrations, a loud new discourse on racism has begun.

One of the challenges that parents face when responding to questions about race is that some adults have never really reflected on their attitudes and feelings about race. Some people get uncomfortable when the topic comes up. People often whisper when they refer to a person’s race as if it is a taboo subject.

Lisa Hill

Lisa Hill

When parents ask me how they should address their children’s questions about race, I tell them to first honestly self-reflect on their views about race. My elders greatly influenced my initial opinion on race relations. I was raised to be proud of my heritage and culture; however, the elders’ transient comments indirectly shaped my views on race. They would say things like: “If I were not black, I would be permitted to….” “If I were not black, that negative action would not have happened to me.” “If I were white, I would have access to….” These statements led me to associate my black race with adverse outcomes. In retrospect, I understand that my elders were describing their own unjust experience with being black, not the objective truth about race. Parents who have not explored their race issues should not engage in this critical topic with children because it may lead to confusion. There are scholarly resources that guide parents on how to discuss issues around race.

According to Dana Williams, author of “Beyond the Golden Rule: Teaching Children About Tolerance,” parents must speak openly and honestly about race relations. Williams’ publication offers a guide for parents and teachers of children of different ages. Ijeoma Oluo writes in her New York Times bestseller, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” that people of all races need to have an honest conversation about race.

According to Dr. Natalie Cort, a psychology professor at William James College, children as young as 3 years old begin to form negative racial biases, and by 11 years old, these perspectives are “crystallized.” Cort advises parents to start this conversation sooner than later and make it clear that they are willing to discuss the topic as often as needed. She believes the conversation on race should begin with the history of race relations in the United States. (Read more: Talk to kids about race, experts say. Here’s how to start — Boston Globe).

Notwithstanding a teacher’s guide on race, injustice, racism, bigotry, oppression and discrimination, when parents take on these topics with their children, they must be emotionally prepared for the conversation. Children will pick up on discomfort, especially emotional dissonance, which results when a person’s beliefs and behaviors do not align. Parents must first determine if they are harboring any biases, and if so, parents can decide whether to tell their subjective truth or the objective truth. The latter reality is grounded in facts. For example, when discussing the recent killing of Floyd, parents may objectively rely on the U.S. legal system, based on the U.S. Constitution, for guidance. According to Jack Zaremba, former prosecutor in Will County, Illinois, the presumption of innocence “is one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system.” He reminds us that the idea of being innocent until proven guilty means that a person suspected of a crime, such as trying to pass a counterfeit bill, is accepted to be innocent until he or she has been found guilty of the crime by a court with appropriate jurisdiction. While enjoying the presumption of innocence, no one should be punished and certainly not killed. Before punishment is applied, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect did break the law. Asphyxiating a person suspected of committing a crime is in direct violation of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, assuring citizens that no one is deprived of life or liberty without due process of law.

Parents are encouraged to have courageous conversations with their children about national protests. As Cort suggests, be prepared to discuss these issues with children over and over. During this time of civil unrest, parents must pay attention that their children are not experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety. Parents should also be mindful of their children’s developmental age and cognitive level. For some young children, each time the same graphic images show on social media, they may view these events as independent events occurring regularly. They may not understand that many media outlets are covering the same news. For some children, the ongoing unrest makes them feel vulnerable and that the world is not safe. For some older children, the protests are a social outlet and a means to escape the dreaded monotony that has resulted from the shelter-in-place.

Now is a good time for parents to have a courageous conversation with children about race.

Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at

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