There is no exact script for talking to children about race or racism.
The conversations will look different in every family, depending on the family’s racial makeup, the age of the children and, probably, the day.
But one thing is for sure, said Maisha Gillins, parents do not have to be experts on race or racism to have meaningful, ongoing conversations with their children. Gillins is Anne Arundel County Public Schools’ executive director of equity and accelerated student achievement.
Though these conversations may be difficult, now is the time to engage children in them, panelists said at an event sponsored by AACPS and local nonprofit Kindness Grows Here Thursday night entitled, “Talking to Children About Race.” Parents of elementary-aged children outlined reasonable expectations for parents having conversations about race, reviewed key definitions and outlined the Black Lives Matter movement in kid-friendly terms during the 90-minute Zoom meeting.
The event took place about one month after a video surfaced of George Floyd, a Black man, being killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, prompting nationwide protests and marches against police brutality and systemic racism. In Anne Arundel County, peaceful protests, marches and vigils for victims are still planned through next week.
Four parents of elementary-aged children acted as panelists, and chief among their recommendations was the call on parents to only answer questions their child is asking — not more — and for a willingness to find answers together if a child asks a question the parent is unable to answer.
The panelists said talking about race with children should not be a one time lesson, but an ongoing conversation to help them understand the world around them and how they fit into it.
“If your 4-year-old said, ‘How are babies made?' you don’t immediately jump into the detailed mechanics of sex,” said Kristen Caminiti, founder of Kindness Grows Here. “You might say, ‘A woman has an egg and a man has a seed, and they put them together and a baby starts to grow.‘ ”
One child might say “OK” and move on, where another might continue to ask followup questions. The same is likely to happen in conversations about race and racism, Caminiti said.
“We shouldn’t teach our kids not to see color. We should teach our kids to see all the beautiful colors of the world and to celebrate those differences and to appreciate them for making the world more interesting and better,” Caminiti said.
Using age-appropriate definitions is essential in discussing race with kids, she said. Where an older child might be able to understand a more nuanced definition of racism, it’s probably best to start an elementary child out by explaining that, “Racism is when someone is hated, excluded, or treated badly or unfairly because of their race or the color of their skin.”
When engaging these topics with his Black children, Esau Venzen said he is careful to prioritize affirmation of his sons.
“I put my children in front of the mirror, and I constantly point out just how special they are how beautiful they are and how they need to appreciate who they are, from top to bottom. And that is not to say that I teach them that they’re any more special and beautiful than anyone else,” Venzen said.
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He said they have to love themselves first, and “I don’t believe that that would just happen if I would have just let my boys just sit in front of TV and choose whatever they want to watch.”
Being a living example to his children is also important, he said. Interacting in a diverse community, Venzen said he makes an effort to treat everyone the same, regardless of their racial background.
Katara West said the conversation about race and racism began as soon as they were born, with the toys she let them play with, the books she read to them, and the images she showed them.
“As a Black mother, I can’t afford to, and my kids can’t afford for me to sit idly by and wait for history to repeat itself,” West said. “I need those spaces that my kids occupy with other people to be filled with teaching, love and support and encouragement, understanding and not that of hate and fear.”
Brian Whitley, who is white, challenged other white parents to educate themselves, become anti-racist and raise anti-racist children. He teaches his kids about racism and the real-world impacts it has, but he said he tries to also teach them that racial and cultural differences make the world wonderful and interesting.
“It’s okay to not have all the answers, you’re gonna mess it up, but it’s not okay to remain silent, or treat [race] like a taboo subject,” Whitley said.
Though he, too, has been sure to present his children with diverse media from the time they were young, he said “that alone isn’t enough, you have to point out those differences and make it a conscious thing to celebrate those differences in a positive way.”