Talking to Kids About Race in Emotionally Charged Times

Waking up at 5:30 am to prep for a 7:00 am radio show interview this week reminded me of my early years as a teacher, when I would wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 to try to get to my classroom by 6:30 or 7:00 am, before the kids came at 8:00.  Or when I was a director and had to wake up at 4:30 am to figure out whether to open the program or close for snow or ice (hands down my LEAST favorite part of that job.) 

I am not naturally a morning person, so in both the teaching and parenting worlds the early morning requirements are not my favorite!  (Maybe you can relate?)  We do it, though, because those kids matter and they need us.

Doing an early morning radio show this week was worth it to me because I got to talk with writer, blogger, and radio host Monique Ruffin about issues near and dear to both our hearts:  questions around race, racial justice, how we can move towards more health and healing.  

Like getting up early in the morning, conversations about race and racism can be uncomfortable, but as parents and teachers, we’re already used to doing hard stuff to make the world a better place for kids.  We can learn how to do this too.

In the interview, I talked about my own journey from:

  • protected, shy, White child discovering the story of Martin Luther King in my school library and getting odd comments from the librarian about my interest,
  • to “inner-city”-teacher-trying-to-save-the-world-and-(unconsciously)-assuage-my-white-guilt,
  • to burnt-out-“inner- city”-teacher-retreating-into-research-and, which also lead to a deep dive learning about self-compassion and self-care,
  • to being a White person (still!) who is finding new ways to engage as partner with People of Color in communities of mutual respect and as myself, a sensitive, mostly introverted, spiritual and reflective teacher/writer/historian/life coach.

If you’re interested in hearing some of my journey, you can listen to yesterday’s interview here – or you might want to read my very first blog post if you didn’t catch that one. 

For today, I want to share a few ideas I shared when I spoke with Monique a few months ago.  At that time (prior to the presidential election in the U.S.) we were talking specifically about how we, as adults, can talk with kids about racial bias and violence at a time when it is increasingly visible in schools and in the media.  

I don’t have all the answers, for sure.  But I have learned a few things on my journey that you might find useful as you seek to help the kids you care about become happy and healthy citizens of an amazing and diverse world.

1. Do your own work around your personal racial (and cultural/ethnic) identity/identities. This work is will be ongoing, complex, and different for People of Color and White people in many ways, but committing to take that journey and get whatever help we need along the way is an essential foundation for our work with kids

  • For White folks this process may involve starting with the realization that we have a culture and a racial identity.  We are not just “normal.”  And then learning how to face what that means in our history and how we can begin to move through shame to develop a positive racial identity.  It also involves doing this work without making People of Color do it with us or for us.
  • For People of Color, the identity journey often (almost always) involves working through anger, times of focus on one’s own racial/cultural group, and maybe also addressing some “internalized racism”—places where there’s been a rejection of self because of the ways Blackness or Brownness is devalued in the surrounding culture.   

2. When possible, process your emotions—whether those related to history, your current experiences or racialized incidents in the news—without involving the children in your care.   If we’re afraid, or angry, or defensive, or shocked, it is helpful if we can protect our children from the full force of that emotion (though not from all of it.)  To do that, we need to process our feelings with other adults or by journaling, meditation or prayer. 

3. At the same time, be authentic and honest – in developmentally appropriate ways.  A few examples:

  • Admit to your six-year-old that you’re scared, but tell what you are doing about it and how committed you are to keeping them safe.  Don’t say you’re not afraid when you are.  They’ll know.  
  • Don’t tell your eight-year-old  “all police officers are helpers” if you don’t believe that to be true.  Talk instead about how she can determine who is a helper and who isn’t, how to read cues in the behavior of adults to determine who is safe or not, where they are likely to find safe adults and some examples of safe adults they know and where they would find them. 
  • Teach your children about the ways that the world can be unsafe for them or their friends—just like you do when you tell toddlers that dangerous to run into a busy street and then teach them how they can determine when it’s safe to cross.  (Most parents and teachers of color are doing this already, but White adults usually need to learn how.) 
  • When a child brings up a racially charged incident, follow their lead.   Ask them questions to see what they know and how much you should say to address their need in that moment.  They will let you know what they're ready for.  If you aren’t sure what to say, it’s okay to let them know that too.  Tell them you’ll get back to them, and then do make sure you do it.

4. Lay a foundation of intentionally supporting a positive and realistic racial identity for your child or students (YES! This includes White children) and also support positive views of people who are different from them.  We don’t leave children on their own trying to figure out how to count.  We help them learn.  We correct them when they make mistakes.  Why would we leave them alone in trying to figure out this really confusing and hard part of life? Kids know and notice A LOT more than we think they do.  Even children as young as two are noticing racial differences and biases.  They may, for example, begin to think that all teachers are white or all housekeepers are Latina, if that’s what they see in their neighborhoods.  They may begin to think that brown skin is ugly or abnormal or scary if they never see brown-skinned characters in books or dolls.  But we can combat these stereotypes by seeking out toys and books and stories that challenge them, going to varied cultural events in other neighborhoods, talking directly about for where stereotypes show up in books or on T.V.

5. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.  This is hard stuff, that’s why we often avoid it if we can.  Give yourself time to learn.  Get support.  Don’t be afraid to let your kids/students know that you’re a work in process.

I’ve compiled a list of resources for those of you who are interested in learning more and finding greater support for yourself around these issues.  It includes websites, books, blogs and organizations for parents, teachers and kids.   (And please feel free to share with me what you’ve found to be helpful as well!)  Shoot me an email at and I'll add your ideas or leave a comment below.  

This is barely the tip of the iceberg, I know, but I hope it gives you a place to start.

Here’s to thriving!