How parents and educators can talk to kids
Realize it’s never too early.
Experts point to research showing that infants as young as 3 months old can start to recognize — and respond to — differences in skin color and facial features. “There’s a lot of hesitancy to introduce this topic to kids young, but they’re sponges, they’re already aware of it before we know,” Yuki Yamazaki, a psychotherapist studying Asian Americans and colorism at Fordham University, said.
Sonia Smith-Kang, president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, said children don’t always have the words to explain what they’re seeing or feeling, so parents and educators have to be proactive in starting conversations. “Kids see color and learn to become silent or attribute negative connotations to it when parents are silent, so it’s imperative to discuss race early and often,” she said.
Don’t rush to get an uncomfortable conversation over with, because it can send a message.
Yamazaki said it’s important to stay calm and neutral during these conversations, even if they cover difficult and uncomfortable topics. Children can easily pick up on whether an adult is anxious, nervous, stressed or wants to end a talk quickly, “and that’s setting a behavioral frame about how we treat conversations about race,” she said. “But we know these continued dialogues are where we can make changes and impact, so modeling is really important.”
Use age-appropriate language and these scripted suggestions.
Yamazaki said explaining racism should be age-appropriate and draw on language already used in the home or classroom. For younger children, she suggests starting with, “People are being hurt because of the way they look,” and as they get older, parents can add more detail and specificity like, “People are being judged based on the color of their skin.” Language also depends on the race of the child. Particularly for white children, she said, it’s important to talk about how some people look differently but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to treat them differently.
Smith-Kang said that these conversations can start with things children see everyday.
“As you read books, watch TV or observe what is going on around you, talk to your children about who’s left out and who’s included,” she said. “How are they being treated when they are included? Are the characters diverse? Are there BIPOC characters?” she said, referring to Black, Indigenous or people of color.
Belinda Lei, managing director of Act to Change, a nonprofit dedicated to combating anti-AAPI bullying in schools, said parents and teachers can also help kids identify what racism looks like in the real world, which can include picking on, insulting, excluding or being aggressive to someone because of their race; calling someone names or using racial slurs in person or online; or making fun of someone’s name, hair, clothing or food in a way that’s connected to their race or religion.
Ask open-ended questions. Here are some examples:
Another strategy, especially for older kids, is to ask open-ended questions about what they know about race and racism or what’s happening in the news. Yamazaki suggested questions like, “Have you ever experienced something like this?” or “How does hearing about this make you feel?” This gives parents a sense of where their children are starting in terms of race and can be an easier way to start conversations since it gives children the opportunity to lead.
Lei said it’s important for parents and teachers to welcome this kind of dialogue. “The best ways to approach these conversations are being open to questions for your kids, to build their trust in you, even if you don’t have all the answers,” she said.
For teachers, be aware of these microaggressions, which you might unknowingly enact.
According to Act to Change surveys, Asian American children are less likely than their peers to report being bullied, so adults need to be proactive in starting these conversations, Lei said. Teachers must also be mindful of their own words and behavior in the classroom.
“There’s a lot of microaggressions, too, that an educator can have,” she said.
Learning to pronounce names correctly can make Asian American students feel more welcome in the classroom. And when a child comes forward saying another student has bullied or teased them, it’s important to take it seriously. Affirm them, let them know you support them, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“Encourage them in being able to safely stand up,” Lei said.
Talk to all students about racism and bystander intervention.
Lei said teachers should remember it’s not just Asian American students who need a lesson in protecting themselves and coming forward. Talking to all students about bullying and racism is important, and every child should know what to do if they’re a bystander. For instance, she said if a child hears a slur directed at them or someone else, the child should state that the slur is hurtful, and then tell an adult present, if it’s safe to do so. If the child doesn’t feel safe, they should find an adult they trust and tell them. If the person using the slur is a friend, Lei said, the child can advocate for themselves and ask the friend about their intention behind what they said and help them understand that it’s hurtful and inappropriate.
Empower, don’t victimize.
Smith-Kang said one of the most important things adults can do for young kids is to teach them to love and celebrate themselves and their heritage despite anything they might face at school. Be an example of an anti-racist and your kids will follow. “Demonstrate kindness and stand up for every person’s right to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said.
It’s also important to balance difficult conversations about racism with positive portrayals of diverse people in books, music and TV, Yamazaki said. This shows kids that “we can also talk about the beautiful, wonderful things about diversity and religion,” she said. “That models that this is a big aspect of people and our lives and the world, but it’s not always because of bad things.”