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by Laura Reagan-Porras, MS
January 19 marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year. Held the third Monday of January every year, the holiday honors the birth of the iconic civil rights leader and activist. King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. As we pause as families to remember the lessons King taught, issues of race seems more prevalent than ever, in our neighborhoods, and on the evening news.
Our children are often exposed to very adult conversations about race. This reality may prompt the question of how to talk about race with your child. As with any issue, behaviorists tell us, the first rule of thumb about discussing race with children is to model the behavior you want to see in them.
1. Be a good race relations role model. Practice diversity.
Demonstrate positive race relations in practical ways in your own life by demonstrating diversity. Ask yourself, do I have friends of other races? If most of your friends are from your own race and culture, you may want to consider opportunities for you and your child to interact with other races and cultures. Attend a different church on Sunday. Observe how they worship. Find something to appreciate about it and comment on it to your child.
You may wonder if you should openly and verbally appreciate other races and cultures in front of your child. If you see a television program about a different culture, use the opportunity to discuss a different way of life and worldview. Find one thing you like about it and state it out loud.
2. Listen first. Don’t assume shared understandings about race.
Sociologists assert that children construct differences and similarities in a separate way from adults. Children notice differences quite early developmentally, but it may be for reasons that interest children and not as adults define the difference. A teacher noticed that 6-year-old girls on a playground were not playing with one girl in particular, who was African American. The astute teacher listened first before intervening and found that the majority of the girls preferred to play with girls who wore their hair with ribbons instead of girls who didn’t use ribbons. The African American girl didn’t use ribbons in her hair. She was excluded from conversations and games. The girls were not excluding her because of race but because of ribbons. To adult eyes, the game looked racist but to the children controlling the game, it made sense. The teacher then noticed one girl sharing her ribbons with the African American girl. The teacher chose to intervene in that moment and praised the sharing behavior. She used it as an object lesson about inclusion.
3. Answer your child’s questions about race and culture in an age-appropriate way.
Alvin Poussaint, M.D, the psychiatrist who consulted for “The Cosby Show” states that there are two critical development times when race and culture questions are likely to occur. They are ages 6 to 8 years old and the teenage years. These stages are times when the child’s world is expanding and their values are forming or solidifying. Responding to a child’s questions at these stages in simple, honest terms is important. “I don’t know” and “Give me a chance to think about that and then we can talk,” are appropriate responses to race-related questions.
When your 7-year-old comes home and declares a classmate has an Asian mom and a black dad and says, “Isn’t that weird?” You can choose to say, “Not weird, just different from us.” When your teen asks what you think about his school renaming their sports teams because Native Americans find “Redskins” to be offensive, you can use it as an opportunity to discuss your own beliefs about racial slurs, while demonstrating respect that others might not see it the same way.
Visit http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children, for more information.
Laura Reagan-Porras, MS, is a family sociologist and freelance writer. She and her husband raise two daughters in a bicultural, bilingual home.