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Challenge: Open Discussion

Helping Parents Talk to Kids About Race

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Children need your help in making sense of all the turmoil and unrest in our world. Children are awakening to the realities of the world we live in: one plagued by fear, anxiety, death, violence and inequality. They need you, their parents, their teachers and spiritual leaders to help them navigate this “new” world.

For months, we have locked them in, telling them the world outside their door could be deadly. We instructed them on the way to survive: cocoon in your home, don’t have physical contact with others, and wash your hands to stay safe. We tried to keep the invisible intruder, COVID-19, from entering our homes and our bodies.

Then with the second it takes to light a match, the horrific murder of George Floyd ignited the voices of America and unleashed a wave of protests fighting against centuries of oppression, inequality, and racism.

Parents, you can’t be silent! Not now while your children are watching the protests in the streets and cities throughout the country and hearing about the racial issues being brought to light.

Children as young as pre-school can sense tension and fear. They are affected by seeing and hearing the news as well as their parents' reactions. They need their parents to acknowledge and validate their experiences. It is okay to show them your emotions and to share your vulnerabilities with them. You are teaching them that it is okay to express emotions.

This is an important time to teach your kids about fairness and unfairness. For children in elementary school or older, you should engage children using open-ended questions about the current unrest unfolding. Talk about how many people are speaking out about the realities of Black people and people of color in America, who have not been treated fairly. Let your child’s questions guide you in your discussion.

Teach your child that not only is it okay to talk about race, but it is critically important. It is only through discussion and education that we help break the cycle of discrimination.

Many adults were taught as children that they are not supposed to talk about topics of race and the color of one’s skin. Most children are taught to internalize such experiences rather than speak on them.

WE MUST BREAKTHROUGH THIS GENERATIONAL LOCKDOWN and learn to talk to children about differences and fairness. We cannot be afraid to speak about race-related issues to our children.

As parents, we need to validate—always acknowledge and validate your child’s experience and thoughts. Yes, it is overwhelming to see people very angry and shouting in the streets. Why do you think they are so upset? What are the reasons behind their anger? Tell them about the history of our country.

We need to speak with courage—it takes courage for you to show up, expose your vulnerabilities, and talk with your children. It takes courage to openly explore your biases and prejudices. But being able to do so prepares you to be open and honest with your child, thus helping your child embrace their own ideas and become more willing to admit and let go of prejudice.

Don’t be afraid to be direct and factual—kids see through your attempt to sugar coat and protect them. Remind them of your family’s values. There are many powerful educational resources that are available to help children understand racial issues—actively search for and utilize them. Talk about how your family can work to make the world a better, more just place.

As a therapist, I am dedicated to helping you, the courageous parent who has been confronted with one of the most challenging times in history. I encourage you not to get complacent or too tired. I am here to help you to be real, to show your fears and concerns in a thoughtful way.

I am confident we can grow and heal with grace, love and resilience.

Nancy Kislin, LCSW, MFT, is a leading expert in helping parents, educators and communities cultivate resilience in an age of uncertainty. With more than 28 years of experience as a therapist and educator, Nancy specializes in helping individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma. She is the author of Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, a book that examines the psychological and emotional impact of “lockdown culture” on kids.

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