What Age Should We Start Talking About Racism?

Thank you to all who were able to attend the webinar, Embrace Race on How to Make Sure We Don’t Raise The Next Amy Cooper.

If you weren’t able to attend live I really encourage you to go and spend the hour watching the replay that is posted on their website, it was a great discussion.

If you are able to make a financial donation to Embrace Race, I would greatly appreciate it as it takes a lot of money to teach and create content.

A common question that has come up over the last week is…

“How young is too young to be talking to kids about race?”

We’ve talked about what I call the “Roots of the -Isms” before, and why children develop prejudices against differences and the reason the whole “colorblindness” thing was a theoretical good intention but failed spectacularly. The article is here, it will help to read this over as well, as it will help fit the pieces to this article.

When is it appropriate to discuss race with children?

First of all, I want to point out that I did a bit of digging, and all evidence points to it being only white families that have asked me this question.

I am aware that most of my audience are white families, but even though white families are the demographic majority, my audience certainly isn’t exclusively white families. From what I can tell, it’s only white families who’ve asked this.

Which I think is really telling.

BIPOC parents don’t have the luxury of asking this question, because it’s just kind of something that comes up as a matter of course in their day to day lives. I think lies a large part of the anxiety, of the hesitation, and of the uncertainty for white parents- when white parents think of “talking to their kids about race” we envision this big, family-style sit-down discussion.

It’s this familial town hall we have to have and then we can check off the box in our mental parenting checklist for “had the race discussion.”

Similarly to how, historically, parents have approached talking to their kids about gender differences and sex and then checked off a mental box for “had the sex discussion.”

Something that millennial parents have, at least as far as I can tell, seem to have come to understand is that shrouding the topic of sex in mystery and then having a big reveal doesn’t really work.

Also, it scars children.

It makes them feel awkward and unsafe and puts them on the spot.

Do I argue msot millennial parents do?

We start talking about it casually from young at a developmentally appropriate level and we build on it as they have more questions and as they need more information.

Many of us have not generalized this lesson to race discussions.

When people say they think a toddler is “too young to talk to about race” what they really mean is that “I can’t have a big conversation about race with my two year old, they aren’t going listen or get it.”

This is very true.

Many 4-year-olds can only really sit and listen to someone talk for 10 minutes max, and that’s with pulling out all the stops and having like, props and shit.

Therefore, of course, your two year old can’t have an hour-long family meeting about race. You’re not going to be able to explain systemic oppression to a two-year-old, they’re barely aware of the systems that very tangibly run their daily lives.

Nobody is asking you to do that!

When people say that it’s never too young to start talking about race with children, they mean at a developmentally appropriate level.

A developmentally appropriate discussion about sex with a toddler is

“I don’t have a penis like you do, I have a vulva.”

Boom! You just had a sex discussion with a toddler.

A developmentally appropriate race discussion with a toddler is

“Yes, you’re right, that little boy’s skin is a different colour than yours.”

Boom! You just had a race discussion with a toddler.

When you have small discussions like that and add just a bit more information each time, it becomes much more manageable. The evidence is that it is much more effective.

Everybody stays calm.

When you’re hyperaroused, your brain loses contact with the area that controls language. This is also the area of your brain that controls your reason and knowledge.

By psyching yourself up for these big conversations, you actually make it harder on yourself, and your children sense that you’ve gotten yourselves all worked up.

This then causes you and your child to not use the part of their neocortex either.

What good does that do anyone?

It doesn’t!

In fact, it’s actually doing the opposite of what you’d hoped because they sense that you are uncomfortable.

Your child’s brain goes

“Uh oh, this topic is dangerous and to be avoided.”


You want to give your child a chance to process the information and ask questions. This will allow them to guide the conversation.

For example:

I asked my kids, who are currently 4 and 6, if they knew what a protest was last week.

They said no.

I explained what it was, and they were both like “okay” and walked away.

One small conversation.

Later my 6-year-old said “Why did you tell us what a protest is?”

I explained that black people don’t feel safe and they don’t think that’s fair, so they’re protesting to let non-black people know we should stop making them feel unsafe.

Super simplified, right?

This is the level a 6 and 4 year old need. My Son understood and walked away.

Two days later as we were driving to my Mom’s he asked me “So Mom, why don’t black people feel safe?”

I explained more and he was like “Oh that’s not good.”

We had a bit of a back n forth where he asked some questions about specifics and I answered them.

The 4-year-old piped in with “My friend so-and-so is black, right?!” (Not going to say his name for privacy reasons.)

I just confirmed, and he added in “I want him to feel safe. I love him.”

I said I did too, and I introduced the idea that it’s important that if someone is bugging a black child that they stick around and protect them.

He went quiet and we continued on our drive.

A couple days later on our drive home my oldest said “Mom, I don’t hate black people. All the black people I know are nice.”

I said me too!

He followed up with why we don’t see one of my adult black friends anymore. Which surprised me because we haven’t seen her since he was 18 months old because we moved away.

I wasn’t expecting him to remember her at all, but he did!

I explained we don’t see her anymore because we moved away, it has nothing to do with her being black. Her and I still talk on Instagram and Facebook, we’re still friends.

He nodded and walked away again.

I’m waiting to see where he takes this next. If he doesn’t I’ll initiate again.

My just-turned 4 year old has been present for all of this and has asked a few questions of his own. I’ll admit if I just had the 4 year old I’d probably have to initiate a bit more. Not necessarily because he’s 4 but because he’s just not as chatty as his brother.

We’ll keep having these small, every day conversations and giving him lots of time to process it and think of what information he’s missing and ask for it.

We’ll seize on the opportunities afforded by books and media and interactions with their non-white friends and things they hear people say.

This what talking about racism with young kids needs to look like.

These huge, family-meeting style sit downs aren’t helpful to anyone. However, you still need to do it.

You still need to initiate, ask questions, give them something to chew on and think about.

You need to be intentional about it because part of the privilege of being white is that these opportunities tend not to force themselves on us the way they do families of colour.

We don’t have to do it by necessity.

It requires you to be conscious of it, to do your own education first so that you are ready to answer them. You will need to actively seek out opportunities to have conversations.

As they get older and their questions get more detailed and complex we can start including them in finding out the answers.

Don’t let not knowing all the answers prevent you from starting the conversation.

This will only leave you stuck in a holding pattern.

If you’re a white person, you’re never going to know enough.

You’re always going to have unknowns.

It is perfectly acceptable to say to your child ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’

As they get to be school-aged ‘I don’t know, let’s look it up.”

You’re never going to be an expert on racism, so don’t use that as an excuse not to take action.

Melissa Giraud, one of the founders, likened it to learning to garden. You can read all about plants, buy seeds, buy expensive watering systems, etc. etc. If you never put your trowel in the dirt, you’re never going to grow anything.

Yes, chances are you’re going to screw up somewhere along the way!

You can always learn more, you can always apply new lessons.

Raising anti-racist kids is something you have to start.

Then of course, correct as you go.

Otherwise, you get stuck just educating yourself and never doing anything.

The doing is the important part.

Your kids aren’t too young to start the talk about race with.

They’re too young to have a huge sit-down about race.

However, they are not too young to be introduced to the concept or to start the conversation at a developmentally appropriate level.

In fact, by breaking it up and talking about it more frequently, it works better with how our brains process information and therefore is more likely to be effective.

So what do you think?

If you attended the Embrace Race webinar last week, what were your big takeaways?

Do you have some ideas for how to open this conversation and keep it going with your young kids?

Does it feel a bit less overwhelming now?

Are you committed to not just listening but to getting off your rump and doing it?

That’s what’s important.

I’d love to continue this conversation in the Parenting Posse.

Reminder: the group is moderate the heavily and we won’t tolerate any racist bullshit. We won’t give you any warning. We won’t just mute you. You will be booted swiftly, if you can’t operate within our community standards.

If a person of colour decides to take the time to educate you, thank them, and listen!

I am proud to say I have not had to boot anyone from the Posse over a race issue. I don’t actually think I’ve had to do it in over a year now. If I have break that streak I will be pissed.

I have been super proud of how my community has conducted itself this past week.

If you want to keep talking, and please come and join in on the conversation.

Reminder: Starting in July, the Mudroom will be broadcasted on Wednesdays at 1pm EST.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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