Don’t avoid the hard conversations

Talking to kids about prejudice and discrimination may help to relieve stress and promotes overall health and wellbeing.

While many adults believe that children are unaware of issues related to prejudice and discrimination, studies indicate that even preschool-aged children often have a solid understanding of the dynamics of race, gender and other areas of human differences. From a very early age, all of us take in a steady stream of images, words, language and behaviors related to differences and we’re impacted at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels. Research also indicates that patterns of perceived discrimination across the lifespan impact people’s mental and physical health and are linked to high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, obesity, high blood pressure and substance abuse.

Adults have an important role to play in helping children learn about differences in healthy ways. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), all kids benefit from discussions about issues of diversity and discrimination—particularly those who are the targets of prejudice and bias. Unfortunately, conversations about race, racism and related issues can be difficult for people and adults too often lack the skills they need to address issues of human differences with children and youth. When it comes to talking to kids about diversity, discrimination and differences, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:  

  • Young children are naturally curious about people’s skin tones, hair texture and other physical aspects of identity. Let children know that their questions are welcomed and respond honestly if you know the answer—or tell them you can work together to learn about the issue. Be careful not to shut kids down and squash their curiosity. If you do, you may be unintentionally teaching them that the issue is taboo, negative, to be feared and not to be discussed.
  • Engage with children and youth at their level. Don’t share too much information all at once when kids are younger. Allow the conversation to get deeper and more complex as kids get older.
  • Help children learn the value of diversity and human differences. Guide them toward children’s books with diverse characters that have good problem-solving abilities and help them learn that communities are stronger and more creative when we are more diverse.
  • Teach kids about the realities of prejudice and discrimination in order to help them to become more resilient. Learning that “it’s not about me” but rather about other people’s biases and hurtful behaviors can help children and youth (and adults) develop the critical awareness that’s necessary to resist negative, shame-based messages about their identities.
  • Talk to kids about stereotypes. Regularly point out and discuss narrow, inaccurate and stereotypic images and situations that they encounter everyday through TV shows, internet sites, books, movies, toys, video games and other real life situations. Even very young children often have a strong sense of issues of fairness and justice. Tap this interest and draw them into discussions about damaging and narrow stereotypes focused on gender, race and other areas of diversity.
  • Help children learn to recognize, understand and appreciate differences in other people—and in themselves. Developing positive social identities is an important aspect of growth, healing and resilience in the face of prejudice and discrimination.
  • Don’t say “we’re all the same” or “I don’t see color.” Denying the realities around issues of race, racism and other aspects of diversity is not helpful. To learn more about this, you can watch an MSU Extension webinar focused on this issue called  “I don’t see color” and other harmful statements.  
  • Take a step back and look at your own life. Who are your friends, family members and colleagues? Who do you spend time with? What are you doing to help children develop friendships and relationships with people different than themselves? One of the best ways to interrupt stereotypes is to broaden our horizons and develop friendships and relationships with people across differences.
  • Don’t let your own discomfort with the topic of race, gender and other differences get in your way. Keep talking to kids and allow the discussion to be natural, regular and ongoing rather than one “big talk.” Research indicates that having social supports and being able to reach out and talk about prejudice and discrimination provides a buffer to these stressful, negative experiences and contributes to greater mental and physical health.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources and workshops focused on issues of social and emotional health and well-being—as well as ways to build and sustain authentic relationships across differences and other areas of diversity and multiculturalism. If you live with or work with kids, check out Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments to learn more about ways adults can work with youth to create settings that foster respect and inclusiveness and address issues of bullying and bias.