Posted Nov 21, 2018
Most would agree we are living in challenging times. The constant barrage of bad news and social upheaval effects all of us. We may hope children are too absorbed in day-to-day happenings to be aware of the larger world. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Those little ears and bright eyes are taking in more than we realize, but those young brains are not able to make sense of all they hear and see. It can be overwhelming, confusing and frightening, as it can be for adults. Yet, we can’t shelter children from the world we live in. It may not even be in their best interest to try.
Then, how do we talk to children about difficult topics – whether it be natural disasters, mass shootings, or societal issues such as immigration or race? The American Psychological Association offers these tips for talking with children about traumatic events.
- Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say.
- Choose a quiet calm time to talk.
- Listen! Find out what they know and how they feel about it
- Share your feelings. Be an example for how to express negative thoughts and feelings in constructive ways.
- Be honest. Present facts and information in age-appropriate language.
- Reassure them that you love them, are available to listen and support them, and you are doing what you can to keep them safe.
Despite our best intentions, it can be especially difficult to talk with children about social issues we are not comfortable with. Race and racial injustice are often in the “uncomfortable category.” But they are important discussions to have. Research shows us that “color blindness” is a myth. Even without exposure to cultural biases, children notice race and “sort” people by how similar or different they look to the child’s race. Even a six month old can recognize a person is of a different race than their own.
Erin Winkler, a UW-Milwaukee professor who has done extensive research in the area of racism and racial identity offers these suggestion for talking with children about race.
- Get comfortable learning about and talking about race and racism
- Don’t dismiss or avoid children’s comments about race or respond with cliché answers. Use the moment as an opportunity to have a meaningful age-appropriate discussion.
- Use children’s sense of fairness to explain racial injustice and how it can be changed.
- Expose children to examples of anti-racist role models in your local community and the world. Books can be an effective way to introduce children to such role models.
- Be a role model yourself.
- Encourage children to think about people as multi-dimensional.
For more information on talking with children about race and a book recommendations visit