Teach Your Children Love in Action, Have the Courage to Talk about Race
“If you know what is love and what is fear, you become aware of the way you communicate to others... Love is not about concepts; love is about action. Love in action can only produce happiness. Fear in action can only produce suffering. The only way to master your love is to practice your love.”
-Don Miguel Ruiz, The Mastery of Love
Most parents want to raise children who treat individuals fairly regardless of the color of their skin. They want children who embrace diversity and are able to build healthy, successful relationships with people whose backgrounds are very different than their own. Many white parents believe, consciously or unconsciously, that they can achieve this by avoiding discussions about race altogether whereas parents of color (and many parents of children of color) know they have to teach their children about race simply for their own safety and protection.
While none of this is news to parents of color, we still need guidance for all parents navigating racial justice and equity conversations with younger generations.
Research shows us that parents who do not talk to their children about race are likely to have children who are negatively racially biased because they are only responding to their culture and context. Most often this is one that does not champion people of color. This is why the colorblind approach of the well-meaning white parent is a mistake. Developmental psychology research shows that by the time children start kindergarten, they begin to show many of the same implicit racial attitudes as adults in the culture. Children have already learned to associate some groups with higher status, or more positive value, than others. Even young black children internalize and embody this bias.
When it comes to raising children who honor and respect every human being they encounter, this is the first thing to remember: avoiding discussions of race does not help to end racism or help children understand racism. Racism and white superiority becomes internalized by all children. As Katherine D. Kinzer writes in The New York Times, “Children are cultural sponges: They absorb social mores that surround them: how to dress, what to eat, what to say. This is a good thing, all in all, since a major function of childhood is figuring out how to be a proficient adult in a particular society. This means picking up on social norms. Unfortunately, this includes learning your society’s explicit and implicit views of the status and worth of different social groups.” There is no quick solution to preventing racism; this is everyday work. But as parents, we can use grit, or deliberate practice, when we realize we have shifts to make or work to do in educating others.
The second thing to remember is that bias is communicated in small words, actions, and literal physical responses. For example, if a mother is nursing her child and a black man walks by and the mother tenses due to unchecked bias about black men being “dangerous,” then the child has learned something from that physical response. Now imagine what 15 years of seeing your parent get tense around black men, or crossing the street every time a black man approaches, or watching the negative news portrayals of black people does to a child. Bias is not something we are consciously aware of or necessarily consciously communicate, yet it is embodied by everyone.
Talking about race and racism with our children is important because white supremacy (i.e. the idea that white is the cultural norm and white perspective is better and again, the norm) exists. We teach our children white supremacy unless we are lovingly intentional in teaching them about race and racial justice concepts, giving them new language and context to work through these things on their own. In short, your children will learn not just from what you do, but what you don’t do, what you talk about and what you don’t talk about. All of these things are lessons. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in South Pacific, produced in the 1950s, was a strong reminder of the systemic bias that gets passed on from parent to child. The culture and systems in this country have been predicated upon racism. Violence of all forms has been normalized. Trauma is pervasive.
Here is a story that I often share to explain how this works.
I receive a call from a mother telling me that she needed to move her family from one town to another because her eight year old child had been called nigger. The family's intention was to change schools so that the child could be be in a less toxic environment, but their school choice was denied and ultimately they had to send their child back to his original school. Instead of listening to this family and addressing racism head on (protecting the health and well-being of this child of color), the school defended the white child, arguing that “he did not know what he was saying.” The child of color’s family, however, had already experienced racialized intimidation outside of the school (from the white child’s entire family), which had also prompted them to move to another town. When something like this happens, we are teaching white supremacy. The law that supposedly protects this family of color and this young boy’s education may be based on “perception of harm,” but who follows those civil rights in education guidelines? Who is actively caring about the humanity of both the child of color and the white child? What message do these adult inactions send to both children?
What can we do as adults, parents, and educators so these types of situations don’t continue to happen without intervention and education? We can intentionally practice developing skills that help us behave differently and help our children behave differently. We can learn how to counteract our own bias and draw upon the love we have for our children to make sure they practice love and care in the world.
As parents, educators, and caregivers of children, here’s how you can start:
1. Commit to your own self-education (not only with reading and book groups with books like Beverly Tatum’s updated 20th anniversary edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations About Race, in Facebook conversations, and thought-provoking podcasts). Consciously unpack the lessons you were taught overtly and covertly through family members (not only the racist ones, the liberal ones too), textbooks, and the media. And then continually augment your learning with additional resources.
2. Examine your cultural and implicit bias. External bias is defined by your cultural context. Look around and see who your doctor, friends, and teachers are. Have you made an effort to support businesses owned by people of color? Not as “charity”, but as a stance for equity? Place your children in cross-cultural learning and play environments and encourage cross-cultural friendships and relationships. Examine your implicit bias with the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. Don’t just take the test, discuss it with family and friends. Cultivate a sense of discernment and inquiry. What are you learning about yourself?
3. Talk about difference. Children are not colorblind, so talk about difference! Children also notice biased treatment towards children of color and white children. As a parent, your job is to listen when they notice, ask questions, and point out these moments as teachable moments. Support your child in knowing that something does not have to be “either/or” as far as experience goes. Teach the concept of “and”. For example, a family of color living in poverty experiences hard times and limited opportunities AND this country has a negative predisposition for people of color (slavery, internment camps, genocide, redlining, etc.)
4. Be mindful of your interactions when you witness bullying, intolerance, or even just a lack of awareness on the part of your children’s peers or adults. Overlooking negative comments from children, relatives, teachers, and members of the media condones the behavior. Have tough conversations with your community members and with your children. Model the “calling in” required of us all so that they can mimic you and learn how to call others in using their own voice and wisdom. Silence and inaction perpetuate silence and inaction.
5. Talk to your children to encourage their curiosity, love of learning, and active participation. A child’s curiosity is ours for the grooming. Children learn every day, and it is important to carve out time to teach them the lessons we want them to learn. What really happened during the “discovery” of America? How does that impact Native Americans today? We don’t need to inundate children with all of the world’s hard truths at age four, but as parents we need to stay woke and mindful. Our job is to prepare children to become active civic leaders in their schools, home communities, future diverse workplace and college settings, and an ever-increasing global society. It is a part of every child’s developmental process to gain communication skills across cultures.
6. Use positive psychology to support you and your child everyday! This is tough stuff.Help children see issues of equity and racial justice and the journey to get there in the eyes of Carol Dweck. Teach children mindful breathing. When they struggle to slow down and gain perspective, teach them how to take five breaths to help them move through the anxiety and confusion fog. Teach them how to scan their body and notice where they need to relax and process this tension of multiple truths and perspectives. Take the Character Strengths Survey as a family and choose which strength you will each use to form new relationships or speak up when you hear hurtful words.
If we don’t talk with our children, they will form their own ideas with the help of biased media, erroneous textbooks, implicitly racist nursery rhymes and songs, and more. This is not just the job of parents of color or parents of children of color, but of all parents of all children, in all moments. For white parents, to shelter white children from injustice at young ages so as to not “damage them”—when some children don’t ever get that escape—know that this contributes to the bias that lives within white children and inadvertently teaches them white supremacy. This priming for unconscious bias will perpetuate the very ideals many of us work hard everyday to shift. Inaction and silence on race and racism is permission to perpetuate the injustice and violence far too many people and children experience every day. Parents and educators of all backgrounds must act to protect our beloved community.
Here is a story I have begun to share about how I have seen this happen.
Two young football players are at practice. A white athlete calls his teammate, a child of color, nigger on the football field. Another white teammate tells his parents who then tell the white coaches. The same evening, many players’ parents speak to their children about what has happened. By the next day, one coach sits the entire team down and speaks to the children about treating each other with respect, how language can hurt, and lays out expectations. The white player who had used hate speech spontaneously gets up and offers an apology and hug to his teammate in front of the whole team.
This experience, for all involved, far surpasses kicking a player off the team at first round without first educating and laying expectations of the entire team. For the child of color, the hurt and trauma cannot be removed, nor can it be for the parents and children of color who live with it every day. AND the lesson for the team here in this context, including the targeted student of color, is that if you speak up, you will be heard and cared for. You will be offered a space to act differently, to learn and grow, and to restore safety and trust.
Thankfully, inaction and silence is often deeply confusing to children; it runs contrary to their nature as well as the openness, courage, kindness, care, and respect we support and encourage them to convey. If we need courage to start talking with our kids about race and justice, we might just remember when our children were born or when we first became their parent or caregiver. This took courage, too… to hold them in love and to practice love as a way of making our hearts and lives big enough for this new wonderful human being.
Our children give us courage and love every day. We must demonstrate courage and love in action in return. This intentional practice of love in action, I believe, is what will transcend white supremacy one moment, one human at a time.
Books, Articles, & Resources:
Dunham, Yarrow, Andrew S. Baron, and Mahzarin R. Banaji. “The development of implicit intergroup cognition.” Trends in Cognitive Science. Vol 12, Issue 7, p248-253. July 2008.
“The Doll Test for Racial Self-Hate: Did It Ever Make Sense?” The Root. 17 May 2014.
Kinzler, Katherine D. “How Kids Learn Prejudice.” The New York Times. 21 October 2016.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Hachette, 1997. Revised edition 2017.
Trần, Ngọc Loan. “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” Black Girl Dangerous. 18 December 2013.
Search Institute – The Developmental Relationships Framework
Search Institute – 40 Developmental Assets for Children
Carol Dweck - The Power of Believing that You Can Improve
Via Institute on Character - Character Strengths Survey
© 2017 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant