Talking to kids about cultural diversity and racism
by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
Happy Canada Day to everyone! As we celebrate the 153rd birthday of our country, it is a good time to reflect on the many cultures that coexist in this great nation. Notably, June 27 marked the celebration of Canadian Multiculturalism Day. Along with the celebrations on Canada Day, there also comes the opportunity to continue the global conversations on culture and race that are happening in our world today. These include conversations with our young ones that make up the next generation.
Conversation, stories, and images about the Black Lives Matter movement and racism are everywhere- on mainstream media, social media, television shows and movies. It is a hot topic of conversation among adults.
Make no mistake that kids are listening and watching. They are smarter than we give them credit for. I have talked to parents who notice that their kids are asking questions such as, “Why did that man get killed?” or “Are police officers good or bad?” or “Can I get killed?” Some are expressing that they are sad or scared.
Racism isn’t easy to talk about. Even adults feel uncomfortable and confused about this topic, and we sometimes avoid talking about things that we do not have answers to. But the problem with silence is that it also sends a message. Kids might then interpret talking about ethnicity and culture as taboo, as “scary” or “bad.” Children might then hesitate to ask questions, and can jump to their own conclusions.
Furthermore, our silence can be seen as perpetuating the problem. If we do not think about our own biases and assumptions, they continue. If we do not stand up for those who are oppressed, this will continue to make our world a dangerous place for everyone.
So how do we begin to talk to kids about racism? This will be a different conversation for every family based on its own history and experiences. Here are some helpful tips to opening up conversation with our young ones:
- Research shows that kids notice physical differences among people from an early age. When they ask questions about skin, hair colour, clothing, etc., do not shush or ignore them. Explain that every human looks different but is special in their own way.
- Use science to answer questions, e.g. Melanin is a pigment in the skin that everyone has. People with browner skin have more melanin in them and this can protect the body from the sun.
- Talk about common needs. Explain that although humans look different, we all want to feel loved, respected, and safe.
- Get curious. Ask kids about what they have heard and seen and how it makes them feel. Encourage them to come to you with questions. And when you do not know the answer, say so. It’s okay not to know the answer to everything. Offer to help them find out the answer.
- Explain that people are not bad, but that they can make poor choices that are hurtful. Usually, this comes from past times when they have been hurt and didn’t know how to handle things. Convey the hope that humans will be able to learn from their mistakes and work towards making the world better.
- Recognize and celebrate differences. Food and music are fun and easy ways to show cultural diversity to children, and for ourselves to try new things.
- Reassure kids that adults are doing the best they can to make things safe for children.
Talking about tough things can be challenging, but encouraging conversation is helpful for children. The world can be a scary place, but if they have a safe place to talk about their thoughts and feelings, they will be more confident and better equipped to make good decisions later. When they jump to conclusions without the guidance of loving adults, it can lead to low self-esteem. Kids might feel bad about themselves and assume that they aren’t as valuable or loveable as others, just because of their physical appearance. We also do not want them to make judgments about other people.
Humans come in a variety of shades, shapes, and colours. And none are any “smarter,” “stronger,” “nicer” or “better” than any other. Our children need to hear these kinds of messages so that we increase the chances that the next generation will live in a more equitable society where they feel free, respected and safe.
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.