How to Talk About Race to Kids: Experts' Advice for Parents

Children gather in a classroom around their teacher.
(Image credit: GagliardiImages/

After police fatally shot two black men — one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota — in early July, a new wave of protests and soul-searching about racism swept through America. For parents, the killings have also raised questions about how to talk to their kids about race and racism.

These questions affect parents and children of every race and ethnicity, and though the substance of individual conversations may differ, the underlying advice on how to talk to kids doesn't change, experts said: Meet them where they are, encourage openness and don't expect that a single conversation will cover the topic.

"It's OK to make a mistake," in conversation with a child, said Kimberly Seals Allers, the founder of, an online destination for parents of color. "It may be a winding road, but better to be on the road than to be stuck on the side."

Facing racism

Parents of white children and parents of children of color face different challenges when talking to their kids about race. Black parents don't have the luxury of ignoring color, Allers told Live Science. They have to engage in painful conversations with their children starting at a young age to explain that people may treat them differently because of the color of their skin.

"For my son, it's just around him, understanding that it is very dangerous for him to challenge the police in any sort of way," Allers said. "You have seven words: 'Yes, sir'; 'No, sir'; 'Thank you, sir.'"

Black parents' conversations with their children must also navigate the challenge of teaching their kids how to question the world around them while still warning them about how authority figures may react. That is, people in power may not tolerate questioning from black kids the same way they would from white children, Allers said. And these parents should also explain to their children that being treated poorly by an authority figure doesn't reflect on them. She described being treated rudely by a police officer while waiting for roadside assistance for a flat tire, with her children in the car.  

"We have to let them understand that it has nothing to do with them personally, you know," she said. "This is the system. It's not you — it's the system."

One way to counter this  bias, Allers said, is for black parents to focus some of their conversations about race on surrounding their children with positive messages about themselves and their history.  

Raising anti-racists

But talking about race isn't only important for people of color, Allers said. It's crucial that white parents talk to their children about race and racism, too — even if these parents think their kids do not notice racial differences.

Contrary to what parents might think, kids do notice race. An influential study done in 1991 of 93 preschoolers in an all-white community found that not only did kids categorize strangers by race, but also, the kids preferred strangers who looked similar to themselves. The research was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Even 9-month-olds have an easier time recognizing facial expressions from people in their own racial groups versus people of other races.

Later, a 2008 study that observed French-Canadian and Asian-Canadian preschoolers playing together found that the children weren't overtly snubbing one another across racial lines, but did play differently depending on the ethnicity of their playmate. For example, French-Canadian and Asian-Canadian kids played more independently alongside each other than same-ethnicity pairs, who played more cooperatively. Asian-Canadian children were also less likely to challenge white peers, by stealing a toy for example, than they were to challenge peers of their own ethnicity.

"It's a mistake to think that your children aren't noticing race or picking up something from society about difference, even in the absence of direct commentary," said Maureen Reddy, a professor of English at Rhode Island College and author of "Crossing the Color Line: Race, Parenting and Culture" (Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Reddy, whose family is multiracial, said that white parents make a mistake when they tell their children they "don't see color."

"I would always hope that people would talk about race in the context of racism," Reddy told Live Science. "So race does not matter, but racism does. In the context of racism, people of color are treated differently in a million different ways."

So how to broach the subject? The same way you would if you were talking about sex, religion, violence or any complex topic, said Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and parenting expert in Pittsburgh. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents]

"You're best if you start off with a little pretest to find out about how they already think about it and where they're at," Gilboa told Live Science.

Step two, Gilboa said, is to really listen to kids' answers — and to stay calm if you hear something that alarms you.

"Any time you hear something that surprises you from a child, you should ask more questions," she said. These questions can include, "'What experiences have you had that gave you that idea?' or 'Why do you think that?' or 'Can you tell me more about that?'"

Reddy experienced one of those shocking parenting moments when her biracial son, then 6, locked his car door after seeing a group of black teenagers waiting for a school bus on the corner. She was upset and snapped at him, before pulling the car over to try to have a calmer discussion.

"I said, 'Let's talk about that. I've never seen you do anything like that before,' and he said, 'Oh, it made me nervous,'" she said. "'Why did it make you nervous?' I still to this day do not know what role race played in that."

That same year, Reddy said, two white boys on her son's school bus — his friends — called him the n-word. The boys were brothers, and their parents were anti-racist activists, and were "absolutely devastated." The children were punished, Reddy said, but the incident illustrates how easy it is for children to pick up messages about race from society at large.

Sometimes, the forces that influence children are more subtle. Now, Reddy said, her son is a young adult and speaks of the pain of seeing white people clutch their purses close when he walks by.

"White people really need to be alert to perhaps more-subtle things that we might do that might give our kids a message that's the opposite of what we want to give them," Reddy said. "Door-locking, purse-clutching, all that sort of stuff." [5 Ways to Talk to Kids About Bullying]

Role models

Parents can also push back against racism in broader ways, Gilboa said. One strategy is to cut out the sweeping generalizations — based on race, gender or even age — whenever talking to kids.

"How many times do teachers or parents say, "Girls are this or boys are this or 6-year-olds are this?'" Gilboa said. "We do it a lot. [And] when we hear other people do it in front of our kids, we have to say, 'I wonder if that's true. … Do you think that's probably true?'"

Challenging these sweeping generalizations encourages kids to think of individuals as individuals, Gilboa said. Parents can also be open with children about things they themselves don't know or answers they don't have, in order to encourage discussions about nuance, she said.

Parents of any color can also follow a few guidelines for talking with their kids about violent or upsetting news stories, Gilboa said: Process your own emotions first, if possible. Figure out in one sentence what message you want your children to take away from your conversation. And then start by asking the kids what they know and what questions they have.

"Kids will do a great job of getting as much information as they can handle without going over, as long as we don't go off on a rant or lecture," Gilboa said.

A final step parents can take to stop racism is to encourage their kids not to be bystanders, Allers said. Her daughter, too, was bullied with the n-word at school.

"There was no one who would stand up to that kid and say, 'No, that's not OK,'" she said. Parents and teachers are becoming increasingly aware of the role of bystanders in bullying dynamics, and the same should be true of racism, Allers said.

"We have to teach our children that this is everybody's business," she said.

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.