Children walking on a hill with sunset in the back.

Racism and Injustice: Do We Bring Children Into the Conversation?

June 30, 2020

In the wake of the George Floyd tragedy, the children’s TV channel Nickelodeon went black for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time Floyd was pinned to the ground as one police officer knelt on his neck and three others watched.

The deadly use of force against Floyd, a Black man, sparked outrage across the country. Protests, both peaceful and violent, erupted in cities. Companies and organizations were put on the spot for their policies and beliefs regarding diversity. Families, friends, and peers were forced to have difficult conversations about the realities and setbacks our country is experiencing. 

And the parents and guardians of young children watching Nickelodeon during that eight minute and 46 second-blackout had to decide if and how to talk about racism and injustice in their households. The network’s decision caused controversy—some viewers argued it was too scary and felt that a personal choice had been taken from them. Others pointed out the privilege of even being able to choose when or if to have the conversation.

Bringing children into these discussions is important, even if it’s uncomfortable, faculty in CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development say. If done in developmentally and culturally appropriate ways, these conversations can have a lasting impact on how children grow up to view, understand, and embrace diversity.

“It starts in early childhood by recognizing, acknowledging, and talking about the many ways we differ as humans, and the many ways we are the same. These conversations can be held with curiosity, respect, and appreciation of those differences,” said the school’s dean, Rebecca Kantor, PhD. “Being ‘colorblind’ or blind to any of our human differences is not the goal nor productive in any way. We all need and deserve to be seen and heard.”

Is There a Right Age to Talk About Racism and Injustice?

According to a 2019 survey by Pew Research, nearly two-thirds of Black adults (65%) said they’ve been in situations where people acted as if they were suspicious of them because of their race or ethnicity. And the majorities of both Black and white Americans said Black people are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police and by the criminal justice system as a whole. 

This means for many families of color, it’s not a question of if but when to talk about racism and injustice. “The notion of ‘the talk’ is not something that can be waited on—it’s something that has to happen,” said Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, PhD, a professor in counseling who specializes in the sociopolitical development of youth and cultural competence. “You don’t want them to have to see the world differently; you want them to be optimistic about the world, but there is also a reality about what they are going to face.”

Nickelodeon’s PSA received backlash, but it kickstarted conversations that more people need to be having, Hipolito-Delgado said. Faculty in the School of Education and Human Development say the earlier the conversations begin, the better. According to a research piece published by Newsweek titled “See Baby Discriminate,” kids as young as six months old distinguish people by their skin color.

Waiting until middle or high school is far too late, said Antwan Jefferson, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Education and Human Development whose research focuses on family and community engagement. “Brain science in child development suggests the first five years are so formative because of the neurotransmitters being developed,” Jefferson said. “Waiting until a child has an unfortunate experience and then bringing attention to the racial dynamics means that parents have waited far too long.”

To ensure children understand what’s being said in conversation having to do with race, there are different, age-appropriate approaches to take.

At age 5, Kantor said, “conversations that name racism as a reality can be held—and children can begin to understand their role in standing up to racist behaviors and actions.” 

“In every family, community, and classroom, there is a balance between the rights of the individuals and the responsibility of individuals to each other and to the group,” Kantor said. “This should be the frame for how we guide and discipline children, instead of arbitrary rules and punishments designed and delivered by adults.”

Kantor points out that there are many opportunities in early childhood to talk with young children about their rights, the rights of other people, social boundaries, issues of fairness and equity, and how to treat people. “These issues are top of mind for young children as they often experience the power difference between themselves and the adult world.”

Hipolito-Delgado recommends having these conversations before middle school—a stage of life where “race starts becoming salient because of maturity and puberty and folks having interests romantically.” In his perspective, children in first grade and younger may not grasp the concept of racism, but they can learn what fairness means by having conversations about something as simple as who gets dessert after dinner and why. 

A lot of the time, Hipolito-Delgado pointed out, schools celebrate diversity by hosting a culture of the week and associating different ethnicities with foods. But the conversation must go deeper than that. “Food is safe,” Hipolito-Delgado said. “It doesn’t get at the true difference of power dynamics.”

How to Start the Conversation

Before the conversations begin, Jefferson said, adults must first “exercise their own muscles.”

“Talking to children is really, really important, and it should be a byproduct of the adults in children’s lives having sorted out for themselves what their perspectives and beliefs and values are,” Jefferson said.

From there, Hipolito-Delgado recommends starting with simple questions to get a baseline of what your kids have been exposed to.

“Did you see the video on Nickelodeon?” 

“Have you heard about some of the protests that have been going on recently?”

From there, unpack the issues and explain why people are upset. “A lot of time we want to protect young kids or we underestimate how much insight they have into events or into our reactions,” Hipolito-Delgado said. “Kids can tell when you are not being real with them, and the degree to how much you try to sugar coat it, they are going to see through.”

Then, ask what they think about it, how it makes them feel, and what they are seeing or hearing about it in school. End by asking if they have any follow-up questions. Taking an inquiry-based approach allows children to formulate their own opinions.

“In terms of the guidance around bridging these conversations, do it honestly, use real-world results and practice an inquiry-based approach,” Jefferson said. “Ask them questions to allow them to arrive at their own conclusion.” 

The environment in which these conversations take place is also important. Sometimes it’s good to have discussions in a family setting without distractions such as music or TV. For more intimate one-on-one conversations with a middle or high schooler, Hipolito-Delgado said, engaging in a casual activity such as catch or basketball may help them open up. “Teenage boys aren’t as good about expressing emotions,” he said. “If you can get them distracted it might be an easier way into having a conversation.”

Starting these conversations is important, but so is taking action and leading as strong role models for the younger generations. Hipolito-Delgado and Kantor recommend reflecting on behaviors, whether it’s catching “us versus them” language or surrounding yourself with people who are different, or taking children to places that represent other cultures such as museums or plays. 

“The best way for adults to role model acceptance of others is to know and talk about themselves first,” Kantor said. “White parents, especially, sometimes miss this step, talking about ‘others’ as if being white is the norm and being everything else is different from that norm. The shift we need is to talk about ourselves and all others in ways that communicate diversity and inclusion.”

Hipolito-Delgado added: “It’s one thing to say it, but the degree to which you walk it out, that’s what kids are going to pick up on.”

So, should we be talking to children about racism and injustice? These CU Denver faculty members say yes. It may be uncomfortable, but from lack of comfort comes change and growth.