Parenting for Social Justice
Parents wonder how to raise children who will stand up against racism and injustice.
We begin that conversation here.
Reflect: Exploring Bias and Diversity
Read: Books to Celebrate Diversity
Respond: Tips for Starting the Conversation
Many parents and caregivers are still searching for the “right” way to introduce the conversation and to answer young children’s questions. Explore this interactive guide from our partner, Big Heart World.
It's Okay to Ask Questions
The first thing to remember is that you are not a “bad” parent and your child is not a “bad” kid for noticing differences. In fact, noticing differences—in everything—is a big part of their early learning. This is how children learn about matching, patterns, and understanding their world in more complex ways.
But let’s keep it real. It can be embarrassing when the difference they’re noticing is about an aspect of another person’s appearance. Here’s what to do:
Acknowledge your child’s comment:
“Isn’t it amazing that we all have our own special color of skin? Let’s look around and see what other skin colors we notice.”
(For a comment about appearance: “We are all different sizes.” Or: “Our eyes are all different shapes.” Or: “We all have different hair.” For a comment about a wheelchair: “People have different ways of moving around.”)
Stay calm and matter-of-fact.
While it’s tempting, shushing your child tells them that differences are a bad thing or that this is a forbidden topic. The goal is to keep the conversation going (over years) to help your child develop a more complex understanding of race and bias.
Provide more information:
“People have different skin colors because of something called melanin in our skin. The more melanin you have, the darker your skin is. People are the same in many ways—we all make friends, laugh at jokes, and have families. But there are some ways we are different too. We may have different skin color, different eye color, or different hair.”
Share your family’s beliefs:
“Sometimes people are treated differently because of their skin color. That is not fair. And it’s not kind.” As your child grows older, their observations may feel more judgmental or mean-spirited, perhaps repeating something negative they’ve heard peers or others say. Being clear about your family beliefs, and the harm caused to others by bias, is an important way you can shape your child’s thinking about their own words and actions.
While these moments may never be easy, having a plan for how to respond will help you find the words. And your response matters a lot because your child is learning what they can ask you, what you’re willing to discuss, and when they can turn to you. Keeping the conversation going helps you build your child’s understanding of the world, and all the people in it.
Colorblindness is the belief that an individual doesn’t see or notice skin color (or other racial/ethnic differences). Many adults embrace colorblindness as a way to share their belief in equity and racial justice.
Colorblindness, while a powerful idea, is impossible. The truth is that all of us notice skin color and racial/ethnic differences. All of us are influenced by the beliefs and stereotypes about different races and ethnicities that we have seen and heard within our culture and community. These messages begin in childhood and continue across our lives through interactions with our family, friends, culture, and media. It’s impossible to be colorblind.
Sometimes parents believe that if they tell their children to be colorblind—to not mention race or ethnicity—it will help them raise a non-racist child. But we know that colorblindness is not an effective approach to combating racism. Being “colorblind” ignores the lived experiences of people of color. The truth is that our children see and are shaped by race and racial biases starting early. (See ZERO TO THREE’s resource here for more information.)
Here’s What Parents Can Do:
Reflect on your own beliefs and biases.
Pay attention to your responses to people who are not from your racial or ethnic group. Your child is watching and learning from your approach. A commitment to colorblindness can get in the way of examining our own bias and responses to people different than ourselves. (See ZERO TO THREE’s resource on implicit bias for more info.)
Understand that the idea of race influences every aspect of our lived experience.
We all live in a world that is sensitive to race. Race has been used for hundreds of years to cause harm to some and offer unearned privileges to others. If we refuse to see race, then it is hard to see racism (from James Ford; read more).
Notice and describe skin tones.
It’s okay for your child to see you notice differences like skin color. Use positive words to describe these differences.
Focus on fairness.
Even young children understand fairness. Starting at 2 ½ to 3 years, you can talk about what it means to treat someone fairly (or not). Make it clear to your children what you believe to be right and fair. For older children (4 and up), you might choose some small aspect of their appearance—like having freckles—and ask them if it would be fair for them to be treated differently based on this difference.
Noticing differences can also mean learning about the rich history, language, and culture of other communities. Wonder, explore, and discover with your child: what is the same, what is different? Share stories about people from different places or with different traditions, languages, or skin tones.
Parenting for social justice is a journey, not a destination. Many times we are learning right along with our children. But staying steady even when we’re unsure helps our children be prepared for an inclusive world—which is a gift that lasts generations.
Whether or not it’s ok to dress up as someone from another race or culture comes up in many families. We don’t have the final answer on this one, but we’ve raised some issues for you to consider as you think this decision through.
Let’s start with Halloween costumes for under-three’s: They look cute in anything. Halloween at this age is more for parents (and the pictures!), than the kids themselves. Your toddler may find the whole thing confusing or scary.
Preschoolers are more likely to have their hearts set on a specific costume, like a favorite movie character. This brings us to the issue you’re asking about—when people take on elements of other cultures. One big argument against this “borrowing” of another culture is that the borrower is playing at being part of that culture and ignoring a long history and experience of oppression. This borrowing can also disrespect something that is deeply important to members of that culture, like traditional dress (for example, Native American regalia.)
What about dressing like a media character like Moana?
We know that even as toddlers, children are developing an awareness of differences, including race. At the same time, their pretend play skills are growing by leaps and bounds. You’ll see young children try on lots of different identities: a mom, an astronaut, a dog, and yes, a princess from another culture. In terms of Halloween, experts have different opinions on how to approach character costumes:
- Some believe that white children should never dress up as characters from another culture because it makes people from those cultures feel less human—as if their identity is a costume.
- Other experts point out that today’s kids have a diverse bunch of heroes to choose from and that’s a good thing. We have Black Panther, Tiana/Prince Naveen, Moana/Maui, Mulan, and Jasmine/Aladdin, where once there was only a very blonde, very white Cinderella. Parents can point out that although Moana is pretend, there are real people who live on the Polynesian islands that inspired the movie, including Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti. You can show your child pictures or watch online videos to introduce them to these places, cultures, languages, and people.
- If you allow your child to dress as Moana, it’s important that the costume looks like Moana specifically, rather than generic Polynesian dress. The Moana costume is about pretending to be the character Moana. Wearing “typical” Polynesian dress would be borrowing from this culture in a disrespectful way—pretending to be Polynesian (a real place, culture, and people) for Halloween.
What about other costumes?
Here are some tips for showing respect for other cultures when Halloween rolls around over the next few years.
- Never, under any circumstances, change the color of your child’s skin as part of the costume. This suggests that skin color is a costume, rather than an important part of a person’s identity. It also plays into a dangerous history of blackface and racial stereotypes, much of which continues to plague Black and Brown communities today.
- Avoid costumes from cultures with a long history of oppression—for example, dressing as Native Americans or “gypsies,” which is offensive to the Romani People.
- Avoid stereotypes in costume choices—like a sombrero. The same goes for hairstyles from other cultures (box braids or dreadlocks).
Halloween is the perfect opportunity to continue family conversations about race and culture. Together, you can learn about diverse cultures and ways of being in the world. And together, you can find ways to celebrate that are fun and respectful.
Insight from Nat Vikitsreth, LCSW
In a nutshell, the conversation about racism begins when you’re ready and rooted in your values. Because babies and toddlers are already learning about implicit biases and prejudices just by observing the world around them. They’re ready for you to help them learn. The real question is: are you ready?
Some parents start this conversation because they want to be a good ally and teach their child about their privileges. For other parents, discussing racism is critical because their child’s skin color can put them in real danger.
I want to pause here to honor the pressure you might be feeling to talk to your child about racism flawlessly. If the thought “I should know how to do this” just crossed your mind you’re not alone.
I also want to honor the fear you may have at the thought of answering your preschooler’s 439 new “why” questions about race and racism.
And finally I want to honor the push and pull between wanting to offer your child a sense of the world as a good and just place, and wanting to be realistic about the injustices of the world to protect them.
To prepare yourself to have the race talk with your child, first think about whether you are actively (and imperfectly) doing anti-oppression work yourself. Teaching your child what you already know means you can teach from your heart—instead of memorizing scripts.
Anti-oppression work also means getting clear yourself about where you stand on racism. How to do this? Ask yourself: Why is it important to stand against racism? Then follow up by asking yourself “why” at least five times or until you can’t answer anymore. This exercise will help you focus on what your beliefs are–and give you some responses to call on when your child asks “why” later on.
Here’s what it looks like.
Kusum was a mom I worked with and we played this game of Why together.
- Nat: “Why is it important for you to stand against racism?”
- Kusum: “Because it’s important to treat people like humans.”
- Nat: “Why is it important for you to treat people like humans?”
- Kusum: “We’re all unique and have something special to bring to the world.”
- Nat: “Why is it important that we all bring what’s special to the world?”
- Kusum: “So we can help one another thrive and build a world of peace for our children and grandchildren.”
From this brief conversation, Kusum discovered that she valued fairness, equity, resource sharing, and community building. These values can guide Kusum on what to say in the race talk with her child.
Finally, remember that these conversations need your awareness, action, and agility. Awareness means you know your whys and your values. Action refers to taking the first step—having the conversation (and many more after that) with your child. Agility is about being flexible, expecting yourself to make mistakes, accepting discomfort, and trying again.
For many parents (and research shows, often white parents), talking about race is difficult. This doesn’t mean you’re not a good ally. It certainly doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent. What it means is that talking about race means that parents have to push through their discomfort. This conversation may be challenging at times, and that’s okay.
Look at the behaviors listed below and see how many of these you notice in your child.
- Your child communicates (verbally or non-verbally) that they understand their physical traits: My hair is curly. I have blue eyes.
- They describe their actions. For example, they might communicate: I jumped super high or I can roll my wheelchair really fast.
- They describe their gender identity. “I am a boy”. “She is a girl.”
- They use personal pronouns: I, me, my, and mine. “My turn”, “My cookie.”
- They can express emotions like embarrassment and pride.
- They recognize themselves in a mirror or in a photo. They may even communicate, “Hey, that’s me!”
How many of these six items resonate with your little learner?
Each of these behaviors shows that your child’s sense of self is emerging. These behaviors tell us that your child is learning about who they are and about the people around them. Your child is learning that their goals, thoughts, and feelings can be different from others. This is the perfect time to disrupt the biases and stereotypes that are already forming.
Let’s Take a Closer Look at Development
Our babies can see differences in skin color from birth to six months. But the beliefs and attitudes they develop towards different skin colors is up to you.
Birth to 6 Months
During the first six months of life, babies often put people in categories: who’s familiar, who’s different, who’s safe, and who’s a stranger. These social categories help them predict and understand people’s behaviors.
6 to 12 Months
Between six to twelve months, babies have a strong preference for people who look and sound like them. One study shows that six-to-nine-month-old babies look to adults of the same race for guidance (and they don’t look at adults from different race for guidance1). Babies develop preferences for those who look like them very early in life.
12 to 36 Months
Toddlers are developing a form of self-knowledge called theory of mind—the understanding that they are separate beings whose thoughts, feelings, and goals can be different from others.
They’re curious about people who have skin colors, hair textures, and physical appearances different from their own and may point out the differences they see. A joyful outburst of “Her skin is brown” at a grocery store might be one example of this development. These statements are not racist—instead, they reflect a child’s growing curiosity and observation of the world around them.
But when children point out different skin colors, gender expressions, and abilities, they learn from your reactions which differences are okay to talk about and which are not. At the same time, they’re receiving messages about race, ability, gender and more from books and other media (like television programs). One study shows that by 30 months many toddlers begin to choose who they want to play with based on skin colors2.
In the preschool years (2 ½ to 5 years), children may begin to exclude peers who look different from them. What has happened is that some preschoolers transition their early preference for familiar faces to a negative belief about those who look different from them.
Racial prejudices are present at ages four and five and we often see this unfold in name calling or as a driver in choosing playmates. Research with preschoolers has found that even when the “in group” is based on something as simple as the same t-shirt color, young children believe those who are like them (wearing the “in” t-shirt color) are more intelligent and more kind than those who look different (like wearing the other t-shirt color3). When parents don’t actively interrupt these developing biases, they become much harder to change later on.
Given how early young children learn our cultural messages about race, I’d say the best time to start talking to them about race is yesterday. What do you think?
1 Xiao, N. G., Wu, R., Quinn, P. C., Liu, S., Tummeltshammer, K. S., Kirkham, N. Z., Ge, L., Pascalis, O., & Lee, K. (2018). Infants Rely More on Gaze Cues From Own-Race Than Other-Race Adults for Learning Under Uncertainty. Child Development, 89(3):
2 Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In S. S. Luthar, J. A. Burack, D. Cicchetti, & J. R. Weisz (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (p. 51–74). Cambridge University Press.
3 Dunham, Y., Baron, A. S., & Carey, S. (2011). Consequences of “minimal” group affiliations in children. Child Development, 82(3), 793–811.
First of all, just asking this question tells me how much you care about your child and how you want to protect them from hurt and harm. That’s a great place to start. The way to protect them from getting overwhelmed is to have this talk in an age-appropriate way. Here’s what to experiment with:
Stick to concrete details (or what happened) instead of abstract reasons (the why).
Use my 4S framework to include all the building blocks for talks about race: Self, Safety, Sense-Making, and Solution.
Let’s try an example. Imagine that your child asks you why his friends told him he couldn’t play with them because his skin looked dirty.
- Self means checking in with your bandwidth and energy level to see whether you can be present during this conversation. Do you need to pick another time or can you do it now?
- Safety means ensuring that your child feels safe. Use your words and body language to offer them this sense of unconditional love and safety. You might say: “I bet you feel really sad that you couldn’t play with your friends because of racism…But I want you to know that your skin color doesn’t make you less special than Josh or Tom. You’re safe with me now and I love you. Your skin is not dirty, just like mine isn’t. You know who else has the same skin? Your grandma and your great grandma too!”
- Sense-Making means explaining the situation in ways your child can understand while calling racism for what it is: racism. Help children see the connection by using a First, Then explanation: “First, Josh and Tom said you couldn’t play with them on the swings. Then they said your skin looked dirty. I’m guessing that Josh and Tom noticed that your skin color was different. They thought that your skin color meant you’re different from them or not as good as them. When people treat you differently because of the color of your skin, it’s called racism.”
- Solution means coming up with an action plan that your child can safely use when a similar situation happens. It might go something like, “If your friends do this again, you can tell them ‘that is not true’ and then go to your teacher to ask for help.” Adjust the information you share to keep it at your child’s understanding level. By making the conversation brief and focused on concrete details, toddlers and preschoolers can flex their new thinking skills to make sense of the concept of race and racism in a bite-sized way.
The answer to your question, strangely enough, is with the song Baby Shark Doo Doo. Having conversations about race with young children means focusing on one sentence at a time. Check in to see if they are still connected and curious. Don’t talk more than the length of time it takes to sing one verse of Baby Shark Doo Doo. Then pause and give your child some room to hear you and ask questions. A bite-sized line or two at a time is plenty, especially when these conversations continue for the next 18 years.
I get this question almost every week. I feel like we should reframe the question to be “what do I say when my child says something racist or offensive.” Parents often tell me that their toddlers and preschoolers are amazing at picking the worst time to ask a person in a wheelchair what happened to them, or ask a femme-presenting person with short hair if they are a man or woman.
There’s a great reason for this. Toddlers and preschoolers are champs at noticing and describing differences they see in themselves and other people. This curiosity is developmentally on point. However, when that happens, we often get flustered and embarrassed. We might quickly shut the conversation down by saying things like “it’s not polite to say that.” When that happens over and over again, our little ones learn that they shouldn’t talk about gender, disability, race and so on.
Instead of shutting the conversation down, my favorite thing to say is “Hmm, what else?” For example, “Really? Only girls can play pretend cooking in the kitchen? Hmm, who else cooks? Let’s look at pictures of chefs and find people from all genders.”
A conversation about pride can be another way to support young children’s curiosity about people’s appearances and abilities. Back in 2011, I had just moved to the US from Thailand. One of my spunky 4 year-old students said to me, “Ms. Nat, your eyes are ugly.” I remember that moment clear as day. After reassuring her mother that I wasn’t offended by her daughter’s comment, I was able to tell my student that my parents and grandparents had the same eye shape—and that I felt so proud to share an eye shape with them. That piece of information about pride got my student very curious about Thailand, the food we eat, the language we speak, and so on. When your child points out differences in people’s abilities and appearances, it’s an opportunity for you to nurture their curiosity and teach them that people’s hair, skin, bodies (etc.!) look different and can do different things, but no body is better than another.
Instead of aiming to have a smooth conversation about race and saying all the right things, why don’t we release that pressure for perfection and go for honesty. Give yourself permission to say: “I don’t know the answer to your question. Can we look it up together?” or “I’m so tired from work and I need a minute to zone out. Let’s talk about this after dinner because it’s important to me too.” By making sure to always follow up like you’ve promised, you’re teaching your child that you can be trusted with their big questions.
You can also be honest about how you’re feeling about racism – without trying to hide your rage, grief, and frustration – as long as you don’t ask your child to make you feel better (not their job). You might say, “I’m so sad about people hurting each other because their skin color is different. I need to take a deep breath. Would you like to do that with me?”
My point is that your honest emotions can be a teachable moment – one that we call co-regulation. Co-regulation means that we help our child cope by modeling our own coping skills. We help them regulate—ride the waves of their big feelings by showing how we work through our feelings in a healthy way.
I think sometimes we need to start the conversation ourselves. When there’s no teachable moment, we can make one.
One theme that our toddlers and preschoolers often understand quite easily is fairness. Whenever I give one student two cookies and the other one three, I immediately get stink eyes from these cuties and “it’s not fair” usually follows. Our little ones often know what fair and unfair feels like.
You can also share books and stories with themes of unfairness based on the character’s skin color, gender, abilities, or where their family came from. Equally important is sharing stories that demonstrate themes of kindness, fairness and equity across racial (and other) differences. Discuss what happens in these stories, how the characters felt, and–if your child is 3 and up–how they might respond in similar situations.
If your child has experienced bias (unfair treatment because of their appearance) or witnessed someone they love experience racism but has not talked to you about it, you can raise it yourself: “Sometimes when friends don’t let us play because of our skin color, we feel many things from sad to mad and afraid. Did you feel that way when Josh and Tom didn’t let you play with them?” Then pause and see where your child wants to go next.
It’s okay to name racism and make it explicit. Perhaps you ask your child if they’ve seen their friends get treated differently because they have different skin color, gender, abilities, and physical appearance. Or, if it were them, how would that make them feel? These are some of the ways to get the conversation about race going and nurture that emerging empathy in your child too.