Updated: Jun 10, 2020
We want our boys to be upstanders- people who notice when something bad happens and use their voices to label it and call it out.
As a mom of three boys, White boys to be precise, I have long struggled and worked to "raise them right". For me and my husband that means not only kind and good, but aware and open-minded. We want our boys to be upstanders- people who notice when something bad happens and use their voices to label it and call it out.
Living in NYC for the beginning of my parenting years I always quoted the sign on the subway that says, "If you see something, Say something." I still use that line with my kids. Because it's simple and easy to understand: if you see someone do something wrong, say something; if you see someone say something hurtful, say something; if you see someone hurting someone, say something.
As they've gotten older we've had to be more intentional about describing and explaining what they might see and not even notice. And why it's even more important to call that stuff out because its the stuff that most people ignore unintentionally.
I didn’t end up here by accident. As a graduate student in Social Work I went through an exhausting and emotional process of stripping my biases to the core and building myself back up- as a White woman. It was painful. I cried a lot. I was yelled at and accused and told not to put Black people in the role of educator.
That was 13 years ago. And it changed me forever. As a result, when I became a mom 11 years ago it was important to me that I do it differently with my kids- that I teach them how to be race conscious from a young age. With my background in social work and child development I have implemented several developmentally and age appropriate ways to talk with young children about race:
Tips for children under 3:
Choose books with non-White main characters
Don’t read every word on the page- point to what you see and talk about it, “I see a little girl with brown skin- she is building with blocks.” “I see a little boy with almond shaped eyes- he is playing with the dog.” “I see a baby with dark brown skin being carried by her mommy in a strong backpack.”
Point to your baby/toddler and talk about what you notice about them, “You have white skin.” “Your eyes are round.” “You like to play with blocks, too.”
Talk about the differences and the similarities using observational language.
Buy dolls and figures of different colors. If you have a dollhouse consider buying some people of color for the house to live with the White people.
Tips for children 3-4:
For books that don’t have characters of color in them, talk about the things you notice that are lacking, “this book has a lot of kids with peach colored skin but I don’t see any kids with brown skin, or other colored skin.”
Continue to talk about the differences and similarities using observational language.
Leave room for your children to think about what you are observing and noticing.
Begin introducing the terms White and Black when referring to people in books. Explain that skin isn’t really white and black but those are the words that people use to describe the skin colors.
Tips for children 5-6:
Ask them what they notice about the characters in the book? Give them an example using observational language if they need encouragement.
Leave room for them to think about what you are saying.
Begin labeling what you see if books are lacking in diverse characters, “this book has a lot of White people but I don’t see any Black people,” or “I see one Black girl in this book but it would be nice to see more kids of color in this book.
Encourage them to notice the lack of diversity in movies and tv shows, as well, and talk about it.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways to introduce the concept of race into your family- these are just some very simple age appropriate ways to begin the conversation. Talking about race is an ongoing process. As my sons get older I am having to figure out new ways to explain the complexity of White privilege and racism in America in an age appropriate way.
I don't always have the answers. I say the wrong thing a lot and have to go back and correct it but I don't shy away from talking about the hard stuff, and I am always learning.
As White parents we have an obligation to teach our children how to be upstanders in this world, to call out racism when we see it and to become anti-racist. It begins with us at home when our children are littles. Sometimes it will feel awkward. Sometimes we might cry. But we can do it. Our children are watching, and they are learning by the example we set.
I didn't ask to be White. I can't change my skin color. But I can choose what I do with my Whiteness. Like Uncle Ben says to Peter, "with great power comes great responsibility."
To be White is to have power. It just is. And to have power means that I have a responsibility to use it for good, for healing, for helping and for leading.
If we, as White parents, can use our White privilege to inspire our children to be change agents and use their power for good, imagine what this world could really look like.
Resources to continue learning about how to talk to your children about race (just a few to keep it simple to start- there is never an end to what you can learn so start slowly and keep going):