Who would have ever thought that in the middle of a major pandemic we could also be looking at the possibility of real change on an entirely different topic? Who would have ever thought that while sheltering in place and arguing over droplets and wearing masks there was a much larger movement coming?
This international movement was spurned by outrage over the horrible killing of George Floyd. A terrible act of violence by several Minneapolis police officers sparked protests, riots, and uncomfortable but long overdue and much-needed conversations around racial injustice and inequity in our country. These conversations are happening worldwide, in our communities, and around our dinner tables.
As parents, we were explaining the difference between protests and riots to our children, why we were under curfew for several days all while still trying to make sense of it ourselves. The protests have slowed, the curfew lifted, but for change to happen we can’t stop listening, educating, and continuing to raise awareness of these issues. How do we do that for ourselves and our children in a way that makes a difference? There are no easy answers; it is a complicated problem with a long history, but here are some simple ways we can start:
TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN
One of the most productive things to come out of the recent events is the importance of talking to our children about these issues. These are tough topics; they are complicated, and many parents out of fear of saying the wrong thing decide not to say anything at all. As a result, children draw their own conclusions, which are often flawed. Research shows it is never too early to start these conversations.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies’ brains can notice race-based differences as early as six months. By the time they are in preschool they can internalize racial bias, and by age 12 many children become set in their beliefs. Thankfully there are more resources than ever for parents to help guide these conversations. Even Sesame Street is helping us talk to our kids about racial injustice.
Kids and teens need information tailored to their age and comprehension level. Parents don’t always have to have the answer, but just like conversations about eating healthfully or puberty these should be ongoing conversations.
How we talk to our children is also changing. As I was growing up, I was taught to be colorblind when it came to skin color. That thinking has changed, and I have had to do a lot of reading to reteach myself how to talk to my children about this.
Today, we want them to see color and acknowledge the racial differences that exist. For young children, it is O.K. to point out differences in the people around them. For children in grade school, open conversations become more important, providing them with a safe space to ask questions about race and diversity. This is a good age to start to point out stereotypes in books and movies and to seek out media with diverse main characters who act as heroes.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
We teach our children early about the “golden rule” — treat others how you want to be treated. This is an important start, but it can’t stop there. We need to model for them what it means to treat people fairly and what to do if we think that is not happening. What we say and how we act in our everyday lives will say more to them than anything else. To do that honestly, however, requires parents being able to identify and correct our own racially biased thoughts, feelings, and actions. This isn’t easy, and through some raw and challenging conversations over the last few weeks I have come to realize that.
One of the ways we can do this is by exposure to a culturally diverse social network and by seeking out activities and experiences as a family. Travel is also a great way to expose your children to other communities and cultures to help them understand diversity in the world — everything from a different language to different food to different traditions or rituals.
Part of leading by example is teaching our children that if they don’t like what is happening to do something about it. Giving your children some ways to be part of the movement can make them feel hopeful.
Because the news is tough to watch, I put together my own newsreel of all the positive protests — pictures of thousands of people marching together calling for change. I wanted my kids to see powerful positive images of people that all look different all seeking the same thing — justice and equality for all.
This sparked conversations about what we could do as a family to be part of the solution, like putting a sign in the window or posting something on social media. I also saw one neat idea of a chalk walk where kids could use chalk to make hearts of different colors with messages of hope. For older children, it could be writing letters to their elected representatives or getting involved with a local organization. In our family, we each chose a book on this topic or with a diverse main character as part of our summer reading.
It is easy to say, “I am not a racist” or “I am against racism” especially in San Francisco. These are widely accepted norms here, but if the last few weeks have taught us anything it is that our country, our city, and myself included still have a lot left to learn.
We need to listen more and we have only just begun to try to understand. We need to keep talking to our children and helping them understand even when we ourselves don’t have all the answers.
Liz Farrell is the mother of three young children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive and healthful conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]