Discussions about class and race can be uncomfortable.
Watching the upsetting TV news accounts of events unfolding in Ferguson, MO., centered on the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, has brought racism to the forefront once again, raising the topic and prompting much debate – about civil rights, civil disobedience, and how and when to talk with your children about it.
Many experts say that if race, class and gender topics were discussed at home with kids at an early age, the problems might be diminished for us as a society. We need to be talking about it, early, often and openly.
A University of Texas researcher, mentioned in this 2009 Newsweek story, found that race can be an issue at age three or even earlier. The idea of being “color blind” – not recognizing that we are a world filled with different colors – is not a good way to prevent discrimination and prejudice, according to research conducted by behavioral psychologist Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and colleagues. They found that racial colorblindness is a social convention that begins to internalize by children as young as age 10. “Very early on kids get the message that they are not supposed to acknowledge that they notice people’s race—often the result of a horrified reaction from a parent when they do.”
But trying hard not to acknowledge race served to perpetuate bias, the Harvard group found. Instead, they suggested celebrating multiculturalism – acknowledging the many ethnic groups that make up our communities, and our world.
“The way we get better about talking about race is to talk about race,” Stephen Pimpare, author of A People’s History of Poverty, tells CNN in an excellent story and video on the topic.
So, how and when should we get started?
It depends on the age and maturity level of your children. Younger kids may be scared by the violent images. “In early childhood … the most important issue is safety,” Stephen Zwolak, executive director of the University City Children’s Center in St. Louis, not far from where the Ferguson events are happening, told St. Louis Public Radio. “They need to be physically safe, emotionally safe, and socially safe.”
Older teens in the St. Louis area have been discussing First Amendment rights and whether the officer was justified in his shooting. The notion of protests – peaceful and otherwise – is another timely topic.
For those of us watching from afar, it’s a chance to talk about empathy for other human beings. As one New Jersey mom told CNN of her children, “When they were very young, I started teaching them to respect people.” At CivilRights.org, suggestions include telling your elementary school-aged children that we are all “different,” but that doesn’t make anyone “better” or “weirder” than the rest.
Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of two books about talking with kids about race, urges that the message can be imparted through everyday life – given the right opening.
“I was cooking with my 3-year-old,” she told Parenting.com. “We used the last white egg in the carton, and then took out another carton of eggs, this time brown eggs. My son noted that the eggs were different in color. ‘Yes,’ I said, as we cracked both eggs open, ‘But look—they are the same inside. Just like people, they come in different shades, but they are the same on the inside.’”