“But Daddy, Why Was He Shot?”: How to Talk to Children about Race Today

Son hugging his dad

Riana Anderson

Assistant Professor, Health Behavior and Health Education

Whenever there is news of a criminal’s non-indictment for violence committed against Black people, I run to Facebook to assess the pulse of my friends and colleagues. It’s a phenomenon that started the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin. My newsfeed was ablaze with the desperate, despondent, and disastrous beliefs of current and hopeful parents.

“It almost seems irresponsible now to have and raise a child of color in this country.”

“Deeply saddened. Disappointed. What is the message for my sons, cousins…don’t go outside?”

“…I love you and I am scared as you guys get older.”

All parents are concerned for their children’s safety, but parents of color shoulder a particularly challenging burden raising children in a racially charged society. In particular, the messages and behaviors that parents express to their children regarding race are known as Racial/Ethnic Socialization (RES). Much has been written on RES —formal review articlesblogsmore blogs, and even more blogs—but at a time when racial conflict is especially visible via social and mass media, caregivers may be wondering what is best to say to children of color.

Although no magic formula exists for helping children of color get through the racial dynamics of our society, here are a few things that research tells us are useful:

1. Talking is both said and unsaid.

You may believe that you have said all the things you want to say to your child, especially the things the research indicates most parents of color say to their children—cultural socialization (or pride), preparation for bias, promotion of distrust, and equality—but have you also noticed what you are not saying to them? If the TV is on and you are full of emotion, do you explain to your child what it is that is making you so scared and frustrated? RES is not just the explicit sharing of messages, it is also implicit—what we don’t say is just as important as what we do say. This is true for actions too – what we do and don’t do both provide models for our children. Children are always watching (and parents thought they had eyes in the back of their head!), so be mindful of what they see and how you explain your actions.

2. You have to start somewhere.

Sometimes, parents can be so paralyzed by our own frustrations or fears that it is challenging to talk to our children about race. Some parents may even feel like bringing up race can add to the anxiety that our children feel about racial experiences. On the contrary, the majority of research shows that there are some great benefits to instilling pride and preparing both children and adolescents of color for the bias they will face. Children of color often have better psychologicalphysiological, and academic outcomes when parents use some combination of pride and preparation. We think of it this way – if a flight attendant prepares passengers for plane crashes, wouldn’t it be just as logical for parents to prepare children for the sting of discriminatory experiences that the majority of Black people report facing throughout their lifetime?

3. Do you understand your own stress?

Just as my peers indicated in their Facebook posts several years ago, a very real fear may exist in communicating with our children about racial encounters. Oftentimes, parents have unresolved stress and trauma ourselves, so asking us to provide assistance for our children can be challenging. Prior to talking to your children, it may be useful to talk to your partner, parent, friend, or therapist about how you feel.

If we as parents are not attuned to our feelings on racial matters, we may be unconsciously communicating our discomfort to our children. Indeed, children who receive more frequent messages of distrust (which can be a generalization from a personal or communicated experience) and/or equality (which may just be avoidance of racial topics for some parents) have less consistent well-being outcomes relative to their peers who receive pride and preparatory messages. Although it is important to start somewhere with our children, we may have to start with ourselves first. 

Since very young children can detect differences in race and start to make meaning of those differences, it is important for caregivers to be prepared to have open and honest dialogue about the history, present-day practices, and future hopes for race in our society.

This article originally appeared on the American Psychological Association's Psychology Benefits Society blog.

About the Author

Riana AndersonRiana Elyse Anderson is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She uses mixed methods in clinical interventions to study racial discrimination and socialization in Black families to reduce racial stress and trauma and improve psychological well-being and family functioning. She investigates how protective familial mechanisms such as parenting and racial socialization operate in the face of risks linked to poverty, discrimination, and residential environment. Anderson is particularly interested in how these factors predict familial functioning and subsequent child psychosocial outcomes, especially when enrolled in family-based interventions. She has recently developed a five-session intervention entitled EMBRace (Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race) to alleviate racial stress and trauma in parents and adolescents in order to facilitate healthy parent-child relationships, parent and adolescent psychological well-being, and healthy coping strategies. Anderson received her PhD in Clinical and Community Psychology at the University of Virginia and completed a clinical and community psychology doctoral internship at Yale University’s School of Medicine. She also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Applied Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania supported by the Ford and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations. 

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