White parents: How to talk with your preschooler about Black Lives Matter
This blogpost is part of a series on understanding the intersection of race, privilege, and parenting. Click here to view all the items in this series.
Note: If you’re a person of a non-dominant culture (a term I use to avoid centering whiteness, and to acknowledge the power differential present in systems of structural racism) reading this, then I see you and I’m listening and I’m working to do better to understand my own privilege and work to dismantle it.
[For the rest of this post, to be consistent with language that people who are new to this work have probably seen in other places, and because this issue is largely focused on Black lives right now – although it should be expanded to all people of non-dominant cultures – I will use the words Black and White.]
A lot of (mostly White) parents are reaching out to me right now to ask whether and how they should talk with their preschool-aged children about the Black Lives Matter movement. As the White parent of a mixed-race (but mostly white-presenting) daughter, I wanted to share some thoughts on how these conversations have been going at our house in the hope that it might help you.
I’ve looked at quite a bit of the scientific research on how children think about race, and on white privilege in parenting and in schools. (There are a list of episodes and other resources here, all with full peer-reviewed references.). I lost more subscribers after releasing each of these episodes than after episodes on any other topic, but I kept going because I believe this work is important.
I don’t want you to think of me as an ‘expert’ on this. I’m not. I’m spending a lot of time listening to Black voices right now – in the parenting world and elsewhere – to understand the most useful things to do. Part of this work is to shut up and listen when I’m in in diverse spaces. And part of it is to use the platform that I’ve built to talk with other White parents about our role in this work, to save Black parents from the labor of educating White parents about how to be anti-racist and raise anti-racist children.
So if you’ve never really thought much about your privilege as a White person raising White children, think of me as one step ahead of you, extending a hand backward to support you as you take your own first step.
Why it’s important to have this conversation with your children
It has become increasingly clear to me over the last few years that how we raise our children is one of the most impactful things that we can do to change our society. This goes for patriarchal systems that privilege maleness above female-ness (and all other genders). And this goes for systems where one race is privileged above all others.
If we want our world to be different, we can’t just continue to raise our children in the same way that we were raised, shielding them from things that we’re uncomfortable discussing, and failing to acknowledge our own role in the system and the benefits we get from it. If we tell our children “I don’t see color; all people matter the same to me” then we are simply perpetuating the systems we currently have. Teaching children ‘not to see race’ is actually one of the most effective ways of raising a child with racially biased attitudes.
We must also acknowledge that we have the privilege to make a choice about whether we talk with our child about these topics. Black parents don’t have that privilege; they have to make SURE their preschool-aged boys are never seen in public with a NERF gun in case they get shot. Our privilege allows us to avoid these conversations entirely, and to use delicate words to avoid being clear if it makes us uncomfortable.
This is going to be uncomfortable.
Sit with it. Be OK with it. Do it anyway.
I also want to acknowledge that this will not be, and cannot be, a one-time conversation with your child. It took several generations of systemic racism to get us to where we are right now, and it may take several generations more to recover from it as a society – even if we truly get serious about this work today.
Starting the conversation with books
If you feel completely out of your depth, you might want to start with children’s books containing Black characters (not always an easy task, since only about 10% of children’s books published in 2018 featured Black protagonists. More books with animals as protagonists were published in 2018 than books featuring American Indian/First Nation, Latinx, Asian American/Asian and Pacific Islander and Black children combined).
So, start with books if you can find them. Make sure your collection includes books that discuss difficult topics like racism, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement. Do be aware that no children’s book discusses any of these topics accurately and completely, so you must read more than one book. The majority leave children with the impression that systemic racism is a thing of the past; that Rosa Parks sat down on a bus and things are all better now.
I worked with a professor to curate a book list that, when read as a set, covers every one of the principles on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement that the Southern Poverty Law Center says we should teach (you can download the book list for free on this page). You will still likely need to supplement these books with conversations about how systemic racism is still very much a part of our lives.
So read books about these important topics – but also read books with featuring Black children and characters just living their lives. We don’t want the only impression that our White children have about Black people is that they are oppressed – they are also vital, vibrant, active contributors to our world.
Starting the conversation about killings of Black people
White parents are often worried about scaring their children by talking about guns and murder. That’s understandable. Recognize, again, that you have the privilege to not have this conversation if you don’t want to do it.
The way I approached it was that when my daughter was old enough to know that people can kill other people (which she picked up at school at about age 4), I also considered her to be old enough to know that Black people are murdered by White people. When she was old enough to know that guns and bullets kill people, she was old enough to know that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
Now she’s almost six, I don’t make a conscious effort to protect her from any specific ideas. She knows that George Floyd was murdered when a White police officer put his knee on George Floyd’s neck so he couldn’t breathe.
If your child is highly stressed by current COVID-19-related events (as some children are, as a result of being at home for extended periods of time and unable to meet up with friends), you might make the decision to wait a little while before having this conversation. But again, know that it is your privilege that allows you to do this.
Having the conversation about the riots
Parents seem to be struggling particularly to discuss the riots that have been happening in many cities around the U.S.., perhaps partly because we seem to spend half our lives telling our children to stop destroying stuff around the house and stop hitting their siblings.
Honestly, I didn’t understand this issue myself until quite recently – I couldn’t see why Black people would destroy businesses, and even Black-owned businesses, in their own community.
But then I learned about Black anger toward, and trauma from, the entire racist system they live in.
A system that forced them to work for free and then branded them lazy.
A system that makes nutritious food unavailable to Black communities and then tells them their health problems are their own fault for being fat.
A system that exposes Black people disproportionately to COVID-19, and then fails to provide adequate healthcare for them.
A system that funnels money disproportionately to White-owned businesses to enable their recovery from COVID-related financial pressures.
A system that allows White people to kill Black people without fear of punishment.
A system that Black people have been protesting for centuries, and they have been ignored and told to “speak calmly” and “be logical” and that we “can’t engage with their anger.”
If you and your family had experienced this, wouldn’t you be angry? Would you be traumatized? And if you’d already tried civil conversations on White people’s terms and voting, and peaceful protests, wouldn’t you feel like you needed to take greater action to make people listen?
(And, as a side note, I’ve been in some conversations lately on what to actually call the riots… ‘riot’ actually doesn’t seem to be an appropriate term when you put it in the context of this anger and trauma. Neither does vandalism, or insurrection, or any of the other alternatives.)
Continuing the conversation about systemic racism
One of the hardest parts about the conversation about systemic racism is acknowledging that we White parents are complicit in it. We don’t have to apologize for being White; we didn’t ask to be born with White skin. But throughout our lives we have benefitted from this privilege even without knowing it.
And as parents we have used it to our advantage: we have been able to access healthcare services and engage with our obstetricians to protect our health and our infant’s health. We may have shared spreadsheets of information with other White parents about preschool and school application procedures; information that Black parents might have found more difficult to access. We have selected summer camps and sports and music classes to help our children to develop skills that will continue to help them to get ahead for the rest of their lives – while also extending our own networks to the other (White) parents whose children are attending these classes.
Even today, as I sit here typing this post, already on my own anti-racist journey, I’m still benefitting from my white privilege. I own my house (well, the bank still owns most of it right now) – but Whites are approved for mortgage loans and receive lower interest rate loans than Black and Latino applicants. If I need to run to the store to get some milk, I can be reasonably sure that cars will stop for me when I cross the street. If I accidentally lock myself out of my house and need to break in, nobody will call the police and have me arrested. I can even let my daughter play out on the street lightly supervised (with me upstairs with the door open and other neighborhood children around) without risking getting arrested and having my daughter removed from my care.
If we talk with our children about George Floyd and Dr. Martin Luther King and the riots and we don’t also talk about how we ourselves have benefited and continue to benefit from our White privilege, we aren’t having the full conversation. Having privilege doesn’t make us bad people. We can be nice and benefit from privilege at the same time. But if we’re going to be anti-racist, we need to acknowledge that privilege and do what we can to redistribute it: to take less for ourselves, and give more to others.
How to actually have the conversation
I know a number of folks reading this might be seeing all of this conceptual information but still struggle to actually have the conversation, so here’s a place to get started. Don’t take it as a script; take it as some phrases that you might find useful and adapt as you see fit, perhaps over a period of several days rather than all at once.
If you can, start with a question your child has – perhaps about something they saw on the news, or boarded up shops in your town. If your child isn’t asking questions, you can just share what’s on your mind. Obviously you’ll pause to check for understanding and answer any questions your child has that come up as you’re going through.
“Hey, could we talk about something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately? It’s important to me, and I want to share it with you.
There’s a lot going on in the country right now, and a lot of people are angry. A couple of weeks ago a Black man called George Floyd bought something in a store and the worker in the store thought he used a $20 bill that wasn’t real. We aren’t supposed to use money that isn’t real and the worker called the police. When the police came, they held George on the ground and one of the police officers put his knee on George’s neck so he couldn’t breathe, and George died.
It isn’t right that any person should die because they did something that might have been just a little bit wrong, and because they happen to have dark skin, and a lot of people are very angry about it. I’m very angry about it.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened – actually a lot of Black people have been killed by White people – even by White police officers. Because it’s happened so many times before, and because Black people have been saying so long that this isn’t fair, they’re tired of telling us using polite words. Some people are protesting by going out together and holding signs, and some people are so angry that they have broken windows and taken things that don’t belong to them, and even set cars on fire. Normally we say that those things are wrong, and people shouldn’t do them. But in this case, because we haven’t listened when Black people have asked us nicely and told us using polite words, they are now telling us in a different way and we have to listen to what they’re saying.
We have pretty light colored skin, right? Mine is very light, and Daddy’s is a bit darker, and yours is kind of in between. And we’ve talked about how people who have dark colored skin are more likely to have to go to jail than someone with light colored skin, even when they do exactly the same thing wrong. Because I have light skin I’m called a White person, and because your skin is almost as light as mine people will probably often think you’re White too, even though Grandma and Grandpa came from the Philippines so your skin is a little bit darker than mine.
Because I’m White and you look White, people treat us differently than they treat a Black person who has dark colored skin. Sometimes we might see that happening, when a worker in a store is polite to us and then rude to a Black person. But sometimes you might not see it happening, and even Daddy and I might not see it happening. Did you know that when we applied to your preschool, that one of the reasons that you were able to go there was because we already knew some of the families who went to the school, and they called the school and said that they’d love to have you go there? I know it’s been great going to school with so many of your friends, but if there was a Black child who wanted to go to the school at the same time and they didn’t know any of the families at school, they wouldn’t have been able to go. That didn’t seem fair to me, so I wrote to the teachers to ask them to think about changing the way they choose which children will go to your school in the future.
And you know how we sort of own this house, right? We say it’s ours but really the bank owns it until we pay all the money back that the bank loaned to us to buy it. Well sometimes banks will say to Black people: “I’m sorry; we’re not going to lend you the money to buy a house,” or they might say “You can have the money,” but then they make the Black person pay more money back to the bank than the White person. Those kinds of things happen all the time without you or me even knowing about them.
So when we do see something happening that isn’t fair, it’s really important that we do something about it. If you are by yourself and you see something that isn’t fair, look to see who else is there and will also say it isn’t fair, and if you can find at least one other person, then speak up right then and there.
But there may be times when you see something that isn’t fair and it doesn’t feel safe to say something. Maybe the person doing the unfair thing is a teacher or a police officer. If it doesn’t feel safe to say something right then, you can always come and tell me or Daddy about it afterward, and then we can help to talk to the people who were there.
And it’s really important that we think about how some things that are unfair might be happening even if normally they might be hidden from us, or if it’s easier for us to choose not to see them. When we do see them, we need to learn as much as we can about them and then do what we can to make them more fair.
Do you have any questions about this? It’s OK if you don’t right now; if you think of any later you can come back and ask me at any time.
So I’m wondering if you’d like to help me to do something right now? I’ve been doing a lot of work on this myself – I’ve been writing a lot of things to try to help parents who are just thinking about these things for the first time so they can talk with their children about them. And I’ve donated money to an organization that helps people who are arrested while they’re protesting to get out of jail. I called our police department to ask them what they’re doing to make sure that they treat Black people fairly. I’m also in a [reparations] group [on Facebook] where Black people who need things ask for them, and White people give them things. You have some money in your Donation [pocket money] jar right now – would you like to give some of that to some Black people who need help? Let’s get the jar and see how much you have, and then we can give the money to people right now.”
If you mess up at some point during this conversation, that’s OK. (Accept that you probably will mess it up!). After the conversation, you’ll think about ways you wish you could have done it differently. Then you can go back to your child and say “Remember when we talked about George Floyd a couple of days ago? I remember telling you [idea], and then I had a chance to think about it and I realized that that isn’t quite right. What I meant to say was…[new idea]. Do you have any questions about that?”.
This is the journey of a lifetime – of several lifetimes. Will you join me in taking the first step?
Thank you, Jen. This is a powerful time in our country and I’m grateful for some guidance in how to talk to my 3 year old.
I’ve listened to almost every podcast you’ve produced. I am a mental health professional and I talk with adults all the time about their childhood, but actually raising a little boy is an entirely different experience…your podcast has been an invaluable resource for me.
I just wanted to reach out and thank you for leaning into the conversations about race and anti-racism. I’m learning so much right now, but I feel unsure about how to talk with my son. Though it feels like one of the most important conversations to have as we raise him.
With much gratitude,
God bless you Jen!