Helping Parents Talk about Racism with Kids


In the wake of a national movement in response to racial injustice and police violence against Black Americans, many parents are now grappling with how to begin or continue conversations with their children and teens about racism.

Adults’ discomfort with the topic can be a barrier to these conversations, says Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, in a 2017 TEDx Stanford talk on discussing race with children. She describes how she felt when her own preschooler began asking about his African American heritage:

“I knew that I had to answer his question, but I didn’t know how I could answer it without talking about slavery—and how do you talk to a 4-year-old about a history of cruelty and injustice?”

Tatum, an expert in how race affects education, was the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University when the talk was recorded. She offers advice for parents of all races that draws both from her academic expertise and her experiences as a mom. Parents have to be willing to go beyond silencing a child’s questions or awkward comments about race, she says in the TED talk. “The reality is, we have a painful history, and sometimes we have a painful present. In this moment, our silence will not help us. We have to have conversations.”

In addition to Tatum’s talk, many resources exist at Stanford and elsewhere for helping parents plan how to discuss race and racism with their kids.

“All parents need to help their children think and talk about our country’s racial inequality as a step toward creating a more equal society,” said Stanford child and adolescent psychiatrist Victor Carrion, MD, director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Resilience Program. Carrion’s tips, below, can help families have these conversations in ways that will give kids the information and support they need while also being responsive to the child’s developmental stage.

Carrion emphasizes that in the face of frightening and troubling images and themes in the news, kids need to be reassured that their parents and other caregivers will do everything they can to keep them safe. The fact that some youth, however, are less safe than others in the outside world due to their race presents an opportunity to teach all kids about injustice. It is also an opportunity for children to develop empathy, compassion, and citizenship—learning about the role their family can have in improving society.

Carrion recommends the following for parents and caregivers:

  • Think about how to model positive behaviors and attitudes toward learning about the black experience. Kids will observe this behavior and want to emulate it. This will require adults to be informed about African American history. See a few educational recommendations in our resource list below.
  • Kids and teens need information tailored to their age and comprehension level. Parents can and should talk about race even with young children, and should adjust how they frame the conversation according to the child’s age. Kids’ questions and concerns will change as they grow.
  • Adults don’t always have the answer! And when children ask “Why?” it’s OK for parents to say, “I don’t know; let’s find out together.” See the list of resources below to help kids and adults learn more about diversity and the history of racism in the United States.
  • Kids benefit from knowing about how people are working to tackle problems in race relations and inequality. For instance, a recent Stanford story shows how the university’s experts in many disciplines are working to address systemic racism.
  • Talk about how good citizens get engaged in their communities, and discuss steps that kids can take to help promote equality, such as making friends with people from all backgrounds and telling an adult if they witness or are targeted by bullying. More ideas parents can consider:
    • Participating in peaceful protests as a family.
    • Writing to elected officials.
    • Engaging kids in family decisions about groups to volunteer with; sharing resources or donating money to help effect change. For example, the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance has chapters across the country.
  • All kids benefit from learning about diverse role models, recognizing the positive contributions of African Americans and other minorities to our society, and broadening their view of what an expert looks like. For instance, Stanford Medicine has published many stories highlighting the accomplishments of Black scientists and physicians, such as neurosurgeon Odette Harris, MD; pediatric gastroenterologist Eric Sibley, MD, PhD; medical student and musician Sheun Aluko; and otolaryngologist Brandon Baird, MD.
  • Especially in stressful times, parents should be sensitive to signs of distress from their children, such as behavioral regressions in young children, physical symptoms including headaches or stomachaches in school-aged children, and withdrawal in teenagers. If parents are concerned about a child’s symptoms or behavior, they should consult their pediatrician for help.

“This will be an ongoing discussion for families, not a one-off talk,” Carrion said. “We need to educate and inform ourselves, and have the conversations thoughtfully and with heart, compassion, and understanding.”


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