What I Teach My Children About Race

By request, here’s how I approach the emotionally and politically charged topic of race in a simple and matter-of-fact way with my elementary age kids.

Caveat: You do not have to move to adopt this approach. I don’t expect all my readers to share my worldview on life. But I will say that these are intentional steps I take with my white children that can be specific to our situation…so as you read, please consider how you might adapt it to your own situation.

Essentially, this is my moral curriculum for my children. But instead of planning lessons at specific days and times, this is how I respond to my childrens’ questions in every day teaching moments.

1. People Make Good & Bad Choices

There are no inherently “good people” or “bad people.” People make good and bad choices.

2. So Who Can You Trust?

What is good or bad, then?

We determine it from the consequences of our actions on ourselves, other people, and the earth. We can’t always know what the results will be, particularly in an eternal perspective (i.e. what does it mean to be “saved”?).

As my kids get older, I am slowly teaching them to look at legal and spiritual frameworks for their decisions. But the key point is that anyone can be good or bad. This includes the people closest to us, as well as strangers who may seem odd or unfamiliar.

Children (and adults) naturally trust people who seem familiar and friendly. Our natural social instincts tell us, “If they talk, look, and act like me…that means I can trust them.” The grossest oversimplification of this are racist memes flooding the US news and social media.

“Outsiders” are seen as the ultimate untrustworthy other, even if the person is harmless. For our children’s protection, and in the interest of anti-racism, we need to teach children not to always trust their gut. Our social sense has a purpose, but we have to ignore it sometimes (just like you don’t pee every time you feel the urge).

Over time, children who learn that anyone can make good or bad choices will become more open to people who look different than what they are used to. Model for them how to be friendly in new situations, but don’t force them to be friendly when they’re young.

Practice with them in private how to introduce themselves to strangers, especially if they are naturally shy. Your actions…the ability to connect with a wide range of people…speaks louder than any philosophy. Refrain from making snap judgments and comments based on skin color, clothing, teeth, physical abilities… get to know all types of people, and see beyond their outside appearance.

The flip side of this is openness is to be more discerning about who to follow and befriend. Also in private, I teach my children warning signs for abuse and how to respond.

If a kid at school is punching you in the crotch…should you punch them back to try to impress them? No. [This is a real conversation we’ve had]

If you’re at a sleepover and someone pulls out a loaded gun to play with…should you let them? No. Tell an adult, and find someone else to buddy up with.

This gets more complex as they become more discerning. But the general rule for young children is that the world is mostly safe with dangerous people hiding in it, trying to trick you. “The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers” is my favorite book for a balanced approach to this topic.

3. People Everywhere Have Basic Needs

As kids get older, you start teaching then how to care for themselves: How to feed themselves, get dressed, go to the bathroom, etc.

This functional independence is the core of the first 6 years of life.

As you introduce each step for your child, this is a good time to show them how other people answer these questions around the world. First it can be done in an unconscious way: playing music, seeing photos, or reading books aloud with lots of diversity.

As they reach Elementary age, and kids start reading and wanting to make their own choices, revisit these fundamental questions with a wide variety of answers:

What different kinds of food do people eat?

What toilets do they use, if any?

What clothes do they wear, and why?

6-12 year olds eat up this stuff, and LOVE to use their imaginations to be all kind of beings from around the world and across the galaxy.

Nurture this curiosity not only with the fantasy handed to you by mainstream media. Be discerning and intentional about how you represent many different people and cultures. I love anything from Lee and Low Books.

Please comment with your favorite multicultural media!

And emphasize: all of us have basic needs to meet, and we have to work together to meet them all.

For example, did you know we produce enough food in the world to feed every human? It just doesn’t get all the right places at the right times.

4. Training the Unconscious: Check Yourself

It’s great to start this process before your kids were even in the womb. But my mantra is: “When you know better, you do better.” Any time is the right time to confront racial bias, including one’s own.

You can start with an Implicit Association Test.

If you end up with biased results, you can train yourself to change. It’s true! The brain is an amazing, living organism that creates new pathways daily.

If you find yourself having a bias, one major way to overcome that bias is with regular contact with positive models.

Our family decided to confront our biases by moving to the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland, where we were one of few non-black families.

We had to unlearn a lot from growing up in mostly white communities. My husband was exposed to some pretty explicit racism and stereotyping in the small town where he grew up. But in his case, much of it was so blatant that he learned to be appalled.

In my case, my racial bias training was more insidious. I had to unlearn unconscious classism being from a wealthy community that zoned against rental properties and multi-family units. The message of my childhood was that people of color were welcome as long as they had enough money to buy and maintain their own large home.

Living and working and worshipping in Hough gave us a great many wonderful, positive black role models of all levels of income. Our children grew up in their formative years with black faces smiling at them as neighbors, friends, doctors, and teachers.

Do you have to move to Hough to unlearn racism?

In “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, he mentions a case of reversing the implicit bias test just by watching the Olympics!

There are many ways to counteract stereoptyped images with positive reality, and that’s where the next step comes in…

5. Encouraging Hero/ines

If you cast a wide net with the materials your children encounter, then your child is going to start putting some people (or fantasy characters) on pedestals. Especially for 9-12 year olds, fixation on hero/ines are their start to expressing their own identities and values.

If you’ve set your kids up well with #3, some of these role models will naturally be from non-white races and places far from home. Your child will want to know everything about their hero/ine: where they live, how they dress, etc. Hopefully, you can see how this part of moral development flows naturally from the previous points.

Example: Recently my 10 year-old happened to listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole on my playlist.

First, he wanted to know how to say the artist’s name correctly.

Next, he wanted to see a video: “Look how peaceful his face is when he sings.” “He has such a big smile.” “If he’s native Hawaiian, why doesn’t he have an accent in English?”

This started us talking about Hawaii’s status as a US state, and before I knew it, we were spending hours learning more about its history, language, and culture.

Then my son wanted to print and draw pictures of his new hero.

In searching for photos, he made connections to other media. He became convinced that Maui in Moana is actually based on Israel Kamakawiwo’ole because “I understand why you would make him a demigod.” And when my son started creating his next fantasy team of immortal warriors, guess whose name was top of the list?

So many white children are deprived of the immersive experience of having non-white heroes. You can’t force this step, but you can encourage it when it happens naturally.

Some kids who start to think positively about someone who is different than they are get knocked down by family or peers: wrong race, wrong gender, differently abled, etc. They are belittled by family and friends about how “weird” and “wrong” that person is. Or the child overreacts by fetishizing someone “other” just because they are exotic.

There’s a delicate balance to making sure your child turns this stage into an experience of learning and empathy.

6. You Are White

Sometimes this is an explicit conversation you have to have with your child. Other times, kids figure it out. But what does it mean to be “white”?

White people generally don’t go around thinking to themselves, “well, because I’m white, I’m going to eat dry white toast.” Or something like that…

If it’s a part of your identity that you don’t talk about or don’t have to think about (being cis gender, sighted, white, etc), that’s one aspect of privilege. Probably, if you don’t think about it, that’s because you live in a system built for your convenience.

7. You Are a Global Citizen

The next step is realizing that the system works against other people. But how you frame this is very important.

In our case, our family can say things like, “Some people don’t want black and white people to live together. What if we never got to live in Hough and meet all our friends there? And go to church there? Our lives would be really sad. But some people were so scared of our friends in Hough, they wouldn’t even visit! How sad for them, they missed out on so many good things.”

Or “some people think to make themselves great, they have to exclude and hurt other people. But instead, it makes us all worse. When you push someone else down to make yourself feel better, the person you pushed down is Jesus.”

Part of this is based on our family’s shared religious values. We are part of a global religion, and use that to be intentional about showing our kids the beauty and diversity of different styles of worship. We also have lots of material in our Catholic tradition to help us explain social teaching about the inherent dignity of all people, the rights of workers, solidarity, etc.

Whether it’s your religion, or your work, or just being a human, you have to find some global identity to lean on as a foundation for shared identity. Once you’ve established that this is a person, just like me,

who has basic needs, just like me,

and wants to belong, just like me,

than the desire for justice will flow rather naturally. Like a spring of living waters! You can and should get angry when the system works against this person who is my “neighbor.” And then, we need to be willing to make some changes, even let got of some of our money, or power, or sense of security and convenience.

8. The Journey is Lifelong

All of us have prejudices and demons to face. I believe the battle for our very soul is at stake in how we address racism (or don’t).

My salvation, my security, my identity is wrapped up in the salvation and security and health and economic equity of my siblings of color.

As your children get into adolescence and adulthood, they will continue to lead you and challenge you. You may find yourself being taken to task by your own kids for unconscious attitudes or lifestyle choices that negatively shaped their childhood.

Remember: “When we know better, we do better.”

How you respond to their criticism as a parent, how we respond to the concerns of Black Lives Matter as a culture, means everything about our society’s ability to move into a more just future.

Will we let our children take us to task?

Will we listen to and value the next generation stepping forward to lead Black Lives Matter?

Will we be willing to actually change decisions like overturning unjust housing policies, implement evidence-based strategies to reduce crime and violence, combat segregation by living in multi-ethnic and/or multi-economic communities?

Be warned: if you start on the path of anti-racist parenting, you will start to challenge everything. There are many things you can’t unsee, and many things you cannot fix. It’s traumatizing, so start small and take care of yourself.

My biggest lesson living as a white person in Hough was just to listen to and support the voices of black leaders who were already doing the work.

So the final stage is to keep listening. Stay humble. Be willing to make big changes and sacrifices for the sake of the next generation.

Let our children surpass us, together.

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