Research-Based Advice on Teaching Children Not to Be Racist

Psychologists Sonia Kang and Evan Apfelbaum share tips to help kids manage the complicated issues of prejudice, diversity, and equality.

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Even before that John Derbyshire debacle, it's no secret that talking to your children about race isn't easy.

"Broaching that topic often feels inappropriate, irrelevant, or just plain uncomfortable," says University of Toronto professor Sonia Kang. "Just ask any parent who has had the unnerving experience of witnessing their child publicly point out a stranger's race."

This week on Professional Help, Kang collaborates with MIT organization studies professor Evan Apfelbaum and scours decades of data about how children learn about race and diversity to come up with five practicable tips for parents hoping to raise less prejudiced children. Apparently, having "the talk" barely scratches the surface.


Let your kids talk about race. Parents typically shush their children when they mention race. While doing so may make you feel more at ease, it can increase your kid's anxiety and confusion, and give him or her the impression that "bad" things happen when race is mentioned. The truth is, whether or not we draw their attention to it, children, and even infants automatically notice race and other differences between people, and discussing these won't increase their likelihood of being racist. Research has shown just the opposite: talking about race can decrease prejudice, make people feel more comfortable and accepted (PDF), and even help kids perform better at school. On the other hand, not discussing race can interfere with children's communication (PDF) and leave black interaction partners feeling less accepted. So the next time race comes up, as uncomfortable as it is for you, seize the opportunity to help your child make sense of the differences he's seeing.

Make your lessons age appropriate. It's important to tailor your message about diversity to your child's age (PDF), as we recently reported in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Up until about age seven, what we say takes precedence over everything else, including children's own experiences. Beginning at around age 10, however, children's experiences start to matter more than our messages do. What this means is that, while it's important for us to talk to our children about diversity and equality, the way we do it should evolve as our kids grow. When they're younger, help your child interpret the often complicated issues of diversity, prejudice, and equality. Then, as he gets older, supplement this dialogue with real-world interactions with people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Showcase diversity by celebrating similarities and differences. Encourage your children to engage in cooperative activities with diverse groups of people - a soccer team, an arts club, a community clean-up day. Working together toward a shared goal and having to rely on each other is a great way to build strong, meaningful bonds between children (and adults, too!). Even if you live in a homogenous community, expose your kids to various races and cultures via books, movies, or the Internet, and be sure to celebrate both differences and similarities. Discuss ways in which groups are different--languages, foods, traditions--and some ways that groups are similar--we all like to dance, play, and work hard at school. Finding this balance helps children feel special while also connected to others, irrespective of race.

Practice empathy. One of the most important social developments in childhood is the understanding that others may have different beliefs, desires, and intentions than our own. This so-called "theory of mind" is essential to cultivating empathy, even beyond the context of prejudice. To develop this skill, capitalize on opportunities to ask your children how they think others feel. When watching Bob the Builder, for instance, stop periodically to ask your kids how Bob, Wendy, and Travis feel when a new job comes in. Actively prompting your kids to consider others' thoughts, feelings, and experiences is an excellent way to help them identify situations in which someone might feel excluded or is in need of help. If they see David making fun of Hakim on the playground and know that Hakim's feelings will be hurt, they'll be more likely to reach out and help him feel better.

Model and reward good behavior. Children are sponges for social information. They mimic and infer meaning from the behavior they see, particularly yours, so it's crucial for you to exhibit positive behavior toward people from different backgrounds whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Reach out to people who are different from you, become engaged in multicultural events in your community, and cultivate friendships across group boundaries. At the same time, make sure to reward your kid's good social behavior. If you see him interacting with people from different groups or demonstrating concern for the fair and equitable treatment of others, let him know that this makes you proud. If you show your child that equality is important to you, he'll follow in your footsteps.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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