At EmbraceRace, we believe that creating a society marked by authentic multiracial belonging must begin in our homes, schools, and communities with our children’s hearts and minds.
In our report Reflections on Children’s Racial Learning, we begin to chronicle the emergence of a field of learning and practice centered on children’s racial learning—how and what children learn about race, including but not limited to the deliberate efforts of adults to teach children about race (i.e., racial socialization).
“Children will ‘naturally’ grow up to be non-racist adults only when they live in a non-racist society,” writes educator Louise Derman-Sparks and her colleagues. “Until then, adults must guide children’s anti-racist development.” We have far to go before the U.S. can be considered a “non-racist society.” Centuries after our founding, U.S. family, community, and institutional life remain awash with racial biases, anxieties, and resentments.
For some time, researchers, educators, and parents alike have focused on pushing back against the emergence of racial bias in children. Increasingly, however, we’re paying attention to the subtleties of how we communicate to children about race and racism, more broadly—with recent research highlighting the real possibility that we can raise generations of children who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race.
But how do we get children to engage with race-related topics rather than avoid them? How do we lay the foundation for positive, meaningful cross-race interactions? We reached out to social scientists to ask how we can engage children in positive racial learning—and here are the answers they provided for Reflections on Children’s Racial Learning.
1. Embrace “the talk” across ALL races
For almost half a century, studies have focused on measures of the frequency and content of parent-child conversations about race. Along with Dr. Howard Stevenson from the University of Pennsylvania, we have proposed new questions: How well are these families engaging in the talk with each other? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this phenomenon look like across race?
An interdisciplinary team of researchers and multiracial participants showed that, indeed, we can expand our understanding of racial socialization with a focus on families’ experiences and competency—their skills, confidence, and stress. Whether parents are talking to Black, Latina, Asian, or white children, they report similar patterns of competence.
This means that every parent can benefit from reducing their stress (breathing), improving their skills (utilizing resources), and enhancing their confidence (practice) when talking to their children, even parents who may already often discuss race or feel sure about what they have to say. This also means that there are more opportunities for organizations like EmbraceRace to help parents become more competent in caring for their children’s emotional wellness at a time of heightened sensitivity and stress with respect to race. — Riana Elyse Anderson and Shawn C. T. Jones
2. Hold brave, intentional, caring, children-led conversations
Recent years have seen more and more researchers hard at work trying to figure out how we can best support communities in having courageous conversations about race. The research is clear that parents provide youth with intentional and unintentional messages about race that influence youth’s racial understanding of themselves and others around them.
What we know is that intentionality is necessary to ensure these conversations are productive, useful for youth, and lead to youth having a stronger sense of themselves—ready to handle racialized moments and be change agents in their environments.
But how we have these conversations is as important as having them in the first place. Observational studies with parents and youth shed light on the benefit of scaffolding to youth’s developmental stage, to being alert to youth’s emotional well-being in the conversations, to following the child’s lead by asking open-ended questions to understand youth perspectives, and to helping youth anticipate how they can manage these moments in the future.
The tone parents take in these conversations is also important: Warmth and support are the backbone of any effective conversation about race. — Stephanie Irby Coard, Lisa Kiang, Gabriela Livas Stein
3. Adopt a growth mindset in your conversations
We can shift the view of prejudice as fixed (“once a racist, always a racist”) to a view that it is malleable (“that seems prejudiced, but that can be changed”). This is what some researchers refer to as a “growth mindset.”
In research with eight to 13 year olds, we found that the more children believed prejudice is fixed, the less friendly they behaved toward a cross-race peer and the less they wanted to interact with that cross-race peer in the future. Children who believed that prejudice is an attribute that can change behaved quite differently: They were more friendly and they reported an increased desire to interact with their cross-race peers. We also measured children’s prejudice and what mattered was not how prejudiced children were, but whether they believed prejudice could change.
Our research suggests that the goal of creating a greater willingness to talk about race and more positive interracial interactions could be achieved through shifting the focus of our conversations with children away from identifying prejudiced people and toward emphasizing how prejudice itself can be changed. The research world is increasingly identifying opportunities to be more intentional in our caregiving practices and the messages we communicate to our children. — Kristin Pauker
4. Talk about structural racism
While talking with kids about the social forces that shape racial inequality may seem like a tall order, our work finds that it makes a difference.
In one study, for example, we found that children who believed that racial inequalities were caused by internal differences between people (“who people are on the inside”) developed more racial biases over time, whereas children who recognized the societal factors underlying racial inequalities (“things that happen in the world that make it harder for some people and easier for others”) developed more inclusive, egalitarian attitudes.
In related work, we’ve found that children’s understanding of these societal factors become especially important for promoting inclusive, anti-racist worldviews as children are exposed to more racial inequalities in their neighborhoods and in the media.
This research points toward teaching about structural racism as a way to promote more anti-racist worldviews in early childhood, and reflects the growing contributions and increasingly promising role of social science researchers in helping us navigate the practical challenge of raising anti-racist children. — Michael T. Rizzo
This essay was adapted from Reflections on Children’s Racial Learning 2023, published by EmbraceRace, an organization that aims to help parents and educators raise a generation that is thoughtful, brave, and informed about race.