As protests continue following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—including last Saturday’s peaceful protest that drew a couple thousand demonstrators to downtown Springfield to march—the children in your home may need some help processing what is happening in the news. And as parents, you might be looking for guidance for how to effectively talk about racism, diversity and inclusion with your children. Leading by example is key, but having intentional conversations is a must. We spoke with experts from Springfield Public Schools to put together some tips for talking with your kids, no matter their ages.
Talking to Older Kids
For parents with kids in middle school or high school, talking with them about racism is not a conversation that can be put off any longer. With so much technology at their fingertips, kids are watching what’s happening in America, and they’re forming a narrative whether you realize it or not. There’s a lot of information to unpack, but it’s time for that unpacking to take place.
Listen, Talk and Learn Together
If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, Denzel Billy, a counselor at Kickapoo High School, suggests beginning by asking your child what they’ve seen, where they’ve seen it and what they’re feeling in order to establish a baseline of how they perceive the world around them. “If they say, ‘well I’ve had a few experiences,’ or ‘I’ve talked to a few friends and they shared their experiences with me,’ then you can have a deeper level of conversation with them,” Billy says.
There may come a point when your child asks you a question, and you don’t have the answer. Having the humility to admit that you’re not sure is something Billy says is very important when talking to kids this age, but be sure to follow up and work to find the resources to educate yourself. Dr. Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, Chief Equity and Diversity Officer for Springfield Public Schools, suggests using those moments as an opportunity to learn together as a family. “There are some really great resources—books, TED Talks, YouTube videos—to really make this a family commitment to understand what is happening in the world and to make sense of it so that everyone is growing together,” she says.
Actions Speak Volumes
While having a direct conversation with your kids is essential, changing your own actions and behaviors also goes a long way in communicating with them. The old saying, “do as I say, not as I do,” won’t cut it. Putting in the work to educate yourself and acknowledging your own implicit bias are important steps to model for your family. Garcia-Pusateri stresses that stereotypes have been inherently instilled by societal factors, and while it may feel uncomfortable, we have to own those biases and have critical conversations about them in order to change the mind’s framework. Billy adds that your family upbringing also plays into the implicit bias you carry today. Maybe it was unconsciously taught to you by a parent or grandparent, but until you can come to terms with that idea, you in turn may be passing the same ideas down to your kids.
Education Doesn’t End at School
It may be tempting to assume that the topic of racism will be addressed and discussed by educators at school, and that those conversations will be enough. “I don’t have a personal relationship with all 2,000 kids [at Kickapoo High School], nor do I have the time to sit down consistently and talk to them,” Billy says. School is a great place for kids to gather resources and experiences, but he says parents then need to bridge the gap and ask their kids questions and help them make sense of what they’re learning and encounters with their peers.
Garcia-Pusateri suggests thinking of school as an introduction to society and societal matters. “There has to be this partnership where whatever happens in school, students are then able to have more of a conversation because it’s only going to benefit the student more, especially as the landscape of our country racially has changed,” she says. Parents play an important role in preparing their children to function in a more globalized world where employers, co-workers and consumers won’t necessarily look like them. “They're going to have to be able to engage with people that are different from them and be able to do it in a positive manner,” she says.
Moving Forward and Making Permanent Changes
While acknowledgement and education are the first crucial steps in addressing racism, deliberate actions toward becoming an ally and an anti-racist must follow. One way is to encourage kids to examine what they’re learning, or not learning, in school. Garcia-Pusateri points to the film Hidden Figures as a personal example of history she did not learn in school. “As much as I hate math and science, seeing women of color at the forefront of NASA putting white men into space, that's something I should have learned, but I didn’t and that was history that was taken from me,” she says. “And it took a movie for me to see that.”
Another example is “The Milly Project”, a theatrical true account of Milly Sawyers, an enslaved woman from Springfield, Missouri who won her freedom in court in the 1830s, but was beaten to death shortly after. The Springfield NAACP has been partnering with a group to tell her story on stage, because it’s a piece of local history that unfortunately is not always taught in school. Billy says building an understanding of history is hard work and that it’s an emotional labor that you have to go through. He says kids will need to understand that it’s going to require doing the work, reading books and inserting themselves in uncomfortable spaces to help them grow as allies. Speaking up and interrupting negative talk or implicit biases could result in strained or lost friendships. “It’s going to take a lot of interrupting,” he says.
Recognizing people as individuals and understanding that not all experiences are shared experiences is important to stress to kids as well. “It will help you see people for who they are and it’ll help you dive more into their experience to help you understand where they come from,” Billy says. “But all-in-all, it’s important work. The resources are out there, you just have to be committed to doing the work and trying to figure out what you don't know so you can better portray that to others.”