Race: Talking to Your Children


Global headlines are currently dominated by race – the death of George Floyd but also the death of Collins Khosa and ten others who died during the initial months of South Africa’s lockdown have all led to a greater awareness of racial injustice. Conversations seem to finally be happening, and they need to continue to happen. These conversations are ones that happen often around Arise’s conference table, and if you have ever attended an Arise workshop addressing Race, Identity and Transracial Adoption, the following should be familiar:

Raising children in a race conscious world requires conscious thought and deliberate action on the part of parents.

All children live in a race conscious world and while we might prefer that social constructs such as race and money weren’t things we needed to discuss, they certainly are.  As parents or caregivers, it’s our role to prepare our children to face the world. If we are not being deliberate in this, we are not equipping or empowering our children, regardless of their position or status, to navigate the world.   

How often do we hear that children don’t see race?  Let’s see what the research has shown us regarding young children and race:

  • Children around 3 months of age look more to the faces that match their caregivers than those who are different.
  • Children as young as 2 are seen to start using race to rationalize people’s behaviours.
  • At the age of 3, it’s been noted that children use race to choose play mates.
  • Racial prejudice and bias becomes overt at ages 4 & 5.
  • Between ages 5 & 6 children are seen to hold the same racial attitudes and perceptions as the adults who are in their world.
  • Explicit conversations regarding race, as well as inter-racial friendships, have the power to shift understanding and attitudes very quickly, in as little time as a week for children between the ages of 5 – 7.

Children most definitely see race – they might use different language or wording, but as the above shows us, as adults we have a significant role to play in how our children internalize and respond to race. The research repeatedly states that explicit conversations and using correct language matters when talking to children. One of the biggest obstacles in this is an adults’ own comfort with talking about race. As a parent it might be important to reflect on what we are comfortable discussing or not comfortable discussing and why – if we don’t do this, we then communicate the discomfort to our children. A second obstacle we have noticed at Arise is the fact that so much of our history is either unknown or there is uncertainty about how to talk to children about the history that has shaped us as South Africa. Books, like the Story of Mandela for Children, or How Many Ways Can You Say Hello? can help introduce the conversation. 

So we know that talking about race matters, and that talking about what we are seeing around us matters, but what does this all mean practically?  Research studies have shown that even with the conversations and dialogues being facilitated by parents, children are better able to integrate understanding when their worlds are diverse AND inclusive.  Talking on its own is not enough.

Children whose worlds are racially homogenous tend to develop bias towards their own racial group. Children’s world views and the views they carry into adulthood are shaped by their social environment. If we want to work towards a pluralistic society where diversity is embraced and affirmed, it matters that we consider who children are exposed to and where:  Who do they socialize with, go to school with, play and see in positions of authority? Who do you invite to spend time in your home and whose homes do you spend time in? 

Children learn and acquire knowledge and skills best through play – so do we. What toys and superheroes are our children exposed to?  What books are we reading and who are the leads or the ‘good guys’? What messages are your children getting in the books that they are reading about people? There are so many great resources for toys, books, crayons and plasters now that weren’t available even five years ago!  These can all assist in doing the work of talking to children about race. 

Arise is committed to ensuring that all families thrive, regardless of where they are. We see the impact of our country’s legacy as well as the ongoing injustices and in the words of a teen one of our social workers’ supported this week, “We enter and leave the world the same way – the colour of my skin should not determine how I am treated and yet it does. We need to get our lives in order to change the way our world looks”

Let’s start getting the world in order and create platforms for our children to anchor on so that they can engage with confidence, confidence to learn from and listen, as well as speak up and speak out so that the way the world looks can change.