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In our opinion: Parents shouldn’t shy away from discussing racism with their children

Mohamed Baayd and others with Black Lives Matter Utah protest at the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Within a few months, a deadly pandemic forced parents to learn how to talk to their children about distressing global issues. Now, with news broadcasts filled with images about racism and protests, those carefully crafted communication skills shouldn’t stop.

A global pandemic can at times be more straightforward to discuss than something as nuanced and complicated as civil rights, race and racism in American. In comparison, a pandemic has a relatively simple effect: A lot of people are getting sick. The history of persistent racial inequality is not so easily explained. Yet, experts say parents shouldn’t shy away from discussing the topic and its ongoing issues with children, regardless of age.

Studies show that children begin to recognize differences in physical appearance, including skin color, at as early as 6 months of age. By age 5, they can begin to show racial bias and preference, treating certain racial groups differently.

Beginning conversations and exposure to people of different backgrounds and race early is an important step in preventing unintentional bias that children may pick up through their surroundings and environment.

Some parents may feel uncomfortable broaching a topic they don’t entirely comprehend, but ignoring the discussion completely can cause harm.

The good news is that there isn’t just one way to approach the issue. Since recent news depicts death and violent crimes, it’s important to first use those skills gained during the early days of the pandemic to check in with a child’s emotions and mental well-being.

A list of suggestions and guidelines from the Child Mind Institute about discussing troubling news has been adapted to home in on the current race-related conversations. Along with validating feelings, parents shouldn’t be afraid to show their own emotion and work to break down the conversation into terms that children may be better able to understand.

Explaining protests and systemic racism shouldn’t be contained to a single sit-down talk. As difficult as the news cycle may be, it is an opportunity for parents to continually open the door on a topic that can and should be a living conversation. It’s also a chance for adults to learn more. When an uncomfortable question arises, that is not the time to grasp at straws and theorize an answer. Instead, teach children the value of lifelong learning by researching and seeking understanding together.

In response to the news, many outlets such as the Center for Racial Justice in Education have been quick to publish resources for parents and kids of all ages. Younger children can ready any number of picture books meant to introduce them to different races and cultures. If parents are unsure of what discussions are age-appropriate, UNICEF has a helpful breakdown by age group.

Racism is a heavy issue — its history in this country is rife with murders, lynchings, mob violence and all manner of inhumane practices — but that is not a reason to shy away from making it an important part of growing up. Celebrating diversity and inclusion from an early age is a necessary step in achieving a world that is more open, understanding and solutions-oriented.

Drawing on resources from experts and the stories of others, it’s possible to create a healthy environment surrounding a difficult topic. Parents have many options available to them. The only unacceptable approach is silence.