Talking to Teens about Racism in America

As protests take place around the United States, worried parents of all ethnicities struggle with what to say to their teens. Conversations about race, police brutality, violence, and injustice are extremely difficult. Unfortunately, because those conversations are uncomfortable and because we want to protect our children from seeing the worst in our society, so many of us tend to avoid talking with our children about these things altogether. Experts say that keeping silent is not a good idea, especially for adolescents who have already seen what is happening on social media. It’s ok to not have all the answers, but avoiding the topic is not a solution. Parents can help teens have more robust conversations that will give them an opportunity to process the situation with an adult.

When having conversations about the current racial unrest in the United States, it is important to balance acknowledging the reality of racism and the unfairness of a system that discriminates against minorities with messages about the possibility of change and the community of allies who are working together to make things better. Your teen is likely to have emotions about the situation, and it’s important that you validate their feelings while encouraging them to express their emotions in healthy ways. For example, if your child feels angry, let them know that anger is an appropriate response to this situation, but help them channel that anger into working towards positive change or finding healthy ways to cope such as journaling or exercising.

In addition to having these difficult conversations with our teens, we also need to take steps that show them how we can improve our world. Here are actions you should consider:

Make a donation. One way to create positive change is to donate to groups that have already been working to fight police brutality, get out the vote, put women of color into elected office, reform the criminal justice system, or restore voting rights to disenfranchised voters. Talk to your teens about the different organizations and ask them which group they would like to support and why. This will open up a great conversation and also help your teen feel like they are making a difference in the world.

Advocate for change. Talk to your teen about ways to promote change in our government. They should know that, as a citizen, they can write their elected officials. Many people don’t realize how important this action is, but the offices of our representatives have staffers whose sole job is to tally up the opinions of everyone who contacts the congressional office. Quite frequently, representatives will change their vote on something, or enact new policies, if as few as a handful of people call or write in support or dissent. In this particular situation we face now, it’s a great idea to Google whether your local police department currently employs evidence-based police de-escalation trainings and outfits all on-duty police officers with a body-worn camera and requires that the body-worn camera be turned on immediately when officers respond to a police call. If they don’t, write to your city or town government representative and police chief to advocate for it. You can also call or write to both your U.S. and state representatives to ask them to support legislation that would make reforms to our criminal justice system. Even though your teen is not of voting age, our elected officials are meant to represent everyone in their district, so children are included. You can both write your own letters to express your opinions.

Get exposure. One of the best ways to reduce racism and other discrimination is simply exposure to people and ideas that are different. Getting to know people different from oneself leads to reduced prejudice and increased understanding. Consider visiting museums, exhibits or historical sites that either celebrate different cultures or are associated with the struggle for human and civil rights. Books can open our eyes to ideas from different viewpoints, and having the opportunity to discuss the book with others allows even more perspective. You could start a family book club (or encourage your teen to start a book club with friends), in which everyone reads books written by African Americans, such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught by Marie Gottschalk, or Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Another good book to read is Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. If your teen isn’t a reader, ask them to watch a documentary with you called 13th, a powerful look at institutional racism in the justice system that premiered in 2016 to a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival.

Role model. You need to make sure your teen is seeing you display the attributes and behaviors that you desire for them to emulate. We cannot embrace diversity by remaining set in our ways, beliefs and thoughts, so be open to new ideas. You should set an example by listening, accepting and welcoming people and ideas which are different from your own. Be mindful of your language; avoid stereotypical remarks and challenge those made by others. Speak out against slurs that target people or groups.

Encourage empathy. Empathy is being able to understand how someone else feels, and it’s a skill that requires practice. As you go about your normal life, ask your teen how they think someone else feels in different situations that you see. Whether it’s a sibling they are fighting with, a friend who might be acting strangely, or a character on a TV show, ask them to consider the other person’s point of view. If you think they are incorrect in their assessment, don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, say, “that’s an interesting idea; I was thinking that they might be feeling…”

Dispel stereotypes. Provide accurate information to reject harmful myths and stereotypes about other races. Your teen will hear lots of stereotypes at school; it’s up to you to confront these misconceptions with truth. If your teen says something that you think is racist, inquire about it with curiosity, not judgment. Lectures never work with teens. Try saying, “I’m wondering why you said that …”  After hearing more about what the child is thinking, you can offer correction by providing new information. “You know, a lot of people might think that is true, but I don’t because….”

Final Thoughts…

The youth of today live in a multicultural, global community that is growing more and more connected through technology. Diversity is a fact of life. Our differences – whether based on race, gender, mental health, physical ability, sexual orientation, age, religion, culture, appearance, or origin – improve our world. Bringing together people of various backgrounds with different life experiences actually generates more creativity, new ideas and perspectives, and increased productivity. Research shows that the cognitive effort required for breaking through stereotypes enhances complex thinking and development of values, ethics and character. It is up to us to raise our youth in a way that will allow them to change our culture so that it is more inclusive and compassionate.

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