MATTHEW HANSEN: Our preschoolers can help end racism, if we help them first

It’s awkward for parents to speak to their young children about race. Some parents worry that speaking to a child about racism damages the child’s ability to see the world through colorblind eyes.

These are understandable fears, experts say. But we should fear parental silence on race and racism far more.

“Kids are little scientists. Their brains are always trying to make sense of the world around them,” says Amy Mart, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s director of professional learning. “If they don’t have help to make sense of what they are seeing, if we don’t constantly give them guidance, they will repeat what they observe.”

Americans recently watched video of George Floyd call out for his mother as a police officer knelt on his neck. Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests. It also prompted many parents to reconsider their own thinking about how, and how much, to talk to their children about race, racism, and injustice.

But how do you have these weighty conversations with a child?

It starts with the willingness to talk, even though you don’t have all the answers.

This conversation is common in African American homes, says Lisa Roy, the Buffett Institute’s director of program development. It’s far less likely in white homes. And that’s a problem.

Research shows that white children as young as 3 associate white faces with positive traits and faces of color with negative traits. Studies also show that white children begin to profess a strong preference for white playmates. At that age, society is already teaching them to view white children as the most popular and the most powerful.

“Without truly understanding issues of race, white children develop this narrative that can actually foster racial bias,” says Dalhia Lloyd, a family specialist for the Buffett Institute.

“It’s practically in the groundwater,” says Mart. “There is no way to shield kids from this.”

To have conversations about race, focus on an idea that kids already understand: Fairness.

When your very young child notices differences in color—even pointing out those differences in, say, a grocery store—resist the urge to shush them, Mart says. Instead, explain that the child’s white skin and the woman’s brown skin are different, but beautiful.

Have your child read books and watch shows starring heroes of different races. As much as possible, make sure your child meets, talks to, and plays with a diverse group. Research shows this can have a massive impact on later attitudes.

As the child grows older—perhaps by preschool—point out injustice when you see it.

The vast majority of CEOs are white. That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Explain that, for a long time, white people could live wherever they wanted, but people of black or brown skin color could only live in certain neighborhoods. Even today, they may not feel comfortable everywhere. That’s not fair, is it?

Mart has explained to her 4-year-old that while she feels safe around police, and feels fairly treated by them, many people with black or brown skin feel unsafe and unfairly treated.

You can use these discussions to help your child build awareness of the real world. You can use it to hone your child’s ability to empathize with different people. And you can teach your child about injustice in a way that allows them to feel anger or sadness while also giving them the tools to deal with these emotions.

None of this happens unless white parents are willing to grapple with these issues themselves, challenging old stereotypes they may have learned as children, says Kerry Ann-Escayg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha education professor and researcher.

But if it does happen, it can be powerful. Parents can help shape a better future.

“You are effectively starting your child on a journey that will help him or her in the long run,” Escayg says. “You are creating an agent of change.”

-- Matthew Hansen, an award-winning Nebraska journalist, is the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.