There is no doubt racism exists in our country right now. Racial tension seems to have escalated in the last ten years. I believe things will only get worse unless parents intervene at the home level.
I recently had the honor of speaking with my good friend, author, and NFL player Benjamin Watson, about how to talk to your child about issues of race and diversity. Benjamin is the author of Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us. He has played in the NFL for the last 15 years and is currently a tight end for the New England Patriots. He is also a husband and the father of seven children.
Watson offers two great pieces of advice on how to talk to your kids about racism and diversity.
1. Be a gateway, not a wall.
Benjamin shared with me that one of the best things his parents did for him and his siblings growing up was talk openly about issues of race.
“When you’re black, you’re always aware of race, from a very young age,” he says. “It was important for us to get a background and understanding of where we are to this day, and how we got here, collectively as a country, but also as black Americans. So one of the things I picked up from [my parents] is the importance of being the gateway for what my children hear, but not being a wall.”
This is an important distinction, parents. Don’t shelter your children from hard truths. Use this month to teach them the important facts, teach them the truth about history and be a gateway for them to ask questions and understand better. We will never reconcile with one another if we don’t first understand where people come from and the beauty of our differences.
2. Model how to love and accept others.
You, parent, have the power to raise a child who is empathetic, understanding and accepting of all people no matter their skin color, ethnicity or background. You also have the power to pass down judgment, prejudice, and bitterness. The truth is, kids aren’t born racist. But over time, children often naturally adopt the characteristics and behavior they see portrayed as “normal” in their environment. Racism and bigotry are products of nurture, not nature.
Our kids often unfairly adopt our own prejudices much more than we realize or want to admit. Benjamin explained that while we all want to pass on certain ideals to our children, we often fall short of those ideals. “And so we have to constantly examine ourselves,” he says, “and be honest with ourselves about what our kids are learning from us.”
How often do you stop and consider what your children are learning from you?
If they hear you make derogatory remarks against a certain people group, they will internalize that. If they see you act a certain way toward one person and a different way toward another, they will notice that. Our children are always watching us for clues about how we feel about things in the world. It is the same with prejudice. Believe me, your kids pay attention to how you treat people who are different than you.
Black History Month is not only for black families to discuss and celebrate. It is for families of all ethnic backgrounds. Talk about heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dr. John Perkins, Harriet Tubman. Make sure your child knows who these important figures are, what they stand for, and what they’ve accomplished.
And maybe use this month to assess how you talk about other people groups and how you feel about them. Remember, your child is watching you. How do you want her to treat others one day? It all depends on how you, her parent, treat them today.