Ages & Stages

How to Raise Anti-Racist Children

Eloise Edington  |   31 Jan 2022

It’s been almost two years since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the arms of a police officer.  Since then, Derek Chauvin has been fired from his job and convicted of murder, nationwide policies and systems have been under scrutiny and Black Lives Matter marches have been walked in countless countries.

Globally, discussions and disagreements over racism and inequality have ramped up, permeating many corners of society; understandably trickling down into our education system.

As a former primary teacher, it seems clear to me that the root of raising anti-racist children is to teach compassion, empathy and acts of kindness.  Better yet, let’s teach children to identify racist behaviours, call these behaviours out and be allies to people of all backgrounds.

So let me share a lesson in kindness and my top tips for talking to children about race and racism.

Written by Holly Pigache

It’s as simple as kindness…

We want the best from our children (if you didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this).  Of course, “The Best” varies from parent to parent but raising kind, pro-social children is the ultimate goal for many parents.  We want our children to have friends and avoid conflict and also develop the tools to stand up for themselves and collaborate on resolutions.

Our world is full of diversity; our children will come across people of all different races, backgrounds, sizes, ages, gender expressions, abilities – it’s our role, as parents and teachers to equip them with social skills to communicate with all kinds of people in a kind and accepting way.

Issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community, women across the world and ethnic minorities are separate and diverse and it would be naïve to expect changes overnight or a one-size-fits-all solution to homophobia, sexism, racism and ableism.  Yet it’s clear that past and current approaches aren’t working – at least not for everyone.

We need to strip the issue back, think about what’s going wrong at the core of disagreements between people and tackle those problems. Whilst they’re not policy-makers or politicians, I do feel that primary teachers have a lot to add to the discussion; after all, it’s primary teachers that play a large part in shaping young minds.  And so, with my primary teacher’s hat on, I believe a lesson in kindness is what is needed.

Have you read Charly Cox’s poem Kindness?  It’s one of my favourites.  Watch her read it above.

The power of education

Children are not empty vessels in which we input information and out emerges a functioning adult.  Sure, children absorb information but as they develop they begin to form their own perceptions of the world.  No matter the age of your child, they’ll be subject to a range of beliefs and prejudices.  Research shows that children as young as two pick up racial stereotypes and parents of teenagers know all-too-well that there are myriad external influences that can shape a child’s views of the world.

Not only do children learn at school (which is so much more than academia) but also from their friendship circles, bullies, parents of all different beliefs, dangerous cousins, the media, so much social media, books – antiquated and biased as well as balanced and pro-social – from hate forums, rallies and the news.

Racism, homophobia, ableism and sexism are not in-built.  These are learned beliefs and we learn behaviours associated with these beliefs.

With the bombardment of information, we can’t guarantee that one source will outweigh the negative messages of another but education can do so much good.  Education helps to bring young adults out of poverty, education minimises the chances of young girls being sold into arranged marriages and education is what Malala fought so hard for in Pakistan.

And of course, education begins and extends beyond the classroom.  Parents play a pivotal role in raising non-racist and anti-racist children and there is so much a parent can do at home to teach children about race and racism.

How about we just don’t teach about discrimination?

Is there a risk of actually teaching children how to discriminate if we’re actively teaching about discrimination?  Not in my experience, no, and avoiding teaching about discrimination doesn’t mean children won’t learn to show prejudice.  In fact, by seeing adults avoiding challenging conversations around race, children infer these conversations ought to be avoided, and view them as taboo topics and this is where issues stem.

We need to teach children about racism: what it is, how to spot it, how to be anti-racist and general pro-social behaviours.

Is “tolerance” enough?

The British National Curriculum, which mandates what should be taught in all mainstream schools, advocates the teaching of “British values” such as tolerance.

I always thought tolerance was too passive.  I “tolerate” the annoying banging from my neighbours doing DIY.  I tolerate the guy shouting down his phone on the train.  I tolerate a headache.  I don’t want people to tolerate me, I want them to accept me.  We should teach acceptance of, seeing value in and collaboration with one another.  We should help children to aspire beyond mere tolerance.

How can I teach my child to be anti-racist?

  • Flood them with diversity.  Read books and watch movies featuring characters (especially protagonists) from all different backgrounds.  (The same goes for reading your children stories with protagonists of different genders, sizes and with able-bodies and less-able bodies.)
  • Actively celebrate difference.  This can start at home.  How are you and your child different?  How does that add to the richness of family life?  How are your children unique from one another?  How are you different from your partner?  How wonderful this diversity makes home all the more special!
  • Model inclusive behaviour and values, and demonstrate an inclusive world.  Bring your child to the bookshop or library with you; let them see you choose books celebrating diversity.  Don’t always choose products with packaging that favours one skin tone.  Consider your body language in everyday interactions: in the supermarket queue, at the bus stop, at the school gates.  And what about your friendship circle?  Does your child see you interact with a variety of people?  (Although please, don’t seek out new friends just to “tick boxes”.)
  • Allow them to ask questions and listen.  It’s okay to not know all the answers; a favourite stock phrase of mine when I was a teacher was, “Let’s find out together.”
  • Demonstrate (kind) ways to show allyship: calling out racist remarks (whilst ensuring children remain safe!), signing petitions, listening and actively responding to voices from diverse backgrounds.

A Teacher’s Tips for Encouraging Kindness

If you’re reading this, worried your child is unkind to others, don’t worry too much.  There are things you can do to teach them how to socialise in a friendly way.

  • Label your child’s behaviour not your child: Your child is not “naughty” or “mean”; if they repeatedly hear this, it will seriously impact their sense of self.  If your child acts unkindly, be clear with them that their hands were unkind, or they used unkind words.  For older children, phrase it as they used unkind behaviour.  A good way to encourage pro-social behaviour is by sharing ideas of how that interaction could have been more positive.
  • Consider making a kindness chart or cut out a paper tree and stick it somewhere your child will see it.  Every time you see your child exhibiting an exceptional act of kindness, (or you hear positive social behaviour from school) add it to the chart or write it on a leaf and build a tree of kindness for your child.  They’ll feel proud of themselves and remember how good their friendly gesture made them feel.

Whilst I’m not suggesting that teaching kindness will eradicate racism, homophobia, ageism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia or all the nasty ways people judge one another, I strongly believe nurturing kindness in children reaps dividends in their personal lives and humanity as a whole.  And teaching kids how to be kind, demonstrate acceptance and celebrate diversity is much easier than trying to un-teach established anti-social behaviours (trust me, I’ve tried).

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