Karen Tao's 10 Tips
Karen developed these 10 Tips to help parents through their journey of raising socially aware children.
In 2015, Karen collaborated with Salt Lake City School District to implement a class-room based study on talking to kids about challenging topics such as race and racism. Karen worked closely with teachers and parents to help foster conversations about culture and identity with 3rd to 6th grade students.
Let’s Talk host Karen Tao, licensed psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah, studies how individuals understand and talk about race and other social identities. As a parent of two elementary age children, Karen is very aware of the amount of work that goes into becoming an informed and socially conscious parent. As early as age two, children can begin to articulate ideas about racial differences and develop judgments on what these differences mean.[i],[ii],[iii] Preschoolers of all races exhibit pro-White, demonstrating less positive attitudes toward kids of color[iv]. By the age 4, children can require explicit teaching to reverse racial biases[v].
“Kids can pick up a lot of misinformation through media, books, and playground interactions. As the parent it’s essential to be the trusted and safe source to questions, feelings and concerns. Having these open and safe conversations can build empathy, compassion, and kindness in our children.”
Karen Tao, Let's Talk Host
Examine your own understanding of race. If race wasn’t discussed in your household growing up, do some research on your own and reflect on what it brings up for you. The more you understand what race means and how it operates in our society, the better equipped you are to teach your children about it.
Become comfortable with terminology and familiar with how certain concepts are used. For example, race and culture are not synonymous. It’s important to be explicit and provide children with accurate terms so they can learn how to apply them.
When your child brings up a topic related to race, don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going. This lets children know it is OK to talk about what they notice. Instead of telling kids to keep quiet, refrain from using particular words or make specific observations out loud, talk to them. Ask them what they noticed and discuss it.
Find opportunities to ask questions. For example, when reading a book to or with your child, ask them why someone is being treated a certain way? Is it because of their gender or skin color? Let this lead into a rich conversation.
Let children take the lead. They will probably be the ones to initiate the conversation, so spend some time on what they bring up. Validate their questions or observations (“that’s such a great observation…”) and then move into a discussion. Statements and questions such as, “I’d love to hear more about that,” “that’s really interesting, what made you think of this?” or “how did that make you feel when you saw that happen?” are helpful ways to deepen your conversations.
Involve your children in activities to help them learn about their own cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds. This will help them develop a greater sense of who they are, which will then enable them to create more positive interactions across various racial-ethnic groups.
Help your children to think critically. It is common for children to focus on concrete and visible features to describe others, such as skin color or assumed gender. Challenge them to think about other important personal dimensions. For example, if your child refers to a friend as “my brown-skinned friend,” ask her to tell you more about her friend (e.g., “What does your friend like to do?” and “What kinds of things do you play together?”).
Recognize your child’s limits and know when to stop. Depending on age and attention spans, conversations with children about these topics may only last a minute or two.
Initiate a book club or conversation group with other parents who are interested in learning how to talk with their children about race. Sharing challenges you encounter will normalize the difficulty in talking about socially charged topics
It’s OK to make mistakes. Many of us did not grow up discussing racial issues, so there is quite a steep learning curve. You will stumble over your words and may share wrong information. Let your child know you are still figuring out how to talk about these important topics too and are so happy you get to have these conversations together.
[i] Clark, K. B.,& Clark, M. K. (1947). Racial identification and preference in Negro children. In T. Newcomb & E. L. Hardey (Eds.), Readings in Social Psychology (pp. 602-611). New York: Holt.
[ii] Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
[iii] CNN (2010). Study: White and Black children biased toward lighter skin. Retrieved from: cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/
[iv] Perszyk, D. R., Lei, R.F., Boenhausen, G.V., Richeson, J.A., & Wasman, S.R. (2018). Bias at the intersection of race and gender: Evidence from preschool-aged children. Developmental Science, 22:e12788. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/desc.12788
[v] Qian, M. K., Quinn, P. C., Heyman, G. D., Pascalis, O., & Lee, K. (2017b). Perceptual individuation training (but not mere exposure) reduces implicit racial bias in preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 53 (5), 845–859. doi.org/10.1037/dev0000290