patient advocacy

Resources for Pediatricians: Talking to Kids About Racism

When should families talk about bias, empathy, and race? Pediatricians have an important role to play in promoting and guiding conversations on empathy, diversity, and race. Here are some resources to help families and kids understand how to talk about race, and how they can be positive motivators of change.

When Should The Conversation Happen?

Ideally conversations about race, bias, and empathy are not a single conversation but an ongoing learning process. Babies can first recognize race-based differences as early as six months. Toddlers from ages 2 to 4 can begin to internalize racial bias -- that is, they begin to accept behaviors as normal, even if they don’t understand why. By early adolescence, racial bias begins to become settled.

Conversations about differences, compassion, and bias can be productive tools for all kids to use. As with all conversations, language and subject matter should be age appropriate. For example, according to Healthychildren.org:

  • Preschoolers may begin to point out differences in other people, which is an opportunity to reinforce that differences are positive and normal.
  • Grade school conversations about bias and race are important as children begin to absorb media and engage on the subject with their peers. At this age, parents can point out bias in movies or books, and place themselves as an open resource for questions.
  • Older children and teens may ask for help addressing bias against them or someone close to them, or question beliefs and actions of their parents. Addressing bias can be a long process for some people and it’s okay to continue learning.

How to Help Kids Build Resilience, Empathy, and Understanding

Compassion and kindness are skills that children learn by example. Pediatricians and parents can help kids learn to contribute to an inclusive culture by having honest conversations that answer kids’ questions and providing access to diverse media, such as TV shows, books, and games populated with characters from different ethnic backgrounds. It’s also crucial to address fear, anxiety, or confusion kids may be feeling from their exposure to news stories, comments by friends and adults, or overheard conversation at home.

Raising a Resilient and Confident Child

Uncertainty around race and bias can contribute to feelings of fear, anger, or sadness. Parents can help kids cope and grow from their experiences by listening, comforting, and keeping them safe, because a stable, loving relationship is the key to resilience in children. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, resilience is built by positive experiences, healthy ways to cope with stress such as exercise, and the ability for kids to feel in control.

To build resiliency around bias or racism a child experiences, parents may enable kids to voice their concerns to their school or faith communities, engage with cultural traditions, and showcase pride in their heritage. Cultural heritage can include pride for immigrant roots, engagement in cultural or religious traditions and celebrations, speaking native languages at home, cooking traditional meals. These traditions build a sense of confidence and self-live: according to Dr. Bracho Sánchez in a video for Healthy Children, “You as a parent are the main source of a child’s self-love and self-worth… We also recommend discussing the obstacles you as a family and immigrants as a whole have overcome, and everything positive that has come to your family as a result.”

Empathy & Understanding

It’s important that kids grow up not only with an understanding of the history of how bias and race has negatively affected American society, but also with an implicit knowledge that their community includes people of many races living, working, and playing just like they do.

Books, games, and movies with diverse characters are an important way to show kids stories with diverse protagonists and cultural contexts. Common Sense Media is a great resource for pediatricians and parents to make recommendations and stock home or office libraries.

This guide for parents from Tolerance.org explains that simply restating the “Golden Rule” may not be enough -- conversations about racism, prejudice, and stereotypes are still important to have with children. The guide also breaks down ways to have these conversations with preschool, grade school, and adolescent kids. For example: 

  • Answer preschoolers’ questions while also giving affirmation that differences are positive.
  • Deliberate choices to involve elementary-age kids in diverse communities, such as schools, sports teams, and friend groups, can help them embrace differences as peer-approval becomes increasingly important to them.
  • Parents of teens can help their child’s growing concept of identity by pointing out subtler messages within media, such as beauty standards in ads and TV shows.

Strategies for Pediatricians

Pediatricians can do many things to help acknowledge the role of racism in health and promote a culture of inclusion in the workforce, classrooms, and communities. The pediatrician’s office is also an important place for a child learning about bias and race. To help foster an inclusive, open environment at your practice, you could consider:

  • Toys, games, and books with diverse races, cultures, languages, and religions
  • Promoting interpreting services or publishing online and printed content in multiple languages
  • Encouraging honest conversation about bias and race with your staff and colleagues or opting for diversity training as a refresher
  • Collecting resources and materials for parents who want to talk about race and bias, such as the ones listed in this post
  • Inviting a guest speaker for a video, class, or online webinar to talk about diversity for kids and their parents

Guiding kids and teens to be confident, compassionate young adults is a difficult task, which makes pediatricians’ guidance invaluable to families and the kids themselves. The American Academy of Pediatrics has great resources for both parents and pediatricians to use when talking to kids about race, learning resiliency, and supporting one another during difficult times. You can start here with HealthyChildren.org’s “Talking to Children about Racism: The Time is Now” by Nia Heard-Garris MD, MSc, FAAP and Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP​Be sure to check out this and all of the AAP's helpful resources.

Visit the AAP for more resources

Allie Squires

Allie Squires is PCC's Marketing Content Writer and a transplant from upstate New York. She holds a master's in Professional Writing from NYU.