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Talk to kids about race, experts say. Here’s how to start

Dr. Natalie Cort said kids start forming racial biases as early as age 3.
Dr. Natalie Cort said kids start forming racial biases as early as age 3.Natalie Cort

Right now, the nation is riveted by protests and calls for action following the killings of Black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Kids, like the rest us, are paying attention.

Two psychologists weighed in on how — and why — parents should engage with children about racial injustice in the current moment and beyond. Both experts believe every household should address the issue early and often. Because proactive anti-racism requires more than one discussion. In fact, research shows kids begin to form negative racial biases as early as age 3, according to Dr. Natalie Cort, a psychology professor at William James College. By age 11, she said, these perspectives are “crystallized.”

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For parents who haven’t addressed racism with their children, the current events provide an opening. “If you haven’t yet had explicit conversations about race with your kiddos, this moment offers you a really clear opportunity to start,” Cort said. Here are a few pointers for parents of all racial backgrounds.

◼️ Before you begin, self-assess your mental readiness for the conversation, advised psychologist and Boston Arts Academy dean of health and wellness Dr. Charmain Jackman. “If you’re uncomfortable, kids are going to pick up that this isn’t a safe topic to talk about,” she said.

◼️ Approach conversations about race the same way you would other difficult topics, like sex, divorce, or death. “Don’t emphasize it more or less,” Jackman said.

◼️ Connect the thread between racial equity and basic ideas of right and wrong, especially with younger kids, Cort said.

◼️ If you’re talking about death, make sure children can attach the concept to something tangible in their own lives, Jackman said. “It’s important for kids to have a frame of reference,” she explained. “You could connect the death of George Floyd with a funeral or the passing of a loved one.”

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◼️ Stop for questions often, the experts agreed. And if you don’t have the answer, research it with your child.

◼️ Adjust your level of detail for the child’s age group, Jackman said. “If it’s too much,” she said, “it’s just not fair to them.”

◼️ Black parents, prepare to be let down by children’s conclusions about themselves even if you actively try to break racial barriers, Cort said. “You also need to be able to mourn and grieve the fact that you will one day have to hear your little one say something negative, like ‘I don’t like my kinky hair,' ” Cort explained. ”Even when you do everything, some of this toxicity will seep through, and it’s going to break your heart."

◼️ And most importantly, make it clear you are willing and able to speak about race again and again. “We must repeatedly let our child know that we are capable of having the conversation,” Cort said. “All the time.”

Dr. Charmain Jackman suggests approaching race just as you would other difficult topics, like sex, divorce, or death.
Dr. Charmain Jackman suggests approaching race just as you would other difficult topics, like sex, divorce, or death.KEVIN THAI @ THREE CIRCLES STUDIO

How can parents proactively practice anti-racism in their households on a day-to-day basis? Cort and Jackman have some advice.

◼️ Start by making sure children’s books, dolls, and toys are racially diverse, Jackman recommended. The same goes for the magazines, novels, and television shows kids consume.

◼️ For parents of all races, it’s important to deliberately affirm Black children — whether or not they’re your own kids, Cort said. “If I’m a white mom, I need to be saying things like ‘Oh my God, her brown chocolate skin is gorgeous,’ ” she explained. “I need to be giving counter messages as explicitly as possible.”

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◼️ Create a diverse friend group for yourself, Cort said. Research shows that for every 91 white friends a white person has, they have one Black friend, she said.

◼️ Check in on the makeup of teachers and administrators at your children’s schools — and advocate for a diverse staff, Jackman said.

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com or on Twitter at @ditikohli_.