10 Things Parents Should Know About Talking to Kids About Systemic Oppression
The idea of unpacking the history behind systemic oppression for your kids probably sounds daunting. But that doesn’t mean you can avoid it – talking to your kids about oppression is a step toward real change.
There’s much more to be done in producing anti-racist allies, but what many parents still struggle with is finding the right things to say. Given the number of resources currently circulating social media, it seems like the only thing missing is an obvious starting point. To help parents feel more confident in their ability to engage their children in a meaningful way, these tips are specifically intended to make systemic oppression digestible for little ones.
Use Storytelling to Explain the Issue
Diving into the complexities of systemic oppression isn’t something that most children would be able to understand. However, that doesn’t mean important takeaways can’t be conveyed in other ways. Tameka Anderson, founder of Parenting Confident Kids and a mom herself, says swapping stories with your child about how oppression has affected you can be a great way to initiate a conversation. From here, you can ask your child to respond with a similar story or just see how hearing your story made them feel. “The key is to make it engaging,” Anderson says. “Tell stories, lots of them, in order to meet the child where they are.”
Make Kids a Part of the Story
In addition to telling kids about your own experiences, you can also use storytelling to explain the history behind systemic oppression. Just remember that, in doing so, it’s also necessary to show your child what their role in the story is, whether systemic oppression has resulted in their privilege or been used against them. According to David Nurenberg, Ph.D., an associate professor of Education and author of “What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?”, as you make your way through a story, you should try pointing out where your children might share a common experience with someone else.
Once you help your kids come to this realization, they can then start to understand whether or not this unjust treatment was amplified by larger institutions, and it may also help white children empathize with the experiences of BIPOC.
Ask Questions, and Listen to the Answers
Although your first instinct might be to do all the talking, a more effective strategy is letting your child take the lead. To do this, ask your kids questions about what they do and do not know, and listen to what your child is actually thinking. This will give you an idea of where they stand and what they still need (or do not need) to learn. As Anderson says, “The great thing about children is once you start the conversation, they can and will help you move it along by asking questions.”
Of course, there may be a few questions you don’t have an answer for or aren’t sure how to respond to, and that’s perfectly fine. Anderson suggests researching these subjects together, not only to educate your child but also to strengthen your bond in the process. Tamika Killins, principal of the KIPP SPARK Academy in New Jersey, also encourages parents to reflect on their own experiences and consider what they do and don’t know beforehand, so they can be prepared to learn alongside their child.
Create a Safe Space For Discussion
When explaining systemic oppression to kids, especially white children, Dr. Nurenberg says it’s extremely important to create a safe space for kids to ask questions and make mistakes. “Remember, white kids may not have much experience with the subject, so too much discomfort can make them retreat,” Dr. Nurenberg explains.
Keeping this in mind, he advises parents to build up slowly, get kids thinking about how their race plays a role in oppression, and just let them start thinking. Otherwise, Dr. Nurenberg says their discomfort could potentially result in three unhelpful things: relief, guilt, or a white savior complex. Creating a space where kids feel able to ask questions and make mistakes is what will help them continue to educate themselves on how to become actively antiracist allies.
Start Talking Early
Because systemic oppression is a fairly complicated subject, some parents may feel like it’s not appropriate to talk about with young children. However, as Principal Killins says, because systemic oppression is not always as overt or noticeable as racism is (especially to children), leaving kids to form their own opinions can be damaging. “Talking to your children about systematic oppression should start as soon as they begin to ask questions, particularly the uncomfortable ones,” Principal Killins says.
Developmental psychologist Erin O’Connor, Ph.D., and Ph.D. Candidate Robin Neuhaus, the founders of Scientific Mommy (a website that aims to demystify child development research), agree that it’s never too early to start having these discussions. As they say in an email to POPSUGAR, children as young as two have already developed racial awareness, which means they need to be taught how to contextualize these differences. Even saying something like, “She has skin that looks like yours,” as you read together, can help with this process.
Talk About Different People
When it comes to teaching kids about systemic oppression, one of the most difficult things for white kids, according to Dr. Nurenberg, is realizing that racism isn’t a distant phenomenon. Dr. Nurenberg says that this perception tends to develop because so many non-BIPOC families live in segregated or predominantly white communities with a lack of diversity.
If this is the case, it’s crucial for parents to expose their children to various cultures, people, and experiences in another way. Principal Killins recommends age-appropriate books like Something Happened in Our Town, which deals with the topic of police brutality and racial injustice, but you can also look here for 23 other antiracist books to read with your kids.
Provide Role Models
Even if you’re having the most productive conversations with your kids, they won’t truly commit to learning and working against systemic oppression unless you do. “Children take their cues from their parents,” Principal Killins says. “Having honest conversations, a growth mindset, and taking action yourself are all critical to empowering your children to grow into antiracist adults.”
Principal Killins adds that you can also point out systemic oppression in your child’s everyday life, like on the playground. Ask them if this seems like a place that was built for everyone, and initiate a discussion about how it could be better. Use real examples, and be an advocate yourself, so that your kids not only know what systemic oppression is but also what they can do to challenge and work against it.
Turn to the Data
When all else fails, data doesn’t lie. For older kids, Principal Killins suggests showing them some statistics about differences in race and how they relate to things like education, incarceration rates, and salaries. “Further the discussion with questions like ‘What do you think about this?’ or ‘How does this make you feel?'” Principal Killins says. “You might find yourself surprised by their responses.”
Don’t Shut Kids Down
Kids are known for asking uncomfortable questions at inappropriate times. “You know, the ones they ask when you are out in public and hope no one heard,” Principal Killins says. But instead of silencing your child, Principal Killins suggests letting these kinds of questions drive a conversation about the stereotypes and practices that have led to the systemic oppression of BIPOC.
Neuhaus and Dr. O’Connor add that parents should be prepared to address these sorts of awkward comments instead of trying to get them to stop. “Shushing a child teaches them that race is taboo or even that people who look a certain way make their parent nervous,” they say. Even if you’re not prepared to respond right away, try bringing your child’s question or comment up afterwards when the timing is better.
Emphasize That Learning Is a Process
Whatever your child’s background, one of the biggest takeaways is that learning about systemic oppression is a work in progress. It’s an ongoing lesson that families should be open and honest about, and until we can face that truth, progress will continue to stall. For BIPOC, let your kids know that systemic oppression is something that exists but also something they can overcome. And for all the white allies out there, teach your kids how to use their privilege for good.
“It’s hard. It’s painful. There will be a lot of failure,” Dr. Nurenberg says. “But it’s possible, and it’s worth it – every victory, every erosion of this system, has been the fruit of people of color and white people doing just this sort of work together.”