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Judi Mesman on Speaking to Children About Racism

‘Children do not see color’ is an illusion, say experts. Professor of the interdisciplinary tudy of societal challenges, Judi Mesman, was interviewed by the Dutch news platform NU.nl to share her expertise on the subject of speaking to children about racism and discrimination. Prof. Mesman's main research theme concerns the role of parent and child gender, culture, and socioeconomic factors in shaping parent-child interactions and child developmental pathways, with special emphasis on observational research on sensitive parenting.

Talking to your children about racism and discrimination can be uncomfortable but is necessary. Speaking about it will help clarify the worldwide anger and sadness they see in the news and on online platforms. It is also necessary to speak about this explicitly in order to raise your children without prejudices and biases. Mesman offers some insights from her research to help parents in speaking to their children.

Understand that children are not colorblind

Approximately until the age of 7, children follow their instinct in giving preference to children of the same ethnic group, whilst children from older ages form a group and are inclined to exclude other groups from different backgrounds. Therefore, a vague sentiment of ‘I do not discriminate’ is not sufficient, especially in front of children. In order to tackle the subject of racism with them effectively, the first step is to be honest with yourself, and potentially your partner, about your stance on these issues. When your child starts to ask questions, how will you answer? What is your ideology? It is also best to admit that racism is a difficult subject and that you do not know everything. This will encourage an open, valuable conversation with your child.

Draw on children’s understanding of injustices

Whilst discrimination might be normalized in the eyes of adults, it is quite prominent for children. They see it on the school playground, for example. Bullying is in fact an early stage of discrimination. Therefore, children understand fairness and unfairness very well as they often experience it themselves. It is important for parents to use children’s feeling and understanding of injustice to explain to them examples of racism that people are subjected to. It is advised to explain things as simple as possible and ask them questions such as: wouldn’t you also be angry and sad if such things happened to you? The importance of the subject doesn’t mean the conversations have to be heavy. Parents should also give their children the space to share about their own experiences. This way they can start to recognize racism on their own and parents can reassure them to speak up about it.

Use storytelling as a tool

Telling stories can be helpful in bringing your point over to children, especially to younger ages. You can either create them yourself or use resources that are available online. Mesman added that parents must be aware of their vocabulary and language use. These reflect your behavior and determine how your child handles diversity and racism too.

Read here the full article by NU.nl (in Dutch).

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