How to talk about racism with children

A Q&A with UC Davis pediatrician Mikah Owen


As our country continues a national conversation about racial injustice, UC Davis pediatrician Mikah Owen shares his thoughts on how parents can talk to their children about race and help create more equity in children’s health.

Mikah Owen
Mikah Owen

Q: How should we talk to young children about race?

A: The majority of brain development takes place within the first five years of life, so children are never too young to be exposed to diversity.  As early as six months of age, babies can notice race-based differences. By age 2-4, children can internalize racial bias. Starting at a very young age parents can expose their children to diverse environments and reinforce the fact that diversity is a strength in our society. Children’s books with diverse characters and positive messages about diversity and inclusion can be great tools for facilitating these types of discussions.

Q: What should our approach be as children get older?

A: As kids get older, check in with them and find out how aware they are of differences between people. What is their awareness about racism, prejudice and the conflict surrounding these injustices? How are they internalizing it?

Oftentimes parents think their teens may not be impacted by local and national events. However, many teens have experienced racism or prejudice on a personal level. Additionally, through the use of social media, many teens may be deeply impacted by the injustices they see online. Check in with them about what they’ve heard and seen, what they think of it, whether it’s upsetting to them, why or why not and start a conversation about how they see the world and build from that.

It’s easy for adults to talk down to teens and that’s a way of alienating them. Try to understand their mindset, understand how they view racism and injustice, understand what type of society they would like to see and have a conversation about their role in achieving that. Adolescents and young adults have  incredible potential to change our society for the better, and to a large degree, they are the ones who are really driving the change and participating in the current conversation and protests in a way that’s really powerful.  

Q: What should parents of white children, in particular, do to help raise children who are anti-racist?

A: Parents need to model positive behavior and be aware of how easy it is for kids to internalize racial bias. Think about a child from birth to age 3, think of all the things they learn through observation. The same way a child can learn to develop language, they can internalize racist and stereotypical attitudes. Be mindful of your own potential biases and the biases of others, be mindful of the type of programming your children watch, expose your children to diversity and always speak of cultural differences in a positive way. As children get older, have conversations about racism and how to achieve a more inclusive society.

Q: As pediatricians, how can we promote equitable care for all children?

A: That’s a great and difficult question. Structural racism is baked into the cake of our society. Its impacts are so pervasive.

The most important thing is to engage young people and their families. Understand, from their lived experiences, what are the strengths of their community, what are the strengths of their child and how do we make those strengths stronger. Understand, from their lived experiences, how are they impacted by racism, by the social determinants of health. What changes are needed in our health care system and in our society to address these issues and how can we support our patients and families in achieving these changes?

You can drive around a community and not see grocery stores, not see green spaces, not see walkable neighborhoods. Then you go to clinic and see many of our patients are overweight. In this example, it’s not surprising that many children are overweight because the community infrastructure is built for that to occur and that infrastructure is a result of generations of structural racism. Though obesity is one example, this same is true for many of the health and well-being issues we see in our patients and their families.

We must work with our patients and families, our policymakers, our legislators and our community organizations to address those structural issues. As physicians, it is important for us to learn to listen to our patients and to those living and working in the communities we serve to have a better understanding of what is needed to achieve health equity.

Q: How does structural racism affect children’s health?

A: The impact of structural racism is pervasive and shapes a young person’s life in numerous ways. It impacts where you live and the housing you have access to. It impacts what you eat and whether you have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It impacts the quality of your education and the resources you have at school. It impacts the amount of policing in your neighborhood and influences the likelihood that you will have a negative interaction with police. I think it’s hard to overstate the impact that structural racism has on the health, well-being and development of children.

As pediatricians, we know that childhood sets the foundation for the rest of your life. The experiences and environment of childhood have a profound impact on long-term health, long-term well-being and your developmental trajectory. Because of structural racism, children of color have a lot more to overcome compared to their peers.

Helpful Links for parents

The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health – American Academy of Pediatrics

CNN’s Sesame Street Town Hall on Racism

These Books Can Help You Explain Racism and Protests to Your Kids – New York Times

Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: a population-based, quasi-experimental study – The Lancet

Common Sense Media resources about race and racism

Black writing for young readers at The Brown Bookshelf

Talking to Children about Racial Bias- Healthy Children

Dr. Bracho Sánchez Teaching Children Cultural and Racial Pride video - Healthy Children

A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice Beyond the Golden Rule