Parenting Against Ism’s

Since the senseless, brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers six weeks ago, I have attempted to write a post that would be helpful to parents in some way. I have a bunch of crappy drafts ready for the trash bin. First of all, I can’t make sense of Floyd’s murder or any other death caused by brutality of a police officer, of a vigilante, of a racist, or anyone else. As a white woman, I do not think I can offer much to help readers understand the experience of people of color in this country. There are countless people of color who have written books and articles, made youtube videos and TED talks, and shared their stories on social media. These are the voices we need to hear. Really, really hear. I beg of you, if you haven’t already, please dig into these resources. I will include some suggestions at the end of this post, but it will be just a small sampling of all the great resources out there.

Finally, I have some inspiration for this blog post that comes, not from a client, but from a recent social media post and a long stream of comments. The original post was in a community Facebook forum. It was about an upsetting experience a Black woman had at a local business. The incident appeared racially motivated, in part because the manager used a racial epithet. The woman described the incident in pretty matter-of-fact terms and ended with the following comment: Just putting this out there to warn people of color in this group that [name of business] may not be a place you want to shop. If you’ve ever been in a public social media forum, I’m sure you can imagine the range of comments that followed. Fortunately, most of the comments were supportive. A few were affirming, written by people of color who had had similar negative experiences at the same or other local businesses. A few white allies thanked the woman for the post and promised not to patronize the business in the future.

Reading through the comments below that Facebook post, I was struck by a common thread that ran through the nastiest ones. The really nasty comments were all written by people who seemed to lack the ability to think outside their own experiences. For example, one post read: This is complete bulls*#t. I’ve shopped there for years, and the entire crew has been nothing but respectful and helpful. Why the f*#k would you want to ruin a local business like this? Another one read: I am sick and God-damned tired of this call-out culture. So you had a bad experience, lady, get over it. I love shopping at [name of business] and I’ve always been treated well. Did you consider that maybe you did something to upset the clerk? You better hope your post does not hurt [name of business] or you’ll be sorry! I could go on, but I won’t. You get the picture. Another thing that all the negative comments had in common is that they were written by, you guessed it, white people. Middle-aged white people in fact.

I often hear folks talking about how today’s youth give them hope for the future. I’ve said this many times myself. Reading through the comments on that Facebook post made me think about the importance of teaching young people the very essential skill of listening. Listening with openness. Listening to learn. Listening across difference. If my generation can do that – teach our children the very complex skill of listening – then we will have raised a generation that can truly bring about meaningful change and begin to fix so much that is broken about this country. And that is the point of this post. Below is a non-exhaustive set of pointers for making sure that you raise children who would never, ever respond to someone’s story, That isn’t true because it never happened to me.

  • Model reflective listening. When your child tells you about something that happened at school, listen carefully and then reflect back the main points of the story. Here’s an example of reflective listening: You were waiting for your turn on the swing, and Celeste butted in line. You were really sad because the bell rang before you had your turn. You’re not sure you want to invite Celeste to your birthday party now. Did I get that right? Avoid asking questions and making suggestions until after you have demonstrated that you both heard and understood what your child was telling you. You can read more about reflective listening here and here.

  • Encourage perspective-taking. When talking to your child about a conflict with a peer, listen first to make sure you have heard and validated your child’s perspective, and then ask questions or speculate aloud about what might have been going on for the peer. Here’s an example of encouraging perspective-taking: You’re really annoyed with Travis because he picked Texas for his state project even though he knew you were planning to pick it. You wanted Texas because that’s where you were born. Is that right? (reflective listening) I’m wondering if there is any special reason that Travis wanted Texas too? Do you know why? (encouraging perspective-taking)

  • Provide corrective feedback (I). When your child makes a logical error that gets in the way of understanding and empathy, provide a gentle correction. It can be helpful to do this in a questioning or speculative way. Below is an example of corrective feedback. Notice how the mother is modeling good listening and is not doing anything to make her daughter feel bad about her error.

Mom: You’re upset with Lucy because she said some mean things about Virginia and Virginia is your best friend. Did I understand correctly? (reflective listening)

Betsy: Yes! And Virginia is the nicest girl ever. Lucy is wrong!

Mom: You think Virginia is a really nice girl, so it seems to you that Lucy is wrong about her. (more reflective listening) I wonder what happened between them that led Lucy to say mean things about Virginia. (encouraging perspective-taking)

Betsy: You know Virginia. She’s really nice. She would never do something mean to Lucy.

Mom: You would be really surprised if Virginia were unkind to Lucy. I understand that. (more reflective listening) Still, just because Virginia has always been nice to you doesn’t mean she’s always been nice to everybody else, including Lucy. Perhaps you don’t know the entire story. (corrective feedback)

  • Provide corrective feedback (II). Sometimes your child will do or say something that brings up one of the many ism’s: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Don’t panic when this happens. Children are influenced by just about everything they see and hear at home and elsewhere, AND they are prone to drawing faulty conclusions all on their own. No matter where the idea originated, it is important to listen and try to understand why your child holds an erroneous belief and then to correct the error in a firm but gentle way. For example, I remember one of my own children saying, when he was in preschool, that Black people are poor. Internally, I was aghast. I asked him what made him think that, and he pointed out the window of the car and explained that the houses were not very nice. In my effort to make sure my biracial son was surrounded by people of all races, I had enrolled him in a nursery school in a largely African-American part of Philadelphia even though we live in a racially diverse nearby suburb. My son had simply observed that the people along our drive to school were mostly Black and that many of the houses were old and run down. He had made an error in logic which could have laid the foundation for a racist belief. I provided corrective feedback that sounded something like this: I can see why you might think that, but that is not right. Just like people of all races, Black people can be very poor and very rich and everything in between. Think about the Black families that live on our street. They have nice houses. Think of our friends Janet and John and Irene and Matthew and Susan and Kenneth. They have nice houses too. A friend of mine tells a story about her young children being shocked to learn that a man could be a rabbi because the only rabbis the children had ever known were women. Another friend talks about how his son was surprised that he knew how to mow the lawn, something that his wife usually did but couldn’t because she had a broken ankle. All of these children, my son included, were making faulty conclusions based on limited experience.

  • Diversify your social network. I feel fairly certain that the nasty commenters on the Facebook post described above have never had a Black or Latinx or Asian friend. If they had, they would have witnessed or at least heard about negative experiences their friends of color experience with alarming frequency in this country. Diversifying your social circle may require you to move beyond your neighborhood, your school district, your church community, your comfort zone. It’s not good enough to live in a diverse neighborhood; you have to be inviting people who are different from you into your home. Bryan Stevenson, who I consider to be one of the greatest voices of our time, talks about the power of proximity in the context of social justice. (If you haven’t heard him speak, DO! Here‘s one of many available videos.) I think what he says about proximity applies here. Truly, one of the greatest gifts you can give your children and the most powerful way to foster empathy is to expose them to people unlike themselves.

  • Challenge stereotypes and prejudice. This one is tough. When I became the mother of multiracial children, I vowed that I would never allow a racist comment in my presence to go unchallenged. This has made for some awkward moments with family members, friends, and even strangers. Believe me, I haven’t always found the courage to speak up. As my children grew up, I realized that I needed to challenge bigoted comments of all types, not just racist ones. When you do this in front of your children, you are showing them how to use their voices to stand up to injustice. Follow up any instances with a conversation about why the person made the bigoted comment, how it made you and your children feel, how the targeted person might have felt about the comment and about your advocacy. Show compassion for all involved, even the person who made the comment. As painful as these moments are, they are very powerful teachable moments. Books, television shows, movies, and social media provide many opportunities to challenge stereotypes and prejudices. I remember renting The Bad News Bears to watch with my kids many years ago. It came out when I was 12 years old, and I had fond memories of it. Wow! Within the first couple of minutes, I heard several inappropriate terms for people of color, Jewish people, etc. What I wanted to do was turn the movie off then and there, but what I did instead was plod my way through it, stopping over and over to talk about what we were seeing and hearing, what was wrong with it, etc.
  • Talk about injustice and inequity frequently. I grew up in a conservative Southern family. We are white and straight and my family is educated and upper class.We never, ever discussed race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. And if I brought up concerns about injustice or inequity, I was discouraged from talking about them because they didn’t involve me. That perspective is one that comes from a place of extreme privilege. We didn’t have to think about injustice or inequity because we did not suffer them. If we want our children to grow up to be compassionate individuals who show up for social justice, then we have to educate them about the realities of the world for all people, not just those who are demographically similar to us. Use developmentally appropriate terms and material. Don’t overwhelm them, but do talk about concrete examples. Because we are a multiracial family, talking about race was natural, but my husband and I had to be intentional about other forms of oppression and discrimination. I remember thinking that ableism was one of the easiest to talk about because it was so concrete and visible. So, for example, when my kids and I saw a young man in a wheelchair who was trapped on a sidewalk that had a steep curb, we helped him down and then we talked about how sidewalks were built for people who could step up and down, but not everyone can do that. I was glad I could show them examples of sidewalks that had been altered to be wheelchair accessible. That was an easy example of discrimination that young children can understand.

  • Engage with diverse art, music, theater, film, literature, etc. More now than when I was a child, there is a great deal of diversity in the arts, and thanks to the internet, much of it is readily available. I’m sure the preponderance of it still comes from Waspy old men, but you don’t have to look too hard to find Black, Latinx, and Asian poets, musicians, actors, authors, painters, sculptors, etc. Fill your home with their work. Talk about the work and the stories of the creators.

Some of the tips above may not seem so clearly related to teaching your children to listen, but I believe they are all part of the process. Each of the tips is about being open to others’ perspectives, avoiding assumptions and prejudgments, allowing others to tell their own stories, and accepting stories that are different from one’s own. Children with parents who model these skills and who develop these skills themselves will be well-equipped to fulfill the hope my generation has in them.

As promised, below are a few excellent resources. These are all focused on race and race relations because the murder of George Floyd is the recent event which prompted me to write this post. There are many outstanding resources relating to all the other ism’s as well.

Anti-Racist Books for Elementary Students: A Diverse Book List

I’m Not Racist… Am I? (Documentary film)

The Hate You Give (Book by Angie Thomas and a movie)

Kids, We Gotta Talk — Episode 1: George Floyd, Police Brutality, and Institutional Racism (youtube video)

Kids, We Gotta Talk — Episode 2: The Dangers of Color-blindness (youtube video)

Dear anti-racist allies: Here’s how to respond to microaggressions (CNN article and video)

Race, Anti-Racism and BLM Resources for Parents and Educators (a list of resources)

Books by African American Authors and Illustrators (A list of books)

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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