A Developmental Guide to Talking about Race and Racism - Action for Healthy Kids
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A Developmental Guide to Talking about Race and Racism

It’s never too early to talk about race and racism. It will sound different depending on your child’s developmental level, identity, and experiences.  

Young Children

One of the ways young children are learning about the world is through noticing similarities and differences that come up in their everyday experiences. You can bring empathy, justice, and acceptance into this developmental milestone by:  

Celebrating difference. 

  • “I like how my hair is springy. What do you like about your hair?”
  • “Yes, her body is a different shape than mine. Both of our bodies move in just the right ways for us.”

Talking about differences in a neutral way.

  • “I notice that my skin is a little darker than your skin. What else do you notice about our differences?”
  • “All families are different. We do things like Pizza and Movie Night and making pancakes. I wonder what Celia’s family does together.”
  • “Sometimes people treat others unkindly because of what they look like. In our family, we don’t do that. We treat everyone with respect and kindness.” 

Elementary and Middle-School Aged Children

Exploring issues of justice and fairness are developmental milestones throughout the elementary and middle school years. You can promote their natural interest and insights about race and racism in a deeper way by:

Giving them the language to talk about racism and its history.

  • “A long time ago, a group of people decided they were going to sort people based on the color of their skin and call it “race.” Racism is when people believe or act as if that sorting makes people with lighter skin better or more deserving of respect, kindness, safety, and opportunity. This is not true. Sometimes it happens between people – like in hurtful words or violence – and sometimes it’s more invisible and gets spread through laws and ideas.”

Using real-life examples, or examples that come up in books, movies, or social media.

  • “I’m noticing that that character is being bullied because he speaks a different language than most of his classmates. What do you think that’s about?”
  • “That news story was talking about a Black man who was killed by a White police officer. This is a pattern that many people have noticed happens a lot in our country. What questions do you have? How does that feel to you?”

Teaching children that their words matter.

  • “Did you say anything when you noticed he was being left out of the game? What can you say next time?”
  • “Where did you hear that? That’s not language that we use in our family because it is a not a respectful way to describe someone. We can say instead…”

Teaching children to talk to their trusted adults.

  • “I’m proud of you for telling him that you didn’t think that was a funny joke. Who at school do you think could help with that next time?” 
  • “Thanks for showing me that post. You’re right – this is hurtful and something that we should report.”

Model speaking up when you notice injustice.

  • “What you’re noticing is happening to the Spanish-speaking kids in your class is really important. Let’s think together about how I can talk to the grownups at your school about that.”
  • “One of the reasons that voting in this election is important to me is because I’m noticing that the different schools in our neighborhood are getting different amounts of money. I’m picking a person who I think is noticing this too, and wants to change it.” 


Teens are capable of deep, complex thinking about society and their role within it.  You can promote this by:

Talking to them about local and national current events. Ask them what they’ve heard, what they think about it, and what questions they have. Help them be critical thinkers. 

  • “What do you think that post is trying to tell us about people who come from other countries? What do you think about that?” 
  • “I’m noticing there’s a pattern in the photos the news is choosing to use in its stories about this shooting. What do you think about that?” 

Encouraging them to read books, follow, and enjoy music and art from creators of diverse backgrounds. Help them identify their trusted adults at school and in the community. 

Talking about race and racism with your children is a powerful way to promote justice. 


This project on Improving Mental, Behavioral and Academic Supports to Students and Families, Part 2 is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $434,555 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.