Experts offer advice when talking to children about racism

Gundersen pediatric experts and local youth mentor say early intervention can change the narrative about race in communities
Talking To Kids About Racism

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Parents are eventually going to hear the question, Dad or Mom, ‘What happened to George Floyd?’ Many of us probably don’t even know where to begin with that question.

“Things aren’t going to change unless we start having those conversations and start owning our parts,” said Allison Allmon Dixson, a pediatric psychologist with Gundersen Health System.

Local basketball coach and youth mentor Richie Johnson said people need to stop fighting against each other.

“It shouldn’t be black versus white, black versus white, green versus yellow,” Johnson said. “It should be we gotta work together.”

Parents understand they are always learning when it comes to being there for their children. Now a child’s questions may come out at the dinner table, in the backyard, or their bed before they go to sleep. They may ask, ‘What is racism? What happened to George? Why are people walking in the street? Who are these people?’

“It’s really important for parents to make sure that they’re in a good place to talk about this with their kids first,” Allmon Dixson said.

Allmon Dixson and pediatrician Dr. Erin Gutowski said it’s important to understand that many of our experiences are different from the black community.

“I think it’s okay to not fully understand,” Allmon Dixson said. “I also think it’s okay to acknowledge that with your kids.”

Gutowski said even when she offers her advice on this topic she acknowledges her privilege. She said her privilege allows her not to worry about the same things many black people face.

“I am doing my best to address the community in the best way that I can,” Gutowski said.

Johnson said to get to know a person before judging that person.

“I was always taught as a young man that you can’t judge other people unless you’ve lived in their shoes,” Johnson said.

Johnson said this discussion is nothing new.

“Whatever you are it doesn’t matter,” Johnson said. “Treat people right. What’s going on right now is just, it’s a mystery.”

Allmon Dixson said the past couple of weeks are going to affect everyone differently.

“This is really igniting and it’s really hard for everyone to see,” she said.

Regardless of a person’s background, Gutowski said parents should start talking to their child or children after they are in a calm mindset.

“Your initial reaction to the events needs to be separate from the way that you address things with your children,” Gutowski said.

Allmon Dixon recommends asking the child what they know and what they’ve seen. Ask them how they are feeling. End the conversation in a positive light. An example could be how your family is being proactive.

“What are you and your family doing to create change? What are you and your family doing to keep things safe,” she said.

Kids learn things fast. She said it’s best to start the conversation early.

“Research shows that racism you can start to see in kids as young as six months,” Allmon Dixson said. “That babies’ brains can start notice race-based differences. By two to four children are starting to internalize racial bias.”

Johnson said there are lessons this moment can teach everyone in this community.

“In coaching, you can’t see color,” he said. “If you’re going to be a great coach you can’t see color. You see people.”

He said that’s true with his own family.

“I didn’t marry my wife because she was white,” Johnson said. “I married her because I see people. Good people.”

He said parents need to have a plan and follow through with it for change to become real.

“You need to be a team and attack it and make sure you’re plan that you have for you’re child is goin through and that you’re following through with the plan,” he said. “That you’re showing you’re child this is the right way to live.”

Experts say to branch out to other people of different backgrounds in the community. It’s also recommended to call out racist comments so children see and learn by parents’ example.

Here is a list of resources to help parents with this conversation.