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Ask the Expert: How to Talk to Your Kids About Discrimination

We asked a local psychologist for tips on what to do when the topic of discrimination comes into our homes. 

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In the two months since Donald Trump was elected as president—following a contentious campaign in which he verbally targeted communities of color, religious groups, women, and LGBTQ individuals—there has been much talk about how to address the uptick of discrimination, fear, and bias-motivated attacks that have come to the forefront.

Just as many adults fear for their futures in the new administration, some children are expressing worries of their own, personally and for their friends. Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, a psychologist and founder of the Child and Family Therapy Center at Lowry, guided us in how to handle tough questions and scenarios when it comes to talking about discrimination with kids.

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5280: Where do you even begin to have a conversation about discrimination with your child?

Ziegler: The first step is teaching our kids that people are treated differently for many reasons—religion, the color of their skin, age, sex, clothing choices, and so many other things. We need to open their eyes to this. The start of a conversation on discrimination needs to be assurance that it will be an open, ongoing talk. Each time, a parent needs to reassure that even though we have differences that should be celebrated, we also share so many commonalities.

Sometimes kids blurt out offensive comments about others. How should parents handle this?

Children as young as older toddlers start to notice physical differences like skin colors. When kids are younger than school age and they make a comment on a person’s race, dress, or weight, they’re just making an observation. Unlike older children and adults, they haven’t assigned any meaning of good or bad, right or wrong, or political correctness to these observations. Be honest when they bring up the differences and start the conversation of how we should celebrate that our communities are made of diverse people.

How can parents explain that “different” doesn’t equal “bad” or “wrong”?

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It’s important to teach kids the value of diversity with traditions, heritage, and viewpoints. We can all value the differences, even if we don’t share them. Take homosexuality, for example. A heterosexual mother and father can explain to their child how much they love one another and their child. Then, they can explain that two gay fathers can love each other and their children just as much. By showing [our own] discrimination of people with different values, we limit the amount of learning and growth that can happen in our kids.

So, what happens when discrimination comes to the playground. Is it the same as bullying?

Yes, discrimination and bullying are really one in the same. “I don’t like you because…” Both acts make people feel threatened and unsafe. Playground bullies often come across as leaders: bossy, bold, and fearless. A lot of good kids will follow them even when they know they aren’t being nice.

What are some responses we can teach our kids if they come face-to-face with discrimination?

We need to teach our children to always stand up for themselves and their friends. We want them to be upstanders, not bystanders. Kids need to understand their foundation and their story well enough to combat bullies by simply saying, “You don’t know me.” We need kids to have confidence in where they come from. And they can always reach out to an adult.

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Is there any way for us to teach our kids to combat discrimination in the long-term?

In an ideal world, we want to teach our kids to actually be sympathetic for bullies and those who discriminate. Talk to your child and tell them that these people are actually just scared and that they are using their targets to address their own fears. You can explain that it’s OK to feel bad for bullies because they’re just sad. You can help protect your kid by teaching them how to correct any misconceptions they are being bullied for. At the end of the day, we all drink water, live in communities, and wake up under the same sun. We are all people.

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