Talking to Your Children About Race

Many of us—especially, and most directly, those in the Black community—have been deeply hurt and troubled by recent tragedies and ongoing racial inequity in our country. In this episode, we talk and most importantly, LISTEN, to Shavonne Washington-Krauth, Children’s Culture & Inclusion Manager and Dr. Mike Vance, Director of Children’s Behavioral health, about how to have healthy discussions about racism and discrimination – with your children. How can parents educate and make a positive impact for the future?

Topic Breakdown

2:36 – Children’s Hospital & Medical Center on racism: A public health issue
3:45 – Adults’ responsibility in talking to young children about racism
7:11 – Age appropriateness and the conversation on race
11:37 – Talking to children about George Floyd
16:30 – Discovering your own racial bias
21:33 – White privilege and allyship
24:54 – Disparities in access to care
27:44 – Diversity and inclusion at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center


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Dr. Vance: Hello everyone, I’m Dr. Mike Vance, and I’m the Director of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. We’re here to talk about a very important and challenging topic today, and I have Shavonne Washington-Krauth with me as well, and she’ll get a chance to introduce herself here in a second.

Really, we’re going to take a number of questions that have come to both of us in our professional and personal roles and share our thoughts on those. I can’t say that they’re definitely answers because it’s — these are very difficult and challenging topics. And our topic for today is talking to your children about race. It is timely and sensitive, and important for us to have this discussion, so I’m going to hand off to Shavonne and let her introduce herself and tell you a little bit more about our topic. And then we’ll dive into the questions. I think we’re planning on somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes of time.

So, we’ll get going on what we’re doing next so Shavonne, it’s all yours.

Shavonne: Thanks, Mike. Hello, I’m Shavonne Washington-Krauth, I’m the Culture and Inclusion Manager at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. I am also a mother of two biracial children. My husband is white, and I am the mother of two African Americans who were born and raised in Paris, Kentucky.

Children’s Hospital & Medical Center on racism: A public health issue

Shavonne: So, racism is a topic that hurts everyone. It’s a public health issue. And it’s known as the social determinants of health. It can affect us in so many different ways. It can range on effect between infant mortality rates to maternal health outcomes to how the systematic discrimination and access to health care can increase the risk of complications and deaths from various diseases.

Most recently, we’re seeing this in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority populations. At Children’s, we believe that injustice and inequity hurt the health and wellbeing of children. We cannot and will not stay silent on matters that negatively impact Children’s. As caregivers and advocates for children, we speak up and stand against all acts of racism and discrimination.

Children’s has a mission-critical role in the role of addressing issues at hand through care, advocacy, research, and education. We know that racial disparities and injustice are social determinants of health, and we have a responsibility to improve the health of our community. Racism and discrimination of any kind are unacceptable at Children’s.

Adults’ responsibility in talking to young children about racism

Shavonne: So Mike, our first question that has come up is, what is the role and responsibility of parents and other adults who care for and guide young people at this time? What are your thoughts?

Dr. Vance: It’s an interesting question on so many levels, Shavonne. I think that as we think about our role and responsibility as adults on any topic, but something especially this sensitive, is we have to model what we tell our kids. We definitely have to have conversations about these topics. I think to assume that your kids are unknowing on these ideas, are unexperienced on these ideas and these events that happened in our society, is a mistake.

But I think that the most important part here is to remember to be age-appropriate.

You’ve got two children and I’m sure that their age and understanding of what’s happening with this goes very, very differently and as much as two to three years separation or two to three critical experiences can make a big difference.

So I think the real important part is finding out where your child is at. Ask them what they’ve heard about these events, ask them what they’ve experienced, either directly or through their peer group. But get an idea where they’re at, and then guide them. And please be consistent — don’t say one thing and then act another way when you’re out in public. It only makes things much more confusing for your kid. So, what do you think Shavonne, as the parents of two and right in some of those critical ages? What are your responsibilities and roles?

Shavonne: Yeah, I think you, I think you nailed it really. I mean you have to be honest and we can’t assume that children don’t know about what’s going on. I had my first conversation with my oldest child when he was still in preschool, and it just, it surprised me quite honestly. And I think that we have to, like you said, we have to model what we’re, what we’re saying. We have to be able to articulate a complicated topic, but if we do it through the guidance of our children and what questions they have and keeping it simple. I think that’s our best strategy. I think we have to be absolutely honest. I think that we tend to, in our attempt to protect our children, we tend to not tell the full truth, and I think that that’s where we sometimes go wrong.

Dr. Vance: Excellent. Well-put, well-put. And I think, too, we have to take a look at our own location, too. I’m a white male. I’m a privileged — and I’ve got gray hair and I dress well. And when I walk into certain situations, I’m treated very differently and I have to recognize that. And we have to search our own biases and our own prejudice that we have — before we talk to our children about it — because even though we think we understand all these situations, we really need to not take it for granted and take a true look at what our beliefs and our behaviors are before we communicate it to our kids. It’s just so important, and it makes it more genuine, as you were saying, rather than trying to sugarcoat it or say what we think sounds good, but to go to the truth of the matter.

Age appropriateness and the conversation on race

Shavonne: Now you know, I had my first conversation with my oldest when he was in preschool and the conversation was partially spurred because my skin is brown and his is what traditionally looks white. So people — so that was a pretty early age. Is there a certain age that you think that these conversations need to happen?

Dr. Vance: It depends on the child’s maturity and the events that they experience and the environments they’re in. But I think the earlier that we start to explain individual differences with kids. And what we actually value in friendships and trust and respect is not the color of somebody’s skin, or the amount of money they make, or the way that they dress, or which church or religious institution, they go to. So I think it’s important to start really early on, but just remain age-appropriate and continue a consistent message for these kids, whether it’s any of these areas. It’s — you don’t need to wait until they’re six or seven or until they — if you wait till they come to you with questions, you’re probably a little bit behind the curve, and it should have been a conversation that you initiated earlier.

Shavonne: Yeah, I definitely agree. I think that we try to dance around a little too much, thinking that our kids are too young.

Dr. Vance: But I’m interested in how you started the conversation with your kids, as we think about this. This is kind of like the birds and the bees talk at times. It can be very difficult and challenging and I think it would be really helpful, since you’ve gone through that experience. How did you know where to start and how did you initiate the conversation?

Shavonne: Yeah, um, it really started off with my son who, on the outside appears to be white, was asking about why another kid was called “black” when his skin was brown. And that kind of opened the door for me to be like, you know, that’s a really good point, and they refer to us as black people but our skin is brown. And so I used that segue, especially because he was such a young age, to talk about the concept of race is really a social construct — which are adult words for saying race is something that people made up, based on the color of our skin.

And so I showed him. I held our arms next to each other. I said, “You see, my skin is brown and your skin is what people would call white.” He said, “My skin’s not white.” I said, “I know. And mine is not black but that’s what we call it.”

And so it went from there in this conversation of, “And once upon a time, that was something that people used against other people, and they were times where your mom would not have been allowed to go places that your dad was.”

So we talked about that and, of course, he’s, I don’t know, whatever age preschool is, I’m not good at keeping track of ages, but we really kept talking about it from the stance of skin tone. And he kept asking, “What does it mean?” and I said that it really means nothing said. “But it just means that I have extra amounts of something in my skin that you don’t have. But in some places and some realities, people are going to treat me differently and people are not going to believe that I’m your mom, just because of that.”

Then I reminded him, “But however,” I said, “God loves variety. And so, how boring would it be if we all looked the same right?” And he was like “okay” and then that was the end of the conversation.

Dr. Vance: Perfect, perfect. You handled that very well in the sense that a lot of us as parents, when we get the opportunity to talk about these difficult topics, we give the child so much more information than they wanted or that they’re ready for and that way, without doing that, and giving you know using the level of the concrete of one difference to the other level of explanation that you use, and then allowing that conversation to continue.

I’m sure he came back to you with more questions, whereas if you would have sat him down and said, “Great, let’s read this book I’ve been wanting you to read to explain all this to you!” he would have gone, “Mom leave me alone, It’s what I wanted to know.” So I think that was a really great example of giving the child the information that they’re asking for, and then leaving the door open for communication.

Talking to children about George Floyd

Because as we see, as this time that we’ve been going through recently, is as we’ve all seen — or most of us — have seen the video on George Floyd, and have seen that interaction and that impact. And our kids have seen it as well. Under probably very, a lot of different circumstances.

What do you think about when we talk to our kids about this event? Are there some points that you use as a mom and an HR specialist talk about this very tragic, I mean just disturbing situation to watch? How do you broach that subject with kids?

Shavonne: Yeah, I start really with what does the, what does the child know? It goes back to, very similar to what you said at the very beginning, about how we talk to them. You know, I have a seven-year-old who is, for the most part, completely oblivious to what’s going on right now. And I’m okay with him staying that way because it is so complicated for a seven-year-old mind. He is aware that there are protests going on, and he is aware that some people are behaving badly. And that’s really all he cares about. And he goes back to his little world and so I just let him stay there and let him remain innocent. But if he would ask me questions I would address his, his questions based on his age.

Now my nine, almost ten-year-old, unfortunately — he is one of the children who has seen parts of that video, and he asked me. He said, “Mommy, why did they have to kill him?”, and I said, “They didn’t, honey. They didn’t have to kill him, and that’s why everybody’s so mad.”

And then he asked, “Well, what did he do?” You know, like a child would, like, “Well, why am I in trouble mommy?” And I said, “Well, you know,” and I explained what they had originally arrested for, and I gave him a really basic example of what that was, and he said, “Well, he didn’t deserve to die for that.” And I said, “No he didn’t, baby. And that’s what everybody’s upset about.”

So I just kept going back to, “This is what happened, and this is why we’re upset.” And then when he was concerned, “Am I safe?” — that was his other big thing. When he heard about the riots. And so I explained to him, I said, “First honey, what you need to understand is, there are many people out there who are protesting and most of them are doing nothing wrong and everything’s okay.” I said, “But there are places where people are misbehaving. And we have to stay away from those places, but in general honey we are safe.” And he asked again, “Well, why are they — so why are they doing that?” Like, because they’re mad and some of them are just trying to cause trouble.

So I kept it really simple and kept it in frames that are similar to what he would think of in school. I don’t know, what do you think, Mike? How do you say we handle this?

Dr. Vance: I think you get an A+.

One of the things that it — depending on the child’s age, one of the things, not lately because the kids haven’t been in school because of COVID-19 — but I like using school as an analogy a bit. Because the hard part about the Mr. Floyd situation is that there is a person in position of authority, that’s doing something wrong. And kids — some of the kids that we work with — came to the question, “Well, I thought police officers were supposed to be good,” or, “I thought…” Whoever, whether it’s any leader or that’s in a position of having authority and/or respect, and I try to help kids understand that it’s — it’s, people behave badly in very different roles. And there’s a lot of police officers that are awesome and great and outstanding and respectful and trusting. And just like with anything, there are people that don’t use their power appropriately and that don’t make good choices.

And I think — especially when kids get to that middle elementary age, they can start to understand that. It’s a little harder for your seven and under because they’re still pretty much all or none. And they’re thinking, “Well that, you know, that has to be all good, that has to be all bad,” and that’s one of the difficulties about this topic as you clearly evidenced is there’s — it’s the whole topic in general is not clear cut. It’s not just like, “Oh, here, here’s an easy explanation.” It’s not, “two plus two.” Because it’s got such an extensive history, and it’s got such a variety.

Racism shows itself in so many different ways — some of it subtly, some of it blatantly out there. But in any case, it’s the — it’s all quite confusing to a lot of kids — and I think that’s just important — that’s why it’s important to continue to have those discussions.

Discovering your own racial bias

So, a question came to me the other day: Should a family — how should a family gauge how they’re doing with understanding race and modeling it and their own biases? Is there a special test you can take or an X-ray you can have done that can really give you a perception of where you’re truly at because I..” That was the question that was asked to me on several occasions and I was wondering, do you have any ideas on how close family really takes an inventory of that?

Shavonne: And I wish there was a litmus test that you get this link to this piece of paper and we could figure out, that would make life easier. You know, I think it really takes a lot of honest reflection. There actually is a test that adults can take called the Implicit Association test that Harvard has put out that is actually, it’s, it’s quite lengthy and there’s lots of different biases that you can look at with that. But, you know, most people aren’t going to do that and children — certainly, it’s not set for children.

But I think we have to really sit back and listen to the conversations that are being had within our family — within our close family unit in our nuclear family, but then also in our extended families — are there jokes that tend to come up? Are there mentions of common stereotypes that keep coming through, especially negative stereotypes, but they can be positive stereotypes too. That are positive in the sense that they’re saying something positive about a group, but it’s still causing harm.

I think we need to look at what our network looks like. You know, are we surrounded by all people who look the same? And if we’re not, are they all people who have the same experience overall? Because that is really going to formulate how you look at the world. And I think it’s especially important, particularly if you’re a white person who is raising a person of color, including a biracial child, it’s even more important to make sure that you’re taking these assessments of what kind of conversations are being had, and what type of network you have.

Another good point really to look at is, when you do hear a story on the news, or you hear a story in conversation — do you have a tendency to go in the defensive of the person who maybe was a victim of a situation? Do you look for all the reasons that that person was wronged, or things should have been better for that person? But when another person who looks another way, or is from a different race or ethnic background, if they’re in that situation — do you potentially flip the script a little bit more often than you realize? And you look at all the reasons that that person was wrong and how they may have set themselves up for being in whatever situation.

When you start seeing those types of behaviors, you’re probably not in the healthiest place at all with where your racial biases may lie. And it’s really hard to start working on that if you’re not willing to be honest.

Dr. Vance: We do have to ask our behavior, you know, ask ourselves about our behavior, and I think — when we think about the ages that this can happen with kids, it starts really early on. You see behaviors, I see behaviors, when we’re at parks, when we’re at different situations, of very young kids being subjected to, or acting in a way that would be, that would be racist. And then the question comes, you know, “Do we, do we take the time to point that out to our kids?”

So if we’re around someone and we notice that behavior, even if it doesn’t directly affect us, we need to take a second with our child at that point and say, “Hey Mike, that was — that person treated that other person inappropriately,” whether it’s somebody was overlooked for a place online, whether it’s a comment that said, whether it’s a point of access that’s allowed, a look that was given. Not that we need to run around and search for this at every, like every second that we’re out there because it’s real easy to find, unfortunately, in our society. That’s what you would spend your day doing, but I just think that, you know, it’s never too young to start talking about kids how to treat each other kind, regardless of their hair color, skin color, freckles, no freckles, race, what they’re wearing in terms of the religious attire, as well. So start early. And then, and be consistent and don’t be a hypocrite, and say one thing and then act in a different way because your message will get totally lost with your child so I think it’s, it’s important to start early.

Shavonne: Yeah.

White privilege and allyship

Dr. Vance: So there’s a lot of discussion out there about people being — along those same lines — being aware of being a person of privilege. As we look, what are some things that a person of privilege can do to demonstrate their ability to be an ally and their ability to understand, to show their appreciation for people of all color and all races, and to not have assumptions going the other side? Because it’s like, “Well, wait, they’re white so they must be thinking this about me.” So how do we make sure that we share it that way back, because… any ideas on that one Shavonne?

Shavonne: Yeah, you know, I think that one of the first things people can do is recognize the fact that they do have privilege. And privilege doesn’t mean by any means that a person had an easy life. A person could have, you know, this is like — you often hear the term “white privilege” and that gets loaded for some people. And their response is, “But I didn’t have an easy life.” And that’s not what that means, that doesn’t mean that that person had an easy life by any means. It is merely a way of saying that access is different for that person and it was, it was unearned. Now, whether or not they actually had access to something different.

So when you think of privilege in the sense of access, in particular, that often means that you also have access to a larger platform, which means that you can be heard in places when someone else, a person of color or a person from another marginalized group, may not be able to be heard. So using your voice to be able to say, “This is wrong. This is not right. We can do better, we can do differently.” That’s one of the best things to do to be helpful.

You know, that’s what you see with some of these celebrities that sometimes we get annoying. Because we take it from the perspective of, “Well, why should we care just because they’re a celebrity?” In reality, that’s an example often of showing a person being an ally, through the use of their privilege, their privilege to be able to have a larger audience, to be able to get their voice across in a media format that others may not be able to. So being able to step up and say something for someone and be heard differently — that’s being an ally, that’s using privilege in an allyship form.

Dr. Vance: Great example, great example. And I find, too, that language and terms are very important when we’re talking about different, different races and different situations. And I always ask if I’m unsure how to refer to somebody or to refer to a situation. I ask them, “How do you want me to refer to this?” or, “What words can I use there?”

Some people are afraid to do that because they think that they’re showing insensitivity and they’re being ignorant. Well, it’s actually worse to say the wrong thing and trying to act like you knew something before you open your mouth. So I think that that is a big piece.

Disparities in access to care

Well, I’m going to shift gears a little bit, and a number of questions came in, talking about access to health care. And as you read and talked about in your early discussions, that there are some disparities in terms of access to — we’re a children’s hospital, and we treat some really sick kids and do an awesome job doing it, but that’s an aside, but, but how do we make sure as a community, we get out there and get access to care for all our kids who need the care? Whether they have privilege or not. They should have a privilege to get the best possible medical care, and the best access to that. So what are some, I know you don’t have a magic wand or just win the trillion-dollar lottery, but how do we as a community embrace to get kids access to that health care so that they aren’t further penalized by things that aren’t their fault?

Shavonne: I think, utilizing the services that are provided through the school, the school-based health centers, is one way to be able to do that. You know, we have a lot of our — our specialists are making visits to schools or having connections with, in various ways with, various schools. I think that’s one of the best ways to do it because sometimes the access to care is a transportation issue or parents are working multiple jobs, and that when the parent or the caregiver is able to be able to get the child to a visit, then perhaps our clinics are closed at that point.

Dr. Vance: So it — actually, you know, when I come to think of it, we’ve got a number of providers that are in several South Omaha school areas and OPS, and also in some other areas around the community. And kids — our show rate is awesome. Kids love it. The providers that are in there in the schools connect to their teachers and it is just a very powerful mechanism for access to care, and one that I hope our community continues to support because your kids are there. You’re exactly right, and the fact that they remove obstacles and part of this COVID-19 situation, has really made more and more people comfortable with video access. So what we’re able to actually do then is, if we’re seeing a child in the school, we could actually video the parent in, so that they could be part of the visit, which is wonderful if they’re home with another sick child or they’re home because they’re infirmed themselves, or they don’t have transportation access to get there. So I think that community education is a really, really big piece so thanks for doing that, for bringing that up.

Diversity and inclusion at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center

So what are some things that we’re doing at Children’s? Are there any things that we’re doing to try to close some of these gaps and enrich are our cultural diversity at Children’s? Because I know when I sit in a lot of meetings, that whatever hospital it is, there’s an awful lot of females and then there are very few people of color at the table. Maybe it’s different than certain other businesses, but what are we doing? Are we doing anything that is of note?

Shavonne: Yeah, we’re really getting going on this to make sure that we are serving our audiences, as best we can, and serving ourselves as best we can. And we’ve been starting up with culture and inclusion classes related to unconscious bias. And we’re talking about inclusive leadership. We’re also learning about stereotypes and really starting to get into more diversity dialogues so that we can really understand what’s going on. Working on looking at our recruitment practices, where we’re trying to really cover the gamut on everything and really work on listening to one another, quite a bit more. And listening to our patients and our families, what it is that they need.

And I think, as we’re doing our work within the organization, I think also a great way to foster great, great equity and healing in our homes and our communities is really that we start with the heart, just like we’re doing here. So, to do that in our communities means starts in the heart and starts in our home. And we use moments like this as teachable moments, and this is a great opportunity for discussion, both in our organizations and in our homes to discuss racism and discrimination in America and together and, and we can dismantle these structures that are, that are holding our nation back to be the greatest version that it could possibly be.

But it really does start with that individual conversation and, like you’d said at the very beginning, modeling behavior, and being open and honest and listening to where everyone is and meeting people where they are, and really listening with your heart and suspending our own personal judgment,

What do you think, do you have any last words of encouragement?

Dr. Vance: I don’t think I could end any better than you, Shavonne, and that was very well said and heartfelt. And you took a lot of the words right out of my — my own thinking with where we go for this. I think it needs ongoing discussion and the events have created a moment that we must discuss with our children and we must process. Not that we need to have our TVs on 24/7 reviewing it, but if we get anything positive out of something like this, it is hopefully increased healing and understanding and connectivity and sharing and preventing.

You know, prevention is such an important part of this and the worst thing that can happen about this is if this starts — if this continues, if history continues to repeat itself. Hopefully, as a community, we can continue to do some of the things that you very clearly described as self-care and family care in this talk, and have open, trusting, honest communication and make sure that we’re modeling social appropriate behavior. And please all take a chance to be aware of our own actions and our own behaviors. It is so important.

Well, both Shavonne and I thank you very much for your, for the audience’s time and listening to this important topic, and hopefully, it left you with a few ongoing discussion points that you can have with your children and/or with family. Thank you again for your time. Take care all, and be safe.


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