7 Ways to Teach Our Kids About Race and Ethnicity

It’s an important conversation but it can seem so overwhelming. How do we bring these concepts home to our kids? How do we even begin if we are just starting out ourselves? Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. How you do it will depend on your own context.

I am Filipina-American, Andy is European-American (we also say “white”). Also, we live in Bridgeport, CT, a highly diverse city in what is a homogenously white state. So not only is the ethnic makeup of your family unique but so is the particular way in which your family engages the community around you (not to mention the members of your extended family). So what is right will differ radically depending on your family’s situation. This is definitely not a one-size-fits all scenario.

That said, I will try to offer broad principles instead of specifics, which are better generated out of specific ethnic communities and the complexity of power and pain that is present there. The importance of candid conversation with your own ethnic group cannot be overstated, and I talk about that later.

2. Be a learner yourself.

You’re going to need to explain complex things in simple language, and the only way you can do this is if you have a grasp on it yourself. Give yourself grace if this is the beginning of your journey but know that it’s an important journey and you have a place in it. Seek humbly and engage broadly on this topic. Familiarize yourself with the definition of even taken-for-granted terms such as race (arbitrary category), ethnicity (referring to a people group), prejudice, racism (these two are more nuanced than I can do justice in this post).

Learn about racial justice, racial reconciliation. For us, books like Being White, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, and More Than Serving Tea have been immensely helpful resources in our journey to understanding race and ethnicity.

And reflect on your own journey of ethnic identity. Find same-ethnicity friends to be on this journey with you; honest, safe conversation is vital here. Find people already conversant in this and see if they can point you to resources that have helped them. What resources have been helpful for you?

And also: guess what. Everyone has an ethnicity. Even my-ancestors-were-on-the-Mayflower guy (maybe even, especially that guy). You have an ethnic background and a culture, so own it. And learn about it. Celebrate it. Grapple with what’s hard about it. You can’t teach effectively your kids about race stuff out in the world until you’ve come face to face with the way you feel about your own. 

3. Think developmentally appropriate.

There’s a lot of conversation out there — and news, a lot of it ugly — about race and ethnicity, and again, how you will specifically handle it has everything to do with your own family’s makeup. And there is a tension here. Some of us have the privilege of ignoring the race conversation and pretending it’s not an issue. But, guess what, even if you don’t think it’s affecting your family, it is. We are all in this together, whether we know it or not. The humanity of each of us is impoverished the longer we choose to remain ignorant on such matters.

That said, there is such a thing as giving our children, especially little children, too much information. I think I may be speaking more to majority culture here, because I know many minority ethnic groups have their own way of when and how to specifically have this conversation. However, it’s every parent’s responsibility to at least begin this conversation; you just might not want to begin with people killing each other. Search out children’s books on this score.  I’m just starting out too and would love help in this area. Anybody out there have any recommendations?

And age-appropriateness is these kinds of conversations comes with this rule of thumb: open up the convo, and then let your child take the lead. It’s kind of a dance, a delicate one. Wait and see if they will ask some of the hard questions. When you feel speechless, don’t forget to ask:

What do you think?

And of course, I don’t know.

Followed with, Let’s learn more about that.

Model the importance of listening. It is much needed in this conversation.

And if you’re the praying type, ask for help. God gives wisdom to those who ask.

4. Be transparent about your own journey, and wise in how you interpret it.

If racism is breaking your heart – as it should all of ours – and it brings you to your knees at home, or stings your eyes with tears as you go through your newsfeed, or stirs you up in anger, that’s okay. And it’s okay for your children to see that sin in the world is grieving your heart. We had this conversation at the dinner table recently. Some people were being mean to other people based on the color of their skin. It makes us sad. And see how your child reacts. If it’s too much, you’ll know. But also know that your own feelings are going to overflow into your family life whether you want it to or not. And this just might be the open door you need to start talking about it.

5. Be aware of the messages they receive about race through their everyday experiences.

I’m aware that in our usual circuit – preschool, the Fairfield library, maybe Trader Joes – the people we run into are, um, pretty homogenous. One day, when Sam described my skin as “dark” and his as “regular,” I knew we had some work to do.

We all need to be reflective of what we are presenting as “regular” to our kids. I brought home a Disney princess coloring book for Grace (okay, maybe that was my first mistake, but I’m a millennial so…) and noticed that along with the requisite pink and purple it came with yellow, brown, and red markers. What? No black? How was she supposed to color Jasmine’s hair? So I threw in a black magic marker to round it out. To say nothing of the skin-color offerings (thankfully, Crayola is at least trying).

So it may be a good exercise to reflect on what our kids are seeing as “regular” in everyday life, from places you go to friends you spend time with to books and media you consume. And this is not just to check off the diversity box, either. This is so they can understand and appreciate all people as equally valued and loved – not some as “regular” and some as “other.” So they can see and celebrate the reality of God’s beautiful and colorful creation. So we can all develop some grace and cultural literacy as we learn to do life together.  Which brings me to…

 6. Paint a picture of who we are in God.

This really is the heart of the matter for us. You may or may not be religious, but I know that for our journey, our identity as children of God provides the foundation for how we think about race and ethnicity. God made each human being in his own image. God loves ethnicity and together our cultures form a fuller, richer picture of the people of God. We worship most fully, together. And we need to be advocates for each other, bringing shalom – peace and justice – to all corners of the world.

And we can speak these life-giving words over our kids. God made you you. God loves who you are. And God, even right now, wants to use who you are to help make his kingdom come. And in that vein…

7.  Especially if you are on the side of the majority: Teach your child to be an ally and an advocate.

If there is one lesson we can offer our children in this conversation, it is that we must stand up for others. No matter who we are, we are responsible for furthering kindness. We are responsible for furthering peace. For a small child, it might just take asking, What can you do to help? And this is not in a hero-swoops-in kind of way. This is what it looks like to walk alongside our brothers and sisters, to see every person as having dignity and value. And because when we extend help to others, it changes our hearts a little too. It teaches us to rely on the strength and grace of God rather than on our own misguided heroism.

And the more we learn our own hearts in this journey, the more we can model it for them, and the more our children learn. And hope for our world brightens, just a bit, when they do.


What are some ways you have taught your children about their own ethnic identity? About race? What resources have been helpful for you?


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