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Talking to your child about difference

I was with my 6 year old recently, playing about with words and being silly. He started using the song ‘old town road’ and changing the title, until he landed on “old brown Joe” as a play on words. He thought himself very funny and repeated it over and over. I panicked, and told him “you can’t say that in school,” having visions of the school calling home to discuss my racist child.

“Why not mummy”

His question stumped me momentarily and got me thinking.

What should we say to our children and about race, difference, equality – all of these ‘big’ topics? Sometimes if can feel like we want to shelter our younger children from these conversations, that they are too young to consider the inequalities of the world and the topics too weighty to address.

 But in this scenario, I also had to consider that ‘sheltering’ my child from these conversations was a position of privilege and that many children will have already come into contact with the harsh reality of how difference can be talked about in schools and the community. Research has shown that children can internalise racial bias from between the ages of 2 and 4. (1) 

Therefore, my experience with my 6-year-old offered an important opportunity to re-visit the idea of race and fairness. We had already talked about how using someone’s skin colour as a way of identifying them wasn’t fair. We had talked about how if he wouldn’t say “this pencil belongs to white Ben” then he shouldn’t say “this pencil belongs to black Ben” as it is treating someone differently because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or colour.

Here are some tips for starting your own conversations:

  1. Don’t put off conversations for fear of getting it wrong. If you feel you don’t have enough information, consider doing some research with your child. Looking at books and age-appropriate web content together can be helpful, and models to them that ‘not knowing’ is ok.
  2. Pitch conversations to their developmental stage. Younger children might respond to ideas about fairness, as this is prominent in their play at this stage, as well as ideas of being kind and accepting others. Older children might have their own experiences or thoughts to bring, and you might be led by them in discussions. Asking lots of open questions in all age ranges is important. E.g. what did you think about that? How would you feel if that was you? What could you have done/done differently? There are lots of useful websites to help. (2) (3)
  3. Talk to other parents and carers. This can be a great way to share ideas and to open up conversations. You never know, you might encourage someone to tackle something they had previously been shying away from.
  4. Find ways to celebrate diversity at home, such as trying food from different cultures, reading books and stories and watching films. Watching Encanto has inspired a genuine interest in Colombian culture in our house!



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