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Parenting: How do you explain racism to kids?

Tuesday - 5/13/2014, 4:25pm  ET

Donald Sterling's alleged racism-fueled comments left many parents asking, 'How do I explain this subject to my child?' (Thinkstock)

How do you explain hate, racism to kids?

WTOP's Randi Martin reports


WASHINGTON -- The racist comments recently allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling were difficult for many to hear and digest. But for parents -- especially black parents -- his comments became a call to action for a conversation with their kids.

Silver Spring, Maryland mom Pam G.* says she talks to her son continuously about everything. She calls Sterling's comments ignorant.

"I think if we keep an open dialogue, we should be OK," she says.

Prince George's County mom Kecia Smith says she explained to her son that some people just see color.

"You just have to ignore people's stupidity," Smith says.

While negative comments about race are hurtful, clinical psychologist Erlanger Turner says they can also create teachable moments for parents that prompt a conversation on race and the differences kids perceive.

"Ask your kids what they think of Sterling's comments. You definitely have to acknowledge the fact that it's not a positive thing and it was not a good comment that he made," says Turner, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Turner says parents should provide their children more detailed information at an age-appropriate level. He says sticking to the facts of the situation is the best way to have those conversations.

But the facts sometimes get lost in an attempted discussion on race.

"The problem is that a lot of times parents speak in code and they think they're talking about race, but they're not really," says Ashley Merryman, co-author of "NurtureShock," a contemporary handbook for parents.

"They will say something like, ‘We are all equal,' or ‘What matters is on the inside,' and kids literally don't understand that that's a conversation about race."

Merryman points to research which says children as young as 3 to 6 months of age can visually perceive the difference.

Just because kids can see a difference, does that mean the conversation should begin early?

Former D.C. resident Elizabeth Ryan, who is white, is starting to think about how she will address questions that her 4-year-old adopted son, who was born in Ethiopia, will soon have.

She says that as negative things come up, she will address them, but she's in no rush to start a conversation on skin color.

"I don't want, right now, to put in his mind that people don't like black people," she says.

Teaching kids to get to know the person beyond appearance is the key.

Merryman says if you give 3-year-olds a stack of pictures and ask with whom they want to play, toddlers will pick the kids who look like them. She says young children associate people of similar looks to having similar preferences, such as favorite games and favorite foods.

"It's not a terrible thing at that age … they pick the kids that look like them," she says. "They don't know that you can't judge by appearance to know if other kids like pepperoni pizza. You have to go up to them and ask."

So how do you handle this conversation in your house? Let us know in the comments section of this story, on Twitter or on the WTOP Facebook page. Until then, a local parent shares her take on explaining racism.

What do you say to your children?
By Frances Frost

What do you say to your kids when they hear that a rich, white man, who owns a sports team made up predominantly by black men, questioned his mistress about hanging out with black people and told her not to bring them to his basketball games? Where do you even start?

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's recent conversation throws a lot of issues on the table -- especially in a home like mine with a high school basketball player, basketball fans and black children. But perhaps not in the way one would imagine.

The discussion in our home was more centered on what the NBA would do and how the Clippers players might play in their next game. It was as if Sterling's actions weren't in question, but rather, how everyone would react.

There was some, but not much, talk about how someone could say such a thing or why -- which is sad.

The lack of great discussion indicates that racism is still present in our society, even if it's hidden better than it was 50 years ago in the pre-civil rights era.

But it's not so hidden that our children don't recognize it when they see it. As parents, we have to explain to our children that, while we all have prejudices, there are some people who have the power and inclination to act upon those prejudices in a way that is hurtful to others. As parents of black children, we have to tell our children that sometimes those hurtful actions will be directed towards them. It's a message that is reinforced over and over again.

I wish that prejudice and racism was a subject that was new and I had to explain it all to my children. I wish this was the first time they knew there are mean-spirited people out there. I wish this was a unique and startling occurrence.

But my children watched the news as men were acquitted of shooting innocent black boys on the street, hiding behind "Stand Your Ground." They hear the rude, disrespectful comments made to, and about, the president of the United States. And they hear how an "owner" talks about feeding "them," clothing "them," and giving "them" money, but not wanting "them" in his sports arena -- not in the seats, anyway.

So what do you say to your children? You remind them every day that they are beautiful, that they are special, that they are loved. That's where you start.

Editor's Note: Frances Frost is an author and blogger. She released her debut novel, "Life in Spades," last spring. Her blog, Just Piddlin', is all about motherhood and fitting in what's important -- family, personal interests and time to enjoy. She lives with her husband, four children and rescued pup in Silver Spring, Maryland.

*Pam requested to use her initial for her last name in this story.

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