Clinical psychologist Howard Stevenson explores the practice of parenting to raise anti-racist children so they become compassionate leaders of change.

Before the advent of social media, talks around the dinner table about race and racism were usually parent-initiated and parent-driven. But in 2020, children have a front-row seat to racial inequalities and injustices through their social media, and they are in the driver’s seat for those discussions.

“You have a kind of perfect storm in which young people are challenging parents in general about life and identity, and at the same time, they are getting information that’s very clear and direct about a certain truth around race and racism and protest in the world,” says Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE).  

In a recent discussion hosted by the YPO Parenting Community and the Peace Action Network, Stevenson spoke with Kara Wright, Managing Director of Envisioning Equity, on ways parents can talk with their children about race and gain an overview of global systemic racism. They also discussed how our next generation of leaders can create a more racially accepting world.

Howard Stevenson

Leading the way

Today’s youth not only have “the emotional and developmental muscle to challenge parents, but they have the knowledge to understand what is going on in the world,” says Stevenson.  “While young people can say, “This is how what’s happening in the world affects me,” parents might still be thinking: ‘That’s something that’s happening outside of our family. We don’t have to be necessarily as engaged.’”

So, what can parents do to support their children?

One way is to become racially literate. The more parents talk to their children, the better. This can include discussions around being proud of one’s culture, managing racial hostility, being egalitarian and balanced, says Stevenson. “All of those messages tend to be quite important in protecting young people and have been associated with all kinds of positive outcomes from academic achievement, managing self-esteem, managing anger and anxiety and depression.” The better the communication is, the better prepared children can be for racial conflict, which can happen unpredictably, says Stevenson.

Racial literacy is an attempt to be more specific and direct in how and what people say to young people on navigating hostility and micro-aggressions, says Stevenson. It also involves using a skills-based approach, which involves teaching and practicing strategies.

Telling the truth about racism matters

In many ways, we have “turned a blind eye” to the history of systemic racism and particularly how it has played out around the world, says Stevenson. Neglecting telling that truth “means that it doesn’t get filtered into our educational systems, so children are not learning about it and families are not talking about it in a way that it becomes a reality.”

Unlike the white population, people of color don’t have the luxury or the privilege of not seeing that impact every day, which is why they are more prepared and aware of it.  

Stevenson says that people are often afraid to talk about race, whether it is with their children or with other adults. And when issues do come up, Stevenson says, people are “threatened to the point of feeling like [they are] facing a tsunami or facing a poisonous snake.” Just the mention of the word “race” can be a trigger for some people, putting them into “flight, fight, or fright” mode, says Stevenson. At that point, “you really are not a great decision maker,” he says. “But that’s still a function of exposure and experience. The goal of our work is to show people can reduce that fear if they’re willing to face it.”

Actions matter

According to anthropologists, children learn a lot from parents by watching what they do rather than hearing what they say, says Stevenson. “As parents, we underestimate that we may be talking about race all the time, just not verbally,” he explains. “It’s with our actions, with our hesitancy, with our denials. So, in addition to the historical narrative, we have these face-to-face communications that are verbal and nonverbal that explain how we learn about race.”

Stevenson recommends parents “become more aware of how they might be going through their day and unconsciously communicating to their children their values around race.”

What’s your narrative?

Curing systemic racism is going to take a long time, says Stevenson. But there are small things we can do that can make big differences in the short term.

Stevenson says the first thing he asks parents is, “What is your story before you try to tell children what to do? What is your history?” Being honest about that is very important to children, he says. “It’s natural for parents to protect our children by withholding information.” But it’s important that we share our experiences, he says. “Children have told us over and over again, ‘We love when our parents tell us their stories.’”

As parents, we underestimate that we may be talking about race all the time, just not verbally. It’s with our actions, with our hesitancy, with our denials. ”
— Howard Stevenson, Clinical Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education share twitter

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Stevenson encourages talking to your children about your experiences, because, whether you like it or not, your own narrative is still coming out nonverbally. “Instead of getting the mountain-top lessons about how you can rise above everything, [children] are in the valley when it comes to these issues and they need a valley story to help match what they’re going through,” says Stevenson. “Let them know that you understand what it’s like to be ashamed of your race, that you understand what it’s like to try to hide that and what do you do when someone makes these statements.”

For many parents, that’s a scary idea. “But children are not changing their childhood, because we protect them from things that we’re worried about,” says Stevenson. “Racism is no different in that regard. It’s really our fear more than it is that we’re going to damage children’s childhoods. It’s parental fear of what that means, that we’re not ready to share or deal or know how to [more] than it is that children will be bothered by this.”

Different family experiences

Racial socialization for white families is a little bit different than for families of color, says Stevenson. White families are more likely to tell their children not to talk about race. They do this for a couple of reasons, he says. First, because they fear that a racial discussion could go badly, and that would be stressful or threatening to their children. But they are also concerned that if their children have friends of color, bringing up race might harm them. “So, there’s a protective motivation behind that parenting,” he says.

“One of the things that children have to do is to be prepared for challenges, and sometimes not talking about a thing or avoiding it reduces the stress. It is what we call a coping strategy.” But the problem with it is that it makes children less competent to actually do something. “What if your child is an ally and they see injustice?” asks Stevenson. “Then, where do they get to the courage to speak up to it? What we know is that children need practice on how to notice what is an injustice for somebody they care about. Do they have the courage to actually speak up against it?”

Stevenson likes to reference a quote from a parenting book he co-authored in the early 2000s. It reads: “Parenting is a lifelong acquaintance with helplessness.”

He adds, “There’s joy and there are challenges that are part of the process. The question is: Can you notice what’s happening in the process and appreciate that? That helplessness makes us open to new ideas.”

YPO members may access the full conversation at Rooting Out Racism in Ourselves and Our Children.