A teacher explains, how to talk your child about racism.

Rose Pennington is a primary school teacher, currently studying for post-graduation qualifications in childhood development and psychology.

The Motherish asked her to help us talk our kids about the times people we usually love and respect say things that we don’t agree with. Maybe, like some of us, you have an Uncle can say racist things sometimes, or a grandmother who is suspicious of refugees.

The cringe you may feel when someone says something outrageously politically incorrect is bad enough when only adults are in earshot, but what to do when children are around?

Kids are like sponges, and listen carefully to everything that is said around them. Some question what they hear while others don’t, but it is important to have meaningful conversations to ensure that they are in a position to make up their own minds one day about controversial topics.

It is impossible to prevent people from saying things you would prefer your children not to hear. Racist comments, for example. But while we would like it if children never heard these things it does open up an opportunity to discuss important concepts and values.

Difficulty arises when the objectionable comment comes from someone that you and your kids respect, such as a member of the family. How to tell children to ignore them, even though usually they are supposed to listen and take heed of what they say?

Rose Pennington says it's important to encourage children to think about issues independently. image supplied.

Separating the comment from the person who has said it is the first step. People are allowed to have different views from you and still be a good person. Let your children know that having respectful debates about things are a healthy part of any relationship and help you to form your own opinions.

We should encourage children to think about issues independently, rather than jumping in too early with our own opinions. Whether or not they have commented on whatever it was that may have come up, it is important to bring it up. “What do you think about what he said?” is enough to get the conversation started. The very fact that it is now a topic to be talked through will indicate to them that it is important, and that it is worth thinking about. Of course, once they’ve given their opinion you can use what they have said to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to take.


Take racism, for example. Discussing stereotypes will make them see that judging someone on the basis of the colour of their skin or religious beliefs is unreasonable. Make a statement based on one of their own physical characteristics such as “everyone who has blue eyes can’t ride a bike.” Surely they will be indignant; once they have had a taste of discrimination you can point out how unfair it is, and that it is the same as being racist.

If you need to discuss the merits of allowing refugees to come to Australia it would be useful to have your child envisage a scenario in which they don’t feel comfortable, and then tell them they can’t get out. “Imagine you were at a friend’s house and you really wanted to come home, but you weren’t allowed. Ever.” Show them that this is how it is for refugee children – they come from countries that aren’t safe, and if we told them they couldn’t come to Australia they might not have anywhere to go. Obviously this isn’t a simple topic and there are other issues involved, but it’s good to get them relating to people their own age in a difficult situation.

Essentially, it comes down to encouraging your kids to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Make sure they realise that it is important to question everything they hear, and decide whether they agree with it. You can practise this by playing a game – make some comments about things and they can decide whether they agree or disagree. Questioning will encourage critical thinking, effective communication and ultimately the development of a more interesting and respectful person.