This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that the American Psychological Association (APA) will publish regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit: www.apa.org/pi/res
By Chelsea Derlan, PhD (Asst. Professor of Developmental Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University)
In their daily lives, children receive many direct and subtle messages involving their racial-ethnic background from others:
“But how can he be your dad? You don’t match.”
“You should put on sunscreen because you don’t want to get too dark.”
“I always thought Black people couldn’t swim. You act White though, maybe that’s it.”
Although we cannot control every interaction our child has with others, what we can do is build up positive messages that influence the effect these interactions have on them. For example, what if we had engaged in racial-ethnic socialization (RES) that involved the following messages:
“You are such a perfect mix of mine and your fathers’ cultures.”
“You have beautiful brown skin. I love how you get darker in the sun.”
“Your ancestors are Black kings and queens. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
The RES we provide can have profound effects on our children’s well-being. Here are a few tips:
1. RES is important for all children.
It is important that we talk about race-ethnicity with children – all children. A recent ethnic-racial identity intervention study provided an opportunity for teenagers to explore their culture and develop a clearer sense of what their ethnicity-race meant to them. Participating had positive effects on youth from all racial-ethnic backgrounds.
As caregivers, we can set up similar opportunities by providing a space for our children to ask questions, process, and learn. Given our unique histories and everyday realities, we will want to tailor messages based on our children’s specific culture and experiences. For example, we might choose to prepare children for bias they may encounter, highlight stories of their ancestors, or build pride in their appearance. For ideas and activities, check out 25 mini-films for exploring race-ethnicity.
2. It is never too early to start.
Caregivers often wonder when it is the right time to begin RES. The answer is that it is never too early to start. Research tells us that by kindergarten, many children already know what their race-ethnicity is, and use race-ethnicity as a way to understand themselves and others. We know that when caregivers engage in RES it has positive effects on children’s academics, behavior, and language skills.
An important thing to keep in mind is to craft messages so they make sense to children based on their age and level of understanding. Very young children tend to focus on the parts of culture that they can see, such as skin tone and hair. For example, with Black children, you might start with books or videos that highlight how all hair is good hair, skin comes in lots of wonderful shades, or that feature Black boys and Black girls as main characters. Sometimes it is easiest to simply start talking, and other times it is helpful to read a book or watch a video, and then build a conversation afterwards.
3. Don’t give up!
Despite our most dedicated efforts, there will be times when children question and/or disagree with our teachings.
I came across an article in which a mother wrote about a time when her daughter said: “Mommy, I don’t want to be Black like you.” After talking to her daughter she realized that
“… it wasn’t that my daughter didn’t want to be Black, she was simply struggling to deal with her perception and understanding of who she is. Realistically, I know how the world will view her, and I can’t shield her from it. What I can do is make sure she knows who she is, that she is loved, and that she loves herself, fully.”
Although times like these can be discouraging, we can’t give up. We have to listen, and remember that the ways our children are understanding and interpreting their experiences may not always match our own.
RES is a process that involves many lessons over time. As children have different experiences, new things will pop up. Our goal is to create a support system so they know there is someone they can go to who will talk and/or listen. It is about planting those positive seeds for them that they can water when they need to. It is an opportunity for us to show our children love and compassion, to help them understand themselves, and to prepare for a better tomorrow with our children today!
Start healthy conversations about race/ethnicity with your kids today. Download APA’s RESilience Parent Tip Tool
Chelsea Derlan, PhD, is an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Broadly, her work examines how risk factors (e.g., discrimination) and resilience factors (e.g., cultural socialization) inform ethnic-racial minority youths’ positive psychological, academic, and health outcomes. Guided by cultural ecological models, she considers the role of family, school, and other key contexts. Her research is focused in two main areas:
(a) assessing what young children understand and feel about their culture (i.e., ethnic-racial identification), and how this plays a role in development, and
(b) examining the interplay between individual and contextual factors as they inform adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity and adjustment.
Image source: iStockPhoto.com