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How to talk to your kids about racism, according to a child psychologist

Talking to kids about race and police
How to talk to kids about race and police brutality 13:12

Nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd have dominated the public sphere over the last week, leaving many concerned parents struggling between explaining the harsh realities of racism to their children and shielding them from the worst of the violence. With news and social media cycles flooded by videos, callouts and stories about the unrest, the conversation is both difficult, and difficult to avoid. 

"Parents should talk about it with their kids," child psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum told CBSN anchors Vladimir Duthiers and Anne-Marie Green. "I would start with the unfairness of racism, and why we need to work together as a society to make it different."

Though explaining today's protests can seem complex, Tatum said it is important not to start with the what, but the why.

"What is the source of the protest?" she asked. "Why are you, as a mom or dad, upset about what has happened?"

Tatum said using the protests as a real-life example of the "unfairness of what is going on" is a healthy place to start for parents feeling overwhelmed by the topic and all its details. 

Moms and dads starting there should be ready for questions surrounding some criminal behavior occurring during the demonstrations but should maintain that peaceful protesting is important, she said.

Tatum said "part of the challenge" is parents' "willingness to have these conversations." 

She pointed out that many adults she has asked about their own early memories of race-related experience will recall a memory from grade school, but that they had not talked to their parents or teacher about it.  

"Even as 6- and 7-year-olds, they learned that adults don't want to have that conversation," she said. 

She said parents who won't have that conversation are in danger of leaving their children with "confusion and anxieties they don't know how to process." 

Parents who truly want to promote inclusivity and anti-racism in their child's behavior should model it, Tatum said.

"Young children will ask questions," she said. "If parents are able to listen careful to those questions, they can answer in an age-appropriate way that gives kids real information and helps them understand better what's happening around them." 

Tatum, who is African-American, recalled a conversation she had when her son was four and growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. He told her a classmate referred to him as "black" and he questioned why.

She told her son the term "black" referred to him being African-American, and explained he should have pride in his heritage before he asked her "if Africa is so great, what are we doing here?"

"That, from a 4-year-old point of view and my point of view, can only be answered honestly by saying a little bit about the history of slavery — why are we here? We are here because Africans were brought to this country as workers and slaves," she said.

She said one of the things that she made clear with him was that "this was a long time ago."

"I was not a slave, he was not a slave, his grandparents had never been slaves," Tatum said.

Instead, Tatum used the opportunity to explain the unfairness of slavery, and the importance of having people — both black slaves who escaped and helped others and white abolitionists — who fought against the unfairness. 

"I wanted him to know they had been empowered and to try and take care of their own freedom, but also there were allies," she said. "We need children to understand there have always been white people committed to social justice, and that together they were able to eliminate slavery."

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