Try as we might, mistakes still happen. “If someone says something offensive, it’s important to keep in mind their experience probably does not include your experience,” Coleman-Mortley says. But, what should children actually say to someone who has offended them? Chang recommends equipping children with three words: “Tell me more.” Open, honest communication begins with a willingness to talk and understand. “There’s no better way to shut down a conversation than to call someone a racist,” Chang says. “Saying, ‘tell me more’ gives the other person the opportunity to explain their point of view.”
Of course, there are times when open, honest communication just doesn’t suffice, and more needs to be said – or done. If your child comes to you upset about something they heard, Benites recommends saying, “It is not your job to educate your classmates about race, but with that in mind, what do you want to do about it?” The focus should be on figuring out what the child needs, and going from there.
What should we tell our children when they accidentally say the wrong thing? Explain to your kids, “The key is to listen before you react. Don’t just rush to say, ‘That’s not what I meant,’ before understanding why the other person is upset,” Benites says. “We need to teach our children they are always obligated to listen to what people say and how they feel.”
Once your child understands why the other person is offended, they can sincerely offer an apology. “The best thing you can say is, ‘I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. What do I need to do to ensure I am not making that mistake again?’” Lythcott-Haims says. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about taking ownership when we’ve made a mistake, and using it as a learning opportunity to be more aware in the future.
Sometimes there’s confusion over what is deemed “offensive.” And the truth is, it isn’t always clear. One thing to keep in mind? Historical context. Encourage your children to study the past so they can better understand the present. “In order to appreciate cultures, we also need to have respect for historical framework,” Coleman-Mortley says. Hagerman echoes this citing her research that, “kids who understood history were the most aware.”
Racism isn’t always as explicit as someone using a slur or telling an offensive joke. In fact, whether we realize it or not, even those who consider themselves “not racist” may have deeply-held beliefs or narratives that wrongly stereotype an entire group of people. “We all have biases, but we can overcome them,” Lythcott-Haims says. That starts with acknowledging to ourselves that we are having those thoughts, rather than ignoring them.
By actively taking note of an implicit bias beginning to surface, we’re already starting to undo it, Lythcott-Haims says. But, it doesn’t stop there. “Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to try to treat this person as if they are my best friend.’ By tricking the mind, now you can offer generosity and dignity to this person,” she says.
When it comes to our own implicit biases, should we tell our children? Or will that set the wrong example for them? “Parents should be open and honest with their kids about their implicit biases. It doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us people,” Wiseman says. “If we own it, we have more power over it.” But, again, it’s not just about addressing the bias. “We must also tell our children what we are doing to overcome the bias,” Lythcott-Haims says.