How to Raise Children Who Think Beyond Themselves

Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a study from American "fact tank" Pew Research Center reveals that people of different races "are split over the current state of race relations." Indeed, the report states that 61% of black Americans felt "race relations were generally bad" and just 45% of white Americans felt this way. While many other facts and figures expose identity-based inequalities beyond the black/white binary (and don't pivot around perception), one major takeaway from Pew's research is that our identities inform how we navigate the world around us.

It's a complex topic with a variety of angles to tackle and unpack—so complex, in fact, that reducing it to one or two takeaways is ineffective. However, the conversation is an important one to have when aiming for a brighter future. A big part of that endeavor is considering how we raise the leaders of tomorrow: our kids. A separate study surrounding race conversations at home raised another issue: 9 out of 10 participating white families admitted to not having in-depth conversations with their kids about race. To dig a little deeper and make these conversations more approachable, we spoke with Sara Schonwald of Listen to Lead Consulting about some options.

Schonwald earned her master's degree in policy, organization, and leadership studies from Stanford University's Graduate School of Education and now coaches people and groups to be more effective, equitable leaders through facilitating change within their given communities. Given her background, it's unsurprising that she's full of actionable ideas on how to talk to kids about race and identity at home. We asked Schonwald to outline some of the lessons she’s still figuring out as a white parent of two young children (as well as provide more detail into her career in diversity, inclusion and equity education and leadership development), so you can decide if you want to have these conversations in your own home too.

Come Up With a Goal

The Question: What can we do in our homes to promote tolerance and encourage our kids to be conscious of identity issues, both those that are and aren't represented in our families?

Her Answer: "When we speak with our children about identity and culture, we have to ask ourselves: What's our goal? What are we trying to do? What makes this important to us? Only with that clear goal in mind can we think about what it would look like to be 'effective' in these conversations. I propose that we do better than 'promote tolerance' and instead promote interconnection and, ultimately, liberation.

"Because in this work, we must always ask ourselves what it is we're trying to accomplish—what's our goal?—and realize that being effective in reaching our goal might look different depending on a lot of different factors. We probably won't be as effective as we want to be right away. When children are learning how to walk, their toddling isn't always graceful. And, as we likely teach our children, we need to keep on trying."

What to Think About Beforehand

The Question: How should parents inform themselves on these issues before they bring it up with their kids? Are there any exercises or conversations they should do on their own before to begin dismantling their own racial biases?

Her Answer: "As parents, we must understand our own complex cultural identities and how they inform how we see and experience the world. In what ways are we being told—and possibly telling others—that certain identities are 'normal' and certain ones are 'other'? In what ways are we participating in, or building, or not even noticing our systems and structures—policies, company norms, etc.—that do the same?

This can mean reflecting on these questions:

1. Which of my identities am I more or less conscious of, and when? What's making that so?

2. In what ways have systems and structures been built to normalize some identities and marginalize others? What's my experience of that?

3. How do all of my identities inform who I am, and how I see and experience the world?"

Move Past the "Us vs. Them" Binary

The Question: Are there any words, phrases, or tones we should avoid when discussing identity with our children?

Her Answer: "We learn how to effectively work across cultural differences and similarities in a predictable series of developmental mindsets. If you find yourself seeing differences in terms of us/them and judging those differences, then it's important to find and focus on the commonalities. Many children's books about identity speak directly to this message of We're all the same. That's good and appropriate as we move through that early developmental orientation … and we can't stop there."

Try Not to Oversimplify the Issue

The Question: Are there any words, phrases, or tones parents shouldn't use?

Her Answer: "As we move past seeing the difference in terms of 'us vs. them' into this next mindset on the continuum, we focus heavily on our similarities. This can look like overemphasizing commonalities and missing some of the differences because we don't yet understand those differences as having anything to do with culture or identity. Or, it can look like minimizing our own differences to get along in an environment that gives us explicit and/or subtle cues that our differences aren't welcome.

When it comes to creating a more equitable world, we want to get to a point where we see and acknowledge differences that make a difference—both in ourselves and others—so that we might work together and leverage those differences to create the kind of world we want to see."

Trade in the Golden Rule for the Platinum Rule

The Question: Do you have any examples of what to say?

Her Answer: "While the Golden Rule teaches us to treat others the way we'd want to be treated, the Platinum Rule teaches us to treat others the way they'd want to be treated. How do we know how others want to be treated? We first realize that we might not know how others want to be treated. We don't assume. Then, we might ask someone. We might research. We might observe. And we might try something out. Here's what can be tricky about this: There's no checklist to fill out, no clear 'right' answer. We probably won't be as effective as we want to be right away. When children are learning how to walk, their toddling isn't always graceful. And, as we likely teach our children, we need to keep on trying."

For further information and reading material, We Stories is a great resource that offers specific strategies for decreasing bias in children. 

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros $12 $7
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie $16 $10
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas $19 $12
The Journey by Francesca Sanna $18 $12
Si, Se Puede by Diana Cohn and Francisco Delgado $26
The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers $18 $11
Is Everyone Really Equal by Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo $18
White Privilege by Paul S. Rothenberg $15
What Does It Mean to Be White? by Robin DiAngelo $42 $40

Related Stories