MLK Jr. Day: Embracing Diversity and Ending Racism

A photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Published in Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - Winter 2021

Racism has a powerful negative impact on the mental and physical health of children and adolescents. It can interfere with physical growth, emotional well-being, social interactions, learning and behavior. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, two experts from the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Center for Behavioral Health, co-director Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, ABPP-CN, and pediatric neuropsychologist Sakina Butt, PsyD, ABPP-CN, weigh in on what parents need to know about racism, how they can talk to their kids about it and how to embrace diversity.

Is there psychology behind why people gravitate towards familiarity as it pertains to race and culture, and how can we break that cycle or step out of our comfort zones?

Our brains are calmed by seeking information and individuals who are consistent with what we know. If we have not extended our social circle to diverse components, it can be uncomfortable and scary and if we do not seek out other cultures, then we will always gravitate to what is comfortable. It is important to challenge this feeling of being uncomfortable, learn more and experience more, especially as it relates to diversity and culture, so that we broaden these circles and experience the beauty of our differences.

How do parents’ own biases affect the way their children acknowledge racial difference?

We pass our opinions, thoughts and responses down to our children because they are constantly listening and observing. As early as two years of age, children can be seen imitating their parent’s actions, which is positive because it helps them learn. Unfortunately, when parents model negative behaviors such as racist or discriminatory views, our children learn these and respond in the same racist or discriminatory way. When parents model openness and respond by standing against racism or discrimination, this helps to shape their child to do the same.

If your child notices and makes mention about a difference in another child's skin or hair color, what's the most appropriate way as a parent to respond?

Children are naturally curious and will notice differences among them especially when the differences are visible like skin color. How parents and adults respond when children point out or question these differences can help to shape creativity and openness but can also form biased and racist ideas. If a child merely points out a difference and questions why, parents should provide a clear answer using age-appropriate language the child can understand. For example: “There are all types of different people in the world and all of us are very special even though we may not look or act the same.” Parents should comment on differences positively such as “yes, there are many different skin colors and they are all beautiful.” If a child makes a discriminatory statement, parents can respond by telling the child the statement is hurtful (“What an unkind thing to say”) and correcting the child’s thinking by providing factual information using language they can understand.

At what age should parents try to implement a love and respect for diversity and different cultures?

From birth! It is natural for parents to want to shield children from racism/violence, but children are aware of race differences even at a young age. Parents can’t hide their children from the world but they can help their children by cultivating an environment that is accepting of diversity from an early age. Be sure that your child is exposed to diverse experiences and viewpoints through books, toys, games, movies, artwork, characters and those you engage with as parents.

In what ways can racism affect kids and teens?

Exposure to racism, racial stereotypes and observations of disrespect can impact both physical and mental health. Growing up in an underserved neighborhood, attending underfunded schools, and enduring the generational impact of limited education, underemployment and reduced opportunities has significant physical and emotional impact that can be passed down for generations. Racism negatively impacts mental health but also has an impact on physical functioning due to prolonged exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, which have been linked to inflammatory reactions that predispose people to chronic health conditions like asthma, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It can also equate to higher rates of mental health problems.

How can I teach my child to identify racial discrimination and best process it? 

Younger children, such as toddlers and preschoolers, should be encouraged to ask questions about the differences they encounter in their world. Parents should respond to questions with honesty while at the same time emphasizing how wonderful and beautiful diversity is. Identify racism in a developmentally appropriate way, such as, “That’s not a nice thing to say” or “I’m uncomfortable with what just happened because…”, then discuss what a better interaction would have looked like. As children get older, parents can also help them recognize subtle messages of racism and discrimination in books or media.

For older children and adolescents, talk about the importance of speaking up when they see racial discrimination and be an example of that. Acting out these situations at home can help to provide children and adolescents guidance on how to process and defend against racial discrimination. Parents should teach their children how liking or sharing racist social media content helps to contribute to spreading hate.

Here are more ways to teach your child about diversity and discrimination.

How do I respond when my child asks me about something they saw in the news about racism/violence?

There is no one specific way to respond, but experts agree parents should not avoid talking about it. Parents can start the conversation by checking in with their children about what they saw and how they are feeling, such as, “What did you see or hear?” “How did you feel about what we saw on the news?” “What did the news make you think about?”. This will guide the conversation. Provide information about racism in the United States and the impact on society in a factual and clear way in language your child can understand. When talking about racism it is very important to use words like “white” and “black” to clearly communicate information to children of all ages (e.g., “People are upset about the way that some white people treat black people unfairly”).

Most importantly, make these conversations regarding race, diversity, and racism a regular part of your daily life, and continue to encourage open communication and acceptance. Change starts at home, with our immediate family and friends. Participating in community and virtual events addressing racism, such as free webinars, can also foster openness and encourage diversity.