Talking to Kids About Racism

This was written for parents in the congregation where I currently serve. It’s written from my perspective as a white person who grew up in Northwest Arkansas. This was also written before election day, which feels important to note.

I don’t remember the first time I realized that people of color were not treated the same way as whites in our society. I knew at an early age the prejudice in my own family and knew that the prejudiced comments were at odds with the teachings I was hearing in church about how to treat others.  No one ever talked with me about race or racism as a child. Instead, white people are taught not to talk about race.  It is part of the implicit teachings in our socialization.  In my twenties I began to understand that for people of color, race was a near daily conversation. African-American parents teach their children overtly, from necessity, that they will be judged and may even be in danger because of their skin color.

We are at a unique moment in our country’s history; the mass reporting of violent crimes against people of color, largely African-Americans.   Our Unitarian Universalist faith has a legacy connected to the response we had during the civil rights movement of the 60’s, particularly our call to join Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the march in Selma.  Today, the civil rights movement continues and we must decide how we will respond.

Dismantling racism is a religious issue. The systemic intuitions which favor white people is at odds with the Unitarian Universalist teachings about inherent worth, loving thy neighbor as thyself, and justice and equity for all. We are being called.  How will we respond?

For those in our community who are white, there is a lot of work to do around educating ourselves and being willing to sit with discomfort.  We need to learn to talk about race and racism with our children and youth in a way that lifts up the ways our faith calls us to heed the actions and words of prophetic women and men who guide us to creating a more just society for all.

Below you will find some internet articles and resources for learning more about these issues. I hope these resources help you in navigating conversations at home.

 5 Tips for Talking about Racism with Kids by Sasha Emmons

 Race Forward series of short videos by Jay Smooth

Raising Race Conscious Children from

Watch Out! Classic Movies with Offensive Racial Stereotypes from Huffington Post

 18 Books Every White Ally Should Read by Crystal Paul



Creating a Family Covenant        

Family covenants have a lot of potential.  Used with younger children, the covenant serves as a deeper lesson about compromise and demonstrates our religious values lived in the home.  Used with teens, the covenant helps shift power dynamics through the co-creation of agreements.

Family covenants guide us to intentionality around our expectations of one another and our living arrangements. We go beyond the surface of being annoyed when our sibling borrows our clothes without asking and get to the root of our needs; in this case privacy, respect, or consent.

The covenant also helps parents and children/youth better understand what each of us is facing in our daily life when we go out to work or school.  These things affect us and they show up in the needs or desires we have for our household covenant.

Create a covenant together.  Start by asking each person to consider the question, “what do I need to do in order to be my better self in relationship with my family?”.  Then, ask “What do I need from other family members in order to feel at ease, safe, and respected at home?”.  Other questions to consider: “How should we behave with one another when we are upset?”, “How can we remind each other gently when the covenant is broken? What words might we use to invite one another back into right relationship?”.

Remember to post the covenant where it can be seen.  It’s a living document, you can always add to it or revise it later.  It’s a good idea to revisit the covenant a couple of times a year routinely.  The covenant isn’t magic, like rules it will likely be broken.  However, the covenant teaches us about the shared commitment and responsibility of relationship.  However, the process of engagement gives us a rich sense of our connection with one another.



And A Child Shall Lead Them

I used to say I hated kids, with the exception of my daughter of course. I think it was my defense mechanism against parents actually.  I find it really difficult to interact with parents who have some particular opposing values from my own.  Parents who assign gender to toys, excuse boys abusing girls with “he likes her,” and are more comfortable with their kids consuming massive amounts of violence than the slightest hint of sexuality in films or literature.  Those parents are quite difficult for me to get along with.  So as a result I put forth this notion that I hated kids.  This worked.  It excused me from many Chuck E. Cheese parties, babysitting, and circling up with the other moms at school activities. Then I wound up working with children and youth in my church but I hung tightly to my mantra of not liking children.

Somewhere along the way I had started to buy it.  I actually believed that I just didn’t like kids. This helped fuel my inner critic who wanted to attack my own parenting.  I would say to myself, what kind of mom doesn’t like kids? Eventually I modified it to; I don’t like kids, except UU kids.  It explained my joy in teaching RE classes but enabled me to still keep my distance.

Olivia hammockOver the years I have done a lot of spiritual practice and soul searching.  I have come to realize another layer in my story about not liking kids was in reality being around children reminds me of being one.  I did not like being a child. So to avoid having to deal with the feelings that came up around my own childhood, I could just avoid kids unless I was sure I could control the environment completely.  Teaching RE started that way.  I thought as the teacher I could control the environment.  Wow, was I wrong!

The essence of teaching is meeting the students where they are, sparking young minds and following them where they want to go.  The kids in my RE classes taught me a lot about how to relax and roll with it.  They showed me the beauty that can happen when you let go of curriculum and focus on relationship. Still, these were UU kids.  I felt I could trust them more than the general population.

Now I direct a religious education program.  This is my career and my spiritual calling.  It’s great to be around all those UU kids, but I also greet families every week who have never stepped foot in a UU church before.  Their kids are, well, they’re not UU kids!  Not yet anyway.  Something in my brain screams “Red alert! Red alert!”

I take a deep breath and become the adult I think every child needs in their life.  I become so fully present when greeting these kids that there is no room for me to build any walls of defense or tell any stories which do not aid my role in creating a safe space for these children and engaging their spirits and minds. Magic happens.  Something inside me heals a little more with every interaction.

On the worst days, the Sundays when I wake up and wish I didn’t have to work but could instead just sleep a little longer, I find these children save me.  I may show up sleepy and a bit cranky, but as soon we sing the opening hymn the walls around my heart break open. There’s always a small group of children who sit next to me in the Sanctuary.  They have their orders of service and hymnals ready.  When the music starts they stand and follow the words with their finger so they don’t get lost.  If it’s a song they’ve never heard, they look at me because they know I will scoot in closer and I will sing a little louder and that together it’s going to be okay.  They know that here it’s safe to try. It’s safe to not know all the words or the right key.  They know that here it’s about relationship and being together.

In my year of serving my congregation I have discovered something amazing.  I love kids.  They are my teachers.  I am honored to be able to sing songs with them, play Simon Says on the playground, decorate cookies, make mandalas, laugh and grieve together, and so much more.  It’s a career and a spiritual calling doing what I do, but it is so much more than that too.  More than I have words to say.

It Takes a Village

Parenting, as I see it, is the art and skill of raising a child to adulthood, in which they arrive well-adjusted, healthy, with a strong sense of self and the ability to connect with others in a way which is meaningful for them.  Perhaps this is the mission statement of parenthood.

The work of actually realizing this mission, like all missions, is complex, lengthy, and messy.  There’s no manual for doing this correctly.  How could there be when every child is a unique blessing with their own gifts and challenges? It’s not an easy job. It may well be the most difficult thing one does with their life.  It is also touted as one of the most rewarding.

I’m always internally a little cautious when people starting talking about the rewards of parenthood.  Words like “pride” and “legacy” don’t leave me feeling centered in the mission described above.  When I hear people talk about the joys of parenthood there is often a list of milestones and accomplishments of their child or pictures demonstrating the family their now adult child is creating.  I get this.  These are markers of being well-adjusted, healthy, and so on.  We point to the small things which say, the mission is being realized.

These are all things to feel good about, but I don’t think these are the real rewards we can reap from parenting. I think in our fast paced and often competitive daily grind we can miss the rewards altogether.  The moments of self-discovery, of transformation, of exceeding the limit of what we thought we could handle/do/take/endure/produce/create…

The true reward in parenting is the ever evolving self has another teacher: your child.

Children have their own view of the world and help us learn when to shift focus, to let go, eyesand when to stand firm.  They also give us the opportunity to play.  As I mentioned in a previous post, play is an important spiritual practice.  It’s a necessary part of being well-adjusted.

We miss it, the full presence with it, when we get so caught up in surviving the harshness of our world we forget to look for the magic in a stuffed animal tea party, the spiritual evolution in learning to communicate with a willful three year-old, the transformation of going from attachment parenting to empty nester.  Our world demands so much from us.

We juggle jobs and children, relationships and family, managing a house, trying to create a better world by staying involved in current events, politics, and social justice.  Is it any wonder we aren’t fully present with our families?  For me, there are days when it feels like a miracle just to get dinner made.  I feel my reserves are depleted and I don’t have enough left for full attention to what is going on in science class, though last night I noted my daughter’s textbook is severely lacking, not even including proper terminology for the heart and lungs.  This reminded me of the importance of that presence and vigilance in accomplishing the mission of parenthood. I thought about all the other single moms who might be too tired to look in the text book, the reasonable statement they might utter to their child that of course the answer is in the textbook, read it again, when in fact it isn’t.

It takes a village.

A group of religious educators.

Religious educators after a long weekend of learning how to better be the village.

Really, it takes a village.  We need others intimately involved in helping us raise our children.  I have recently started building a new village. After nearly 3 years of being a single parent, I am realizing the village doesn’t have to be blood relatives or people who have children of their own. My village is coming together through collective living.  I am blessed with roommates who all love my daughter and see the importance of succeeding in the mission.  They know the mission isn’t just mine because I gave birth to her.  The mission of raising well-adjusted, healthy, independent, capable children into adulthood belongs to all of us.

Beyond the relief of just not having to go it alone, having others to help with our children gives us yet another way to engage in the spiritual component of parenting.  We learn to share, grow, extend trust to another, and we learn.  We learn about ourselves and our friends who are helping us.  We learn about our child and watch the various ways they interact with other adults.  We can be parents who are present and intentional.  We can be the parents we wanted to be.

Afterall, it’s the most important thing we will do.

My daughter

My daughter