Talking to kids about racism leaves some parents tongue-tied

It may be easier to avoid talking about race relations in the Brainerd lakes area than in other parts of the country. Blacks comprise just 2.5% of the city of Brainerd’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while whites make up 92.5% of the population.

Sara Athman of Nisswa, a board-certified behavior analyst, reads with her 2-year-old children, Charlotte (left) and Evelyn. Dan Athman / Online Behavior Consultant LLC

It’s never easy as a parent to talk to a child about racism or death, especially in the wake of last month’s killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

But it can be especially challenging for parents to discuss the killing of another unarmed African American even as peaceful demonstrations call for civil justice and reform.

“They’re aware of what’s going on to an extent, whether they hear it from their parents, hear it over the news feed on the internet or social media,” Sara Athman said of young children. “And if they have awareness of it, they’re gonna have questions about it.”

Athman lives in Nisswa and runs a telehealth company that provides behavioral support for children to schools and families. And she said she has heard from parents struggling to talk to their children about racism, hate, prejudice and white privilege that have a long history in this nation.

“They might see you in distress or uncomfortable with something, and they’re going to want to know what’s going on, so it’s important — depending on their age and development level — to have a conversation with them about what’s going on,” she said.


Athman has a master’s in applied behavior analysis from St. Cloud State University and with her husband, Dan, an Aitkin Public Schools employee, is the parent of two 2-year-old girls.

“For the last 10 years, I’ve worked in various districts across states … on reducing challenging behaviors and teaching appropriate social skills,” she said.

The online behavior consultant and board-certified behavior analyst works with Morrison County families to teach children appropriate behaviors while reducing unwanted ones.

“It has been important for me from the start to instill acceptance and empathy in my children, so when someone gets hurt in our house, my husband and I are both there modeling how to care for them and what to say and what to do,” she said of positive reinforcement and children.

But it is the behaviors that resulted in the death of 46-year-old Floyd — and 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police officers June 12 — that have some parents of young children trying to make sense of the killings.

“I think parents want to protect their kids, and they want to believe that if they don’t talk about it then things will go on hunky-dory, and, you know, just avoid bad things, avoid bad things, and let’s not bring it up, let’s focus on the positive,” Athman said. “They want to bury it.”

It may be easier to avoid talking about race relations in the Brainerd lakes area than in other parts of the country. Blacks comprise just 2.5% of the city of Brainerd’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while whites make up 92.5% of the population.

“These are heavy topics,” Athman said. “And I would think most of us do not know how to talk about it. … We don’t always know how to make sense of it.”


With especially young children, Athman recommends parents start with the basics by acknowledging ethnic diversity rather than adopting a “color-blind” outlook.

“You might just say, you know, some people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. … And just say some people treat people differently because of that, but it’s important that we accept everybody and then just talk about acceptance,” Athman said.

Athman recommends parents educate themselves about racism by reading about it, which many people seem to be doing, judging by the number of books about race relations topping the bestseller lists in recent weeks and the huge turnouts at demonstrations here and abroad.

“It’s OK to not have all the answers. Ask your child what they know: ‘What have you heard? Do you have any questions?’ And let them know that you’re wondering that, too ... and just learn together and let them know that it’s OK to be scared,” Athman said.

Athman said parents should do more than preach tolerance and acceptance but model behavior, too, for their children that reflects respect, celebrates diversity and calls out racism.

“If it’s important to you and your family to work on acceptance, start that young because if they don’t pick a positive association from you, they might pick up negative associations elsewhere,” Athman said.

How to talk to your children

  • Initiate the conversation. Help them navigate their feelings.

  • Ask them what they have heard and what questions they have.

  • Actively listen to them, empathize with their feelings and validate their concerns.

  • Answer their questions at a level they will understand.

  • Correct any misinformation they have.

  • Reassure their safety and tell them you love them.

Source: Sara Athman, .


FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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