Teaching Kids to Value Diversity: Combating Racism and Discrimination, Part II

By: Gene Roehlkepartain, Guest Blogger

Editor's Note: In this blog—part two of a two-part series—we present action steps for adults to take against racism and discrimination. Click here to read part one in this series, which examines why and how families can prevent racism and discrimination, and offers some talking tips for parents to use with their children.

Families play a vital role in how children and teens navigate the challenges of racism and discrimination. For those in a majority group, families are key in developing acceptance, understanding, and respect for people from all backgrounds. For people who face racism and discrimination, mothers, fathers, and other parenting adults help buffer the negative effects of these experiences. For both groups, learning to honor and have pride in one’s own identity and culture while respecting and learning from other cultures is a vital skill in a diverse society.

Action Steps for Adults to Take Against Racism and Discrimination

  • Examine your own attitudes, values, and actions. Our children and teens see what we do and say, and how we react when we’re with people who are different from us. Even unintentional slights (such as treating people who are different from you with less respect) give a signal that some forms of prejudice are okay. By becoming more conscious of your attitudes and behaviors, you not only can address unconscious attitudes that you may have, but you also become a better role model for your children.

  • Encourage your child to develop friendships with people from many backgrounds. Young people who have friends across many different cultures and groups are much less likely to have biased attitudes or hold on to stereotypes (Edmonds & Killen, 2009). As our children introduce us to their friends, we may have to deal with unconscious biases we may hold. If we raise lots of questions about their friends from a different culture, tradition, or group (such as concerns about safety, which may reflect a stereotype we hold), our teens are likely to stop talking to us about their friendships.

    Researchers have found that parents’ unconscious biases often surface if teens start dating or forming intimate friendships across racial, cultural, or religious differences. When parents ask skeptical questions or raise concerns, teens may stop paying attention because their experiences contradict the stereotypes. As parents, we must use these instances as opportunities for self-reflection and growth. If there are genuine concerns for safety (not just biases), we must be able to articulate the specific behaviors or circumstances that are worrisome. In addition, we as parents may have opportunities to set aside our biases by getting to know our teens’ friends who are different from us.

  • Don't expect perfection from yourself or your teens. Some people are afraid to bring up the issues because they are afraid they do not know enough or will make mistakes. This fear can also limit them from building relationships across differences. Similarly, if we lash out at our teens if they say or do something we consider to be offensive, we lose the opportunity to talk about why it is offensive or inappropriate so that they can learn. If you are not sure how to approach a particular situation, use it as an opportunity to learn by doing some research or asking someone for guidance.

If your family or child faces racism, discrimination, or other biases

  • Build a support network for your family and child. Children, teens, and families that face prejudice or racism benefit from having people and places where they are safe, welcomed, and fully included. These may include cultural groups, faith communities, GLBT support groups, or other networks. These communities bolster teens’ identity, cultural pride, and self-confidence; help to cultivate important coping skills; and help to overcome the adversity teens and families face. In addition, individual role models and mentors can play a vital role in supporting and guiding your teen.
  • Advocate for your teen. If your teen faces discrimination, racism, bullying, or teasing because of her or his background, culture, or heritage, you may need to intervene. This may involve bringing up the issue to school or other authorities or addressing the issue with the perpetrators. In some instances, it can be invaluable to have trusted friends or allies who can help you address a potentially emotional and high-conflict situation.
  • Pay attention to signs that discrimination may be affecting both you and your teen. If your teen is subject to bias, teasing, or discrimination based on her or his identity, culture, religion, language, or background, it can create serious stress that leads to negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, anger, and delinquent behaviors (Pachter & Garcia Coll, 2009). If you have concerns about these issues, seek help from a professional who can examine the underlying causes and help your child address the problems and challenges. Similarly, if you are dealing with discrimination and bias in your own life, it can negatively affect your parenting, so it is important to take care of yourself and take steps to manage your negative experiences.
  • Provide extra supports. Children and teens who face discrimination or bias because of who they are face unique demands and challenges from being marginalized and devalued. Navigating a sometimes hostile environment requires skills, self-confidence, and resilience. Being intentional in providing extra supports, particularly during challenging times, can increase the chances that teens will be able to manage the challenges.

Dr. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain is Vice President of Research and Development at Search Institute. Roehlkepartain is widely recognized as an expert in child, youth, and family development in community contexts. Particular areas of interest include family strengths, community supports for families and youth, spiritual development, service-learning, youth philanthropy, and linking youth development with financial literacy.



Edmonds, C., & Killen, M. (2009). Do adolescents' perceptions of parental racial attitudes relate to their intergroup contact and cross-race relationships? Group Processes Intergroup Relations, 12(1), 5-21. DOI: 10.1177/1368430208098773

Pachter, L. M., & Garcia Coll, C. (2009). Racism and child health: a review of the literature and future directions. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 30(3), 255-263. DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3181a7ed5a.

Photo Credit: Juliaf on SXC.


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