Talking to White Kids About What’s Happening at the Border


First let me say that I am far from a parenting expert. Most days I feel lucky to keep my kids alive. I won’t pretend to know it all – or even that much! – when it comes to parenting. But I do know that silence isn’t an option for me. I also know that my parents played a key role in how I have come to be the person that I am. My parents opened conversations about troubling, hard things that they saw in happening in the World. When I was 8 years old they talked to my sister and me openly about what was then called the “AIDS epidemic”, outlining what was true and falsities we would likely hear. They answered our questions, armed us with both the knowledge and language to disrupt lies, and were sure that we knew people living with AIDS. They wanted my sister and I to see the humanity and not just hear a narrative. This is just one example. And it shaped me profoundly. How many conversations with your parents can you remember that shaped your life?

I am a white mother to two white boys. This is not something that I take lightly. In fact I see it as a pivotal responsibility, and an opportunity – it’s my chance to be a part of the change that I wish to see. It requires commitment, damn near constant reflection, self-awareness, and adjustment, and a whole lot of hope. It requires my willingness to acknowledge and unlearn my own racist and sexist beliefs and practices, to fight the urge to compartmentalize and not actually feel the pain of the mothers, fathers, and children who are being separated and detained, and to get comfortable being really uncomfortable. The truth is that actually talking to my kids about this stuff is the easy part.

You see, kids know. They know what is right and wrong, what is just and kind and what isn’t. They know that other kids should have the same access to their mamas that my boys have to me. They know.

My family and me are all US citizens – white US citizens. I have the privilege to be able to tell my kids about the scary stuff and also assure them they don’t have to be scared because this won’t happen to them -- that is an extraordinary privilege! But simply telling them what is happening isn’t enough. The key is to tell them why this is happening, and to whom. I have no doubt that my kids would never be taken from me in this manner – never! Our country values people who are white, like we are, more than it values Brown, Black, and Native people. The families who are coming to our southern border are largely coming from Mexico and Latin America, they are Brown families – poor brown families – and that it why they are being treated with such distain. That is why they are not being treated with the same type of respect as we would be treated. Our country has a long history of marginalizing communities and separating families. We can’t ignore our history – we have to know the truth of the past in order to change the future!

After I outlined some of this for my kids, I asked them questions. My favorite questions to ask them are simple: what do you think about what I just said? And what questions do you have? I then ask them if they think Brown kids who are otherwise just like them deserve to be treated differently simply because their skin is different. Absolutely not. Your kids will know. From there they asked what they could do about it – proud mom moment! – so we brainstormed together, and they decided to host a bake sale to raise money for an organization that I trust. In two days my kiddos raised $729 for Together Rising. Now, full disclosure, about $500 of it was raised directly from the bake sale and the rest came from virtual donations from friends and colleagues of mine who saw what we were doing online – thanks friends! Regardless, this was a fun way for my kids to do something positive that will hopefully help the kids stuck in cages at the border and it was some fun bonding time for us – win win!

Now you may be wondering how to start if you haven’t talked to your kids about race before. Just start. You don’t have to know all of the answers, hell you don’t even have to know most of them! You just have to be willing to find the answers. Kids love to learn stuff with their parents. Be honest with your kids when you don’t know one of the answers – then go learn together. If you’re thinking that kids only get to be innocent for a short time and you don’t want to ruin it, recognize the privilege that comes with that belief. Kids of color don’t get to be protected from racism and discrimination. And while we may be bursting some bubble of innocence by telling them what’s happening in the world, my white kids still aren’t going to be in danger. They aren’t going to be oppressed or discriminated against, seen as less capable, or as threatening, or as anything other than (mostly) sweet, innocent little boys. Also, they can handle it.

Listen, I get that this stuff can be really hard, but news flash – parenting is really hard! So my theory is that if it’s going to be hard either way, we may as well try and do it well! Be the change, white mamas. Be the change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you talked to your kids about this? What hesitations do you have about talking to your kids about it? And most importantly, what am I missing?

PS – Here’s an article that gives an overview of the immigration policies that led to family separation