How parents talked with kids about Black Lives Matter differed by race

"While it is notable that many parents, including white parents, were talking with their children about Black Lives Matter, it is more important to consider what parents said," says Leoandra Onnie Rogers. (Credit: Getty Images)

While many Black and white parents spoke to their children about the Black Lives Matter movement within a year of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, they used different language to explain it, according to new research.

As reported in Developmental Psychology, 84% of Black parents and 76% of white parents talked about Black Lives Matter (BLM) to their 8- to 11-year-old children. While 78% of Black parents affirmed Black lives and acknowledged systemic racism, only 35% of white parents reported similar messaging.

The study was prompted by the widespread calls in 2020 for national conversations on race that included children, as highlighted in a Sesame Street Town Hall. The researchers wanted to learn what parents were saying to their children during this sociopolitical moment of upheaval.

“Parents are experiencing the stresses and ‘us versus them’ divisions in society, but what are they telling their kids about this?” says coauthor Andrew Meltzoff, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

The researchers collected data for the study via online surveys between November 2020 and January 2021 from more than 700 socio-economically diverse parents of children aged 8-11. Study participants were evenly divided between Black and white parents. Respondents were asked whether they had spoken to their children about BLM, and, if so, were then asked what they had told their child. Open-ended question responses were then coded and categorized by the research team.

“While it is notable that many parents, including white parents, were talking with their children about Black Lives Matter, it is more important to consider what parents said,” says lead author Leoandra Onnie Rogers, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and principal director of the DICE lab.

Rogers, who did her postdoctoral fellowship with Meltzoff at the University of Washington and later became a research assistant professor before being hired at Northwestern, says the responses showed not all “yes” responses were substantive, and importantly, the conversational approaches varied by race.

Black parents were more likely to acknowledge inequality—shown through responses like: “I talk with my son about the wrongful deaths of men and women of color at the hands of police”—and affirm Black lives with messages such as: “I try to remind him that he is important and worthy despite what the media tells us.”

White parents who gave substantive responses were more likely to communicate very general messages about equality without pointing to existing injustices, such as: “All lives matter no matter your skin color.”

The research team also noted a pattern of verbatim responses copied from the internet. This type of response was mostly used by white parents—14% vs. 1% of Black parents—who had answered the survey with apparent credibility but could not or did not actually report their own thoughts when talking about BLM. In fact, 27% of white parents provided uncodeable responses, which included nonsensical comments or content copied and pasted word-for-word from internet sources.

“Encouraging parents to talk about race, to break the silence, is necessary but insufficient,” Rogers says. “The upside is these data suggest that parents are listening to the societal conversation, and the concerted effort to engage parents and families in race talk did seem to influence the overall frequency of the reported conversations. However, the depth and substance of these conversations warrants further attention.”

“Parents wonder when it’s appropriate to talk with their children about race and what’s the most helpful thing to say,” says Meltzoff. “We looked at the strategies taken by hundreds of parents across the country. Parents can teach us a lot about how to have conversations about race—not only with children but among ourselves.”

Additional coauthors are from Tulane University, Wake Forest University, and Northwestern University.

Source: Lauren Kirschman for University of Washington