06/23/2015 11:10 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

What I Told My Children About Charleston

Today I sat down with my two daughters, ages 1 and 5, in our kitchen. Sun streamed in the picture window above the counter and warmed our tawny cork floor. I held each daughter on a knee and wrapped a scrawny little body in each of my arms.

Taking a deep breath I said, "Something horrible happened a few days ago, and we have to talk about it."

Tears began to stream down my face. I couldn't numb the pain of the Charleston tragedy with euphemisms. I had to use terms my young daughters would understand.

"A white man walked into a church full of black people who were praying to God, and the white man killed them. The only reason he killed them was because they were black. This was a horrible and wrong thing to do, and I want you to know that," I said to my daughters.

"I know that mama," said my 5-year-old, uncharacteristically somber.

Until Charleston, like most white people, I only discussed race with my children if they brought it up. My responses were usually something like "everybody's equal" or "God made all of us" or "Under our skin, we're all the same."

But after Charleston, I began doing research. What I found was that my pat answers about race are not enough. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of NurtureShock, kids who are told such things will still develop racist attitudes, because "everybody is equal" is too vague. From as young as 6-months-old, children make assumptions and categorize people. The conclusions they make without guidance almost always give preference to whiteness. My not talking about the specifics of race sent the message that race is not ok to talk about.

To quote Bronson and Merryman,

To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand... White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes towards blacks than those who got the neutered versions.

So today I gave my children the un-neutered version of racial relations in America.

"Black people have been hated in our country for a long, long time. White people have been really, really mean to them. And it's not okay. It's horrifying," I repeated.

"I know that mama," my daughter repeated.

I told my girls about slavery and about civil rights, but I didn't use those words because "slavery" and "civil rights" mean nothing to children. These are social constructs they won't understand for many years to come. Instead, I said that our ancestors brought black people from Africa to work on our farms, and treated them like animals. I told them how when their grandfather was a boy, black people couldn't vote or go to good schools. And how when black people asked to do these things, the white police officers sprayed them with powerful fire hoses, made dogs attack them and put them in jail. I told them about the word "nigger" and how this is the ugliest word in the English language, and they are never to use it.

"I know that mama," my daughter said again.

But I wanted to make sure she knew it. That she knew the gritty details, because not only do I not want to raise a racist, but because I want racism to end. If I can't live in post-racial America, I want my children to. The only way this will happen is if parents like me teach their kids about the history of race in our nation, and make it clear that it should not be repeated. So I will keep telling my girls.

Black parents across the nation have conversations about race and cruelty every day with their kids. It's time I joined them.