As parents, part of our role is to teach children about the world. One of the things that we can do to support our child’s learning is to play sorting games with our kids: the ability to sort things is essential to lots of future learning, so we are justifiably proud when our young child can sort all the red toys into one pile and all the blues into another pile, or when they can find all the cows in a group of barn toys, or put a group of objects in order from largest to smallest. We are excited that they have learned to distinguish similarities and differences between things.
And yet, there’s a whole category of similarities and differences we’re kind of hoping they won’t notice. Most of us have a story of walking through the mall and hearing a child loudly blurt out “that man is really fat” or “hey, that lady only has one leg” or “look how dark that guy’s skin is.” And then the parent desperately shushes the child, hoping that no one has heard. They just drag them quickly down the hallway and into a store to distract them from the subject… and never come back to it.
Or, the more enlightened parents may try to speak to the child about it, but do it in an odd “code” which tries to validate the personhood of the person they’re talking about (which is good) but without really acknowledging the difference that the child noticed (which is confusing for the child). As Bronson and Merryman say in Nurture Shock, “every parent [in a study] was a welcoming multi-culturalist, embracing diversity. But… hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles in the home – like “everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us”… but they had almost never called attention to racial differences. They wanted their children to grow up color-blind.”
But our children are not color blind! Research tells us that, and so does our experience. I clearly remember a moment with my oldest when she was less than six months old… maybe even as young as 3 months. She was fussing in an Indian restaurant, and the owner picked her up to dance her around the room a little and show her the artworks on the wall. She never looked at the artwork. She gazed at his face. We are a very pale skinned family. He was very dark-skinned and the contrast between his skin and his white teeth and eyes fascinated her and all she did was stare at her face, obviously creating in her brain a whole new category of what people can look like.
Our kids notice differences. They ask ’embarrassing’ questions. They point to people on the bus. They blurt out their observations in malls. (They learn to stop doing that by age 5 or so.) And the parents shush them. The parents’ shushing sends the message of “Don’t talk about that! That’s a bad thing!” A young child is not sophisticated enough to get the message that the parents intend – something about not hurting the feelings of the person called out. When they do this, the message the child gets is that the difference they noticed (whether obesity, handicap, race, or whatever) is bad and shameful and not to be mentioned in polite company.
When parents don’t talk about race and other differences openly, our children are left to draw their own conclusions. So, amongst the parents who never talked about race, what impressions were their kids left with? “14% said outright, ‘no, my parents don’t like black people’ and 38% … answered ‘I don’t know [how my parents feel about black people.]'”
Bronson and Merryman tell the story of one of their own children. He was raised in a diverse neighborhood and school with parents who tried hard never to highlight the differences between people because they wanted a non-racist “color-blind” child. At almost five years old, he never mentioned skin color. They thought things were going perfectly.
“Then came Martin Luther King Jr. day at school… that weekend, [the son] started pointing at everyone, proudly announcing ‘That guy comes from Africa. And she comes from Africa too!’ Clearly he’d been taught to categorize skin color and he was enchanted with his skill at doing so. ‘People with brown skin are from Africa’, he’d repeat. He had not been taught the names for races – he had not heard the term ‘black’ and he called us ‘people with pinkish-whitish skin.’ … we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase ‘skin like ours.’ And this notion of ours versus theirs started to take on a meaning of its own.” Soon, children make broad sweeping generalizations about what ‘people like me’ do, and about what ‘people like them’ do.
This view of “us” vs. “them” increases. Amongst teenagers, the more diverse the school, the more likely that all their friends are the same race as they are. “The odds of a white high-schooler in America having a best friend of another race is only 8%…. 85% of black kids’ best friends are also black.” (Bronson and Merryman)
Families of color are more likely to talk to their kids about race than white parents. They tend to do it in two very different contexts: one is ethnic pride, the other is preparing the child for future discrimination. In the case of preparation-for-bias, it appears that a little education helps the kids be resilient when they are faced with discrimination. However if the parents over-focused on discrimination, then the child was likely to blame his/her failures on other people – who they saw as biased against them. Ethnic pride coaching helps the child’s self-confidence and helps them be more engaged in school.
Although white kids are not usually coached in ethnic pride, Bronson and Merryman say “white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth and control in society.”
So, how do we talk with young children about race?
Think about the way we talk about gender as a model. We have no concerns at all with calling some kids boys and some girls, or asking how many girls were in their class, or telling them to hand something to ‘that man.’ It’s OK to also use language to label the racial differences that children notice and give them the vocabulary to talk about that. We tell kids ‘women can be doctors and men can be doctors.’ We can say just as nonchalantly ‘your doctor is Asian-American and your dentist is Black.’
We can choose to live in places or go to school in places with ethnically diverse populations, and encourage our children to make a variety of friends. We want to help our children see all that they have in common with diverse friends: “all three of you love dinosaurs” or “you both really like to play in the playground.” But we can also acknowledge and talk about the differences: “you live just with me, your friend lives with her parents and her grandparents from India” or “you have dark curly hair and you’ve noticed your friend’s hair is blond and soft” or “that woman wears a head scarf because that is what women of her religion wear.” We don’t want to say “all people are the same under the skin”, because that misses the beauty of our society’s diversity and also does not help your child understand their world.
We can read books, and watch movies, and look at artwork that represent a global array of people. When reading, watching movies, or people watching, talk about differences easily and openly. Note different skin colors, ages, gender expressions, weight, ability, clothing / hairstyles, and family compositions. Use descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, deaf. We will, of course, help them understand as they grow older that no one can be defined by any one label. But, as they start to sort things out, talking about differences builds vocabulary and context for understanding the broader world.
As children get older, our discussions get more nuanced. With a toddler, we just teach vocabulary and we celebrate that everyone is different and we all have things in common too.
With our preschoolers: It’s not ideal to say “we’re all equal”, because sadly that’s not true in our society. We can say “we all have equal rights” and “we all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our race and religion.” We can teach our young children about respect for others and about justice and equality.
When these children reach elementary school, they will begin to notice inequities. They may talk about how someone has a bigger house with more toys, or they may notice that children eat subsidized breakfast at school, or they may notice that children get picked on for the color of their skin. Then we can begin discussions about racism and inequality. We’ve already given them the vocabulary to describe difference. We’ve given them the value of equal rights. Now, and as they get older, we can talk about our roles in moving our society toward that ideal of equal rights for all.
Resources to Learn More
- Read Bronson and Merryman’s chapter on race here:
- Children are Not Color Blind: How Young Children Learn about Race (and more from the National African American Museum of History and Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/being-antiracist
- Webinar – How Children Learn About Race: www.embracerace.org
- Children’s Book List: Anti-defamation league.org
- Podcast from NPR and Sesame Street: Why All Parents Should Talk With Their Kids About Social Identity
- Terms: https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/glossary-of-education-terms.pdf
- Webinar – Things Parents Don’t Talk About: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/08/767205198/the-things-parents-dont-talk-about-with-their-kids-but-should
You might also like my post on Children’s Books as Mirrors and Windows, which includes links to LOTS of great children’s books you can use to lead into conversations about diversity, race, culture, gender, family compositions, disability, and more.