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Talking With our Littlest Students About Race

January 18, 2022
By Angela Gladstone

Adapted from Acorn Hill Waldorf Kindergarten

Children are constantly picking up on what is OK to talk about, what is off limits, and how adults react to the topic. Here's how to begin or continue a discussion about race with your child. 

Like many other topics, race can be challenging for adults to discuss among themselves, let alone with their children. But while open dialogue about race is limited in our society, that doesn't mean you can't make decisions and set the tone for discussions about race in your home. Talking with young children about race is an opportunity - one you may or may not have experienced when you were growing up. 

Some well-meaning parents feel if they do not address the topic of race, their children will be "color-blind." But the reality is that race does have meaning in our society. Your conversations with your child will depend on your own racial identity, the racial make-up of your family (immediate and extended), and your values regarding race—both those you express and those you imply.

Like other crucial conversations you might be beginning to have with your child right now, race discussions should start early and evolve as your child grows. 

What They Understand 

Two Dolls in CradleKids under 24 months do not understand the adult meaning of race: the historical implications of it or how the history and current meaning of race affects our society, but babies and toddlers are beginning to notice differences in appearance. It might be that the child simply looks longer at or perhaps points to a person who looks different from the people she's most used to seeing in her everyday routines. During these moments, the child looks primarily to the adult to gauge their own interest and reaction—toddlers this young are still reliant on their parents' opinions and actions to shape their own.  This goes without saying, but how you act around and discuss people from your own culture and other cultures is what your child will first consider appropriate. Toddlers internalize the beliefs of their family and immediate society, a process that will continue throughout their development.

As the children grow, so does their awareness and their misconceptions about race. Studies have shown that by three years old, children are choosing playmates by race and by ages 4-6 their racial prejudices peak. By ages 5 and 6, children are already holding many of the viewpoints that the adults around them have on race. Not speaking to them about the topic means that they are making their own assumptions, and forming their own biases

What to Say 

Say something! Your child's understanding of race begins both with what you will talk about and what you do not discuss. Children learn that when they ask a question about someone's race and they are shushed, it's not something they can discuss and is therefore taboo. Talking about race normalizes the topic and makes it less scary for kids. 

As any parent who's caught their toddler staring at someone in the checkout aisle or pointing to a passerby in the mall will tell you, racial observations may be embarrassing. It really is important, though, for you to address your child's observations and take that moment to acknowledge the differences they are taking note of. 

Children playing with blocksWhen your child points out (or later asks questions about) people with different skin color than his, address it. For example, if your child is white and asks why an African-American child's skin is brown, explain, "Grownups and kids have all different skin colors. Some have tan and some have brown."  When possible, use accurate ethnicity language with your child: "She is white (or Caucasian)/African American (or black)/Latinx (or Hispanic)/Asian-American," etc. 

Though toddlers likely won't ask questions about race, children in preschool or grade school will have the vocabulary to articulate observations. Your child might ask why a person has skin a different color or hair a different texture than his. When he does make an observation or inquire about a race, answer the question and give correct information, which may mean doing some homework yourself.  Think about and take responsibility for the stereotypes and assumptions we all have about race. 

These are some basic ways you can prepare for a lifetime of conversations with your child about ethnicity and diversity

Self-reflect. Take some time and think about your own racial identity, the assumptions you hold, and what lessons you would like to teach your children about race. Talking with friends, family, and other parents can be really helpful. Look for other parents who are interested in open dialogue about race in their families. Talking with other adults will also give you clarity and increase your comfort level when answering questions if this is a challenge for you. Remember, this is often a scary process for adults.  Understanding and challenging that fear will be helpful in conversations in your family.

Young children holding handsDon't avoid the topic. Particularly in white families, some parents decide to not discuss racial differences. This reinforces that it is a taboo subject for your children. When you have had early conversations about appearances, for example, as your child gets older, you can also begin discussions about racism. 

Work on Empathy. Developing empathy comes from knowing your own feelings and beginning to understand feelings in others. How you interact with other people and respond to situations works on shaping that within your child. It may seem small and simple, but it is laying the foundation for how they treat, advocate for and think of others.  Here are some Teaching Empathy Tips.

Look at your environment. Self-reflecting also means taking inventory of the images, stories and people that your child sees on a daily basis. Looking at your child’s toys, books, media influences, family, friends and neighborhood/community allows you to see areas for growth or conversation.

Read Books. Books are wonderful because they serve as windows into another’s world, reflections into your own, and give children the ability to connect with others. They also serve as good talking points for bringing up discussions about differences, injustice, and provide ways to celebrate and normalize diversity. Our Early Childhood Library offers a great selection of titles.

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