How to Speak to Young Children About Race

MultiRacial peg dolls

For some families, talking about race is a regular part of life. For others, it is a subject that can be difficult to discuss. For everyone, it’s an incredibly important conversation and should not be avoided. Children are learning and hearing about race, regardless of whether parents are talking to them about it. Children notice skin color and other physical differences.

Like anything else, children begin filling in the information gaps themselves, and their data points may not always be coming from the most reliable sources. They absorb what is said, how it’s said, and the behaviors exhibited even when we may not be aware they are paying attention. So where should parents begin?

At an early age we can begin by providing the children with dolls that have different skin color, reading stories from different cultures, exposing them to museums, international foods, music, celebrations. In short, it is important to normalize diversity through exposure, and be prepared to answer questions that arise from natural curiosity when children are exposed to something new or different. The more action one takes, the fewer questions children will have because ‘different’ will simply become commonplace. It’s important for us to be informed when questions do inevitably arise, and almost more important to know which resources are available to us when we ourselves need to be educated.

While it is important to be informed and know your available resources, the best way to overcome stereotypes is by making sincere connections with a variety of individuals and regularly demonstrate this in front of your children. For example, if you are encouraging your children to have a diverse network of friends but everyone who enters your home looks the same, that will leave an impression on them; they will definitely notice and begin to more readily categorize “differences” instead of commonalities.

I can vouch for this method from my own experiences – what we say is only one piece of it. Think about how many times your children obeyed when you told them “Children, do as I say, not as I do.” They almost never pay attention to this advice. Now think about how they learn swear words, for example, when we ourselves slip up and curse in front of them. They notice our actions and our patterns. Keep the phrase “Actions speak louder than words” in mind when raising socially aware children. After all, while conversations are crucial, our children will inevitably learn most from the examples we set for them.

Race used to be a taboo topic for conversation. It was impolite to talk about. So how does this affect children? Young kids have a natural curiosity about differences, but they don’t put any value on what it means, until they pick it up from what their parents say/do or what “media” tells them. When a child asks their parent, “Why does that person look like that?” and their parent shushes them, it shuts down the conversation and signals to the child there is something wrong. It encourages ignorance instead of open dialogue.

Radiant Child, the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Parents also need to be aware of what the child is actually asking. For example–and this is a real example–a child once saw a person of dark skin and remarked, “That person is the color of poop!” Instead of reacting with shock and anger, I instead responded, “Hmmm…Don’t you think the color is more like that of chocolate?” By responding without ‘reacting’, and creating an association with positive connotations, I was able to have a dialogue, encourage exploration of differences, and make
sure that I controlled the conversation toward a more positive outcome. The best thing to do is ask questions and guide your child to a more respectful answer without judgment. Intention, interpretation, and impact are all worth addressing when a child asks questions. So, understand why the question is being asked, whether it is coming from a place of judgment or a sincere effort to know more.

Remember, children are innocently curious about the world, until we adults begin to change that with our example, our own approaches to life and how we encourage learning, dialogue, and acceptance of our differences in a positive environment.

In the kindergarten, we tell stories that demonstrate examples of open, honest communication, kindness and respect. By consistently exposing the children to examples of these virtues, we instill these same virtues in them at school. You can do this at home as well by studying the past so that your family can better understand the present and by reading historical books to your children – keeping in mind that age appropriateness should be considered (but feel free to push these boundaries in the name of the Truth). Also, fictional stories can provide just as good of examples as non-fiction. The more you learn and teach, the more you open a door to healthy conversations and teaching good core values.

Become an advocate, no matter who you are or where you come from. It is important to be an example of goodness. Talking honestly about race and reckoning with our past in the hope that one day we can overcome racism in the future will never be a bad thing if you yourself are willing to learn and teach by example.

It is important to acknowledge our differences and to teach our children to celebrate them. Differences should be what brings us closer, not what drives us apart.

Margarita Hawk
Red Rose Kindergarten Teacher


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