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Talking About Race with Children of All Ages

By: Ben Simonds

For all parents, but especially white parents who are not affected by racial prejudice, biases, and discrimination like parents of color are, it is important to be an active anti-racist. A great way to do this as a parent is to raise children to be aware of race and discrimination - but when and how do parents begin to talk about race with their children?

6 months - 2 years

Children begin to notice physical racial differences at an early age. Babies as young as 6 months of age can begin to recognize differences in skin color and hair texture (Anzures et al., 2011). Parents with infants should work to socialize their children to diverse peoples and communities, as allowing them to interact with people of different races themselves and to see their parents interact with other racial and ethinic groups will help them be more comfortable in ethnically-diverse spaces and more able to socialize with children of other races in the future (Gaias et al., 2019).

An effective strategy to use as children begin to point out physical differences in race is to acknowledge the inherent, positive differences to come with ethnic diversity (Howes et al., 2011). For example, if a white child is to point out the differences in skin color between their own family and a Latinx family, the parent can acknowledge that difference in skin color and follow up with telling the child that they are special because they can speak another language. Associating racial differences and ethnic diversity with special talents begins to enforce the idea that people of all races are special and worth befriending.

2 - 3 years

As children begin to speak more and pick up more vocabulary, they will begin to point out differences in race more often and outwardly. It’s important to remember that they are simply curious about some people having different skin colors than their own, and it is not wrong for them to point it out. Rather than to act embarrassed or angry at them if this is done in public, it is best to calmly acknowledge the difference in skin color and then put the difference in a positive light - say something such as, “yes, their skin color is different. Isn’t it a nice color?” (Pahlke et al., 2012).

Parents can also be proactive in pointing out differences in race, although this is likely better done through pictures, toys, or media. These resources can be really useful in introducing racial differences in a truly positive light. Provide children with books featuring children of different races, dolls with different skin tones, and media that features children and parents of different ethnic groups, and point out the differences in race in these resources. Point out differences in race the same way you would point out differences in other physical attributes. Saying things like, “this boy has a hat, and this one does not,” followed by, “this boy has light skin, and this boy has dark skin,” introduces differences in race as one that does not make the child think they are inherently different than children of other races (Corridan & Medina, 2020).

4 - 6 years

Racial biases can begin to develop as early as 4-years-old. They may begin to actively point out differences in race in a way that shows preference towards their own features over those of other races (Bigler & Wright, 2014). The best way to address these instances is to directly correct the negativity and state that the difference is not bad. Reinforce that differences in race are merely physical differences, and emphasize that the physical characteristics of people of a different race from the child are not inferior or worse at all, but just different.

An excellent way for parents to combat racial biases is to tell stories of accomplishments and societal contributions by people of other races, particularly if their child is white (if their child is not white, it will be important to uplift the accomplishments of their own race as well as other minority races) [Kennedy & Romo, 2013]. Parents should tell/show their children about figures like Jackie Robinson, the first African-American professional baseball player, and Frida Kahlo, the famous female Mexican artist. Painting people of all races in a positive light and setting them up to be role models will help children with their implicit racial biases.

If parents and their children are ethnic minorities it is important to continue to highlight the positives and contributions of their ethnicity and cultural group. For example, if a parent and their children are Chinese-American and speak both english and mandarin, parents can highlight examples of helping out others with translation as a positive contribution from their multilingual, ethnically-diverse family and community. Parents should enable children to believe that members of their race, people like themselves, can help others and contribute to society in a positive way.

6 - 10 years and beyond

By this age, children are likely recognizing racial discrimination through media, education, and first-hand experience. Children are aware that some jobs and positions are most likely to be filled by people of certain races, and that people of color are not treated as well in society as white people are (Patterson et al., 2013). At this age it is important to dispel any racial ste