This story is part of From The Start: A Parent’s Guide to Talking About Racial Bias, a series created in partnership with Johnson’s®, Aveeno® Baby, and Desitin®. We’re here to help parents tackle the difficult task of talking to their kids about race. With a topic this big, it can be hard to even know where to start — so we’ve teamed up with experts who have real answers to parents’ questions.
There’s no single recipe for raising inclusive, race-conscious, non-prejudiced kids, but there are certain ingredients to help in their development. In the 60 to 70 years since child psychologists have been studying the question, they have amassed a list of possible ingredients that are so varied as to be overwhelming. A far easier question to answer is what ingredients make up the mindset of a young kid’s brain. It is built over time, and starts before they’re even walking.
By 6 months into existence, babies are making rudimentary distinctions or preferences about colors and shapes. Shortly after that, by age 1 to 2, they are mixing in notions of fairness and compassion, AKA the “me first” phase. Sprinkle on a healthy amount of natural bias around ages 3 to 4. This will color their choices on everything from food to gender. Then by age 5, all of these ingredients come together in a blender with mastery of mobility, language, plus big improvements in comprehension skills, and voilà: A typical 5-year-old kid.
Based on this recipe parents can decide what kind of child they want to raise, and where and when to intercede, to make sure their child has the best chance of becoming a compassionate human with a sense of fairness and a kaleidoscopic worldview.
Here are just a few seemingly-simple games and activities that pack a tremendous punch in helping to shape such traits in our kids:
Ages 0-1: Open Their World
The first step toward an anti-bias journey is filling that child’s world with a vast array of sensory experiences. Choose books that include faces in all shades. Fill your speakers with music from around the world. When playdates are safe, ensure that your familiar group isn’t highly homogenous. And don’t forget to demonstrate compassion and openness in your own interactions with other parents. At this age your little one is observing your every move
The more you open children’s worlds, the more you expand their worldview. That could be as simple as going grocery shopping in a different neighborhood or as complex as taking them to cultural festivals or demonstrations. Ensure your child sees diversity as a part of everyday life: It will create a well-rounded status quo, and help them more clearly recognize and take action against injustice later in life.
Ages 1-2: Embrace Difference and Sameness
Around age 2, children begin to really take notice of different physical features — some studies have even pointed to this age as when subconscious racial discrimination is first detected. This means it’s time to instill in them the concept that things that look different can often be the same.
Sorting games involving multi-colored variations of things like beans, rice, or balls can teach kids that the same things can be different colors. Or you can hit them with the element of surprise: Take eggs of various colors and ask the child to tell you what’s different about them, then, have the child crack the egg to reveal it’s the same inside. A similar concept can take a more delicious turn with the addition of food coloring and treats.
Play dress-up: Ask a kid about their favorite things—books, foods, songs—then have them change clothes or dress up in a costume. Ask them the same questions again to show that they’re still the same person no matter what they look like, then find a way to relate that back to the differences and similarities they see in individuals.
Ages 3-4: Explore Difference in Art
Around this time, kids are more curious about ethnic and gender differences. Luckily, this is also the time when a child’s artistic impulses begin to emerge, allowing art to become part of anti-bias activities.
Supply a child with modeling clay in a vast array of colors and ask the child to make faces in every skin tone they can think of, then have them mix up the clay to make new colors. Similarly, ask them to paint themselves and their friends, paying attention to skin tone and challenging them to mix colors to get different shades — have them start with a light clay and add a brown/darker clay and vice versa.
Dolls and action figures also offer up opportunities to display a variety of physical features and clothing to help children develop a sense of equality and inclusivity. They also provide parents a window into how a child sees differences, especially with toddlers who like to group toys together. If you observe a child grouping and favoring white princesses and leaving out the princesses of color, for example, it’s a good time to ask the child why they’re treating one princess differently than others and how they’d feel if it happened to them.
Ages 5-6: Encourage Fairness, Equality, and Celebrations
With the sense of fairness now coming to the fore, kindergarten-aged kids begin to understand the impact of bias and prejudice more succinctly. They are quick to call out right and wrong, take stands, and push back.
This is a great time to implement role playing into activities. Follow up a book on diversity or civil rights by asking a child what they would do in a similar situation, and present alternative scenarios where they can put themselves in others’ shoes in a safe place. Have them confront stereotypes and guide their conversations, and ask them how they’d make things better.
It’s also a great time to introduce extrasensory learning, and holidays and celebrations are a great way to start. In the winter, particularly, a vast array of concurrent holidays from around the world offer up a chance for children to share their traditions and explore similarities and differences along with food and music. Meanwhile, sharing traditions from disparate cultures in a fun way can help kids get excited about learning customs they might not otherwise understand: For example, a talk about Juneteenth could start with introducing a taste of Red Velvet cake, with the treat offering an entry point to talk about the history of discrimination, slavery, and injustice.
Consider every conversation and experience as a way to shape a better tomorrow and raise a child eager to make the world a better place: Not a post-racial society, but one where the full human spectrum is cause for celebration.
For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, check out From the Start.