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.
When it comes to discussing issues of race and identity with young children, it’s easy for some parents to avoid the conversation altogether. Sure, you may read books about diversity and try to ensure that your children play with friends from different races and backgrounds. But it’s rarely top-of-mind to bring up issues like racism because it’s easy to assume that children are free of prejudice unless they pick it up from, say, an overtly racist relative, or that they only notice race if it is pointed out to them.
The truth, however, is more complicated. Starting in infancy, babies can differentiate facial features, skin color, and hair color and even display preference for one person over another due to their appearance. By 2 or 3 years old, children can absorb some of the overarching stereotypes that exist in society and show discomfort or even fear toward those with different skin color, language, or physical ability. They also begin to pick up tendencies based on a parent’s implicit or explicit biases. At roughly age 4 or 5, kids begin to apply labels to other people.
The science is unequivocal. Kids under the age of 5 are aware of race and identity. That means parents can — and should — have conversations about racism, and bias with their young children. What are some assumptions that might be preventing parents from having much-needed conversations about race with their children? Here are six myths about race and children that parents should remember:
Myth #1: Kids Don’t See Race
As much as adults may like them to be, kids aren’t colorblind. As children develop, they learn to distinguish and describe different things. As they process information about the world around them, they are discerning differences.
University of Toledo Sociology Professor Monita Mungo’s research focuses on racial inequality and social conflict. She notes that very young children process racial differences through observations of different physical traits such as eye color or hair texture. They also do so by witnessing differential treatment and using those perceived differences to make sense of the world.
“For example, my toddler daughter described her African-American father as being white,” Mungo says. “When questioned about it, she described that his eyes were green and only white people have green eyes. Therefore, ‘Daddy is white.’”
Research also suggests that children begin observing racial differences as early as 6 months and that they begin to hold biases by preschool age. If parents do not encourage open discussion or bring up issues of race and identity, kids will form their own opinions. They’re doing so regardless and also picking up on the implicit actions of those around them.
“By the time they reach kindergarten at 5 years of age, many kids will choose friends and playmates based on skin color and race,” San Antonio clinical psychologist and parenting coach Ann-Louise Lockhart says. “However, if they have good models in their home and in their community, kids will notice skin color and racial differences, but not treat others poorly because of it.”
Myth #2: By Addressing Race, Parents Risk Instilling Racist Attitudes
A common belief held by many parents is that their children would never have racial attitudes and biases. As a result, they avoid talking to their kids about race for fear the discussion would introduce their children to the concept of racial differences. The truth, however, is that avoiding the conversation is more likely to foster mistaken attitudes about race.
“Avoiding discussions about race actually creates a breeding ground for racist attitudes and behaviors,” says Kelli Mason, founder of Ripple Reads, a monthly book club aiming to help families talk about justice and race.
Moreover, it’s important to note that not all families have the luxury of avoiding conversations about race. People of color, for instance, don’t get to choose to avoid these discussions.
“It is truly a privilege to choose to not speak to your child about race,” says Lockhart. “Many families of color do not have that choice. When black and brown families have ‘the talk,’ many times it involves how to stay safe due to the color of our skin. This safety is not just about physical safety, but emotional and mental safety, too. We are bombarded by messages and images everywhere that devalue our worth. We have to build up our children so they don’t internalize these negative messages about their worth.”
Myth #3: If Kids See Race, They Only See It as Skin Deep
Research shows that children don’t just see surface differences among people of different races. A 2017 study of 350 white children, aged 5 to 12-years-old, found that children associated images of white children with positive emotions and images of black kids with negative feelings. Such biases, Mason says, manifest when conversations about race don’t happen early and often in the home from a very young age.
“Children are always trying to make sense of the world around them,” Mason says. “When we don’t educate our children on concepts like systemic racism and identity privilege, we leave it to them to come up with their own conclusions.”
Myth #4: Parents Should Wait Until Kids Are Old Enough to Talk About Race
It’s easy to think: Why should I start having conversations about racism with my kid when they’re too young to understand the concept? They can’t handle it, right? But, since young children are already thinking a lot more about race than parents suspect, children are often ready to handle a conversation about race before their parents are comfortable starting one.
“The vast majority of parents, regardless of their race, put off these conversations. Not because they don’t think their kid is ready, but because they don’t think they’re ready, as adults, to answer all of the questions that might come up,” says Mason.
Jelani Memory, the author of A Kids Book About Racism notes that regardless of a parent’s opinion kids are aware of race. “Does this mean that parents have to have big conversations with their kids about all the topics? No. But it means that it shouldn’t be ignored. There’s no too early.”
Memory notes that having conversations about being able to notice differences, talking about differences, qualifying differences, and not attaching judgment to differences are crucial at the earliest age. He adds that it’s also important to note that, “When parents don’t talk about racism, kids are still learning about it implicitly from them, their friends, their books, and the world around them.”
If parents do find themselves uncomfortable having conversations, Dr. Y. Joy Harris-Smith, a New York Special Education Teacher, lecturer, and co-author of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (And Ourselves!) Embrace Differences, suggests identifying that feeling and embracing it.
“Parents who find themselves in that kind of situation really need to stop for a moment and say, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay if I don’t know. It’s okay if I’m uncomfortable. I need to sit in this discomfort.’”
Often, discomfort comes from when we feel inconvenienced, notes Dr. Harris. And that, she says, speaks to our larger issues. In such situations, you need to ask yourself: How do I deal with this in a healthy manner? So take a deep breath and do your best not to avoid the interaction.
Myth #5: Exposure to Diversity Is Enough to Stop Racism
Teaching kids about diversity is a very good first step but it can’t be the only step adults take.
As Lockhart notes, exposure is passive. Reducing bias in adults and children requires more active behaviors, such as learning and imparting the real history of the cultures your child might encounter, and actively educating yourself in areas where you find that more knowledge is needed.
“We have to go beyond exposure to education about the real history of all people, especially those within our country and not just the history that makes us feel comfortable,” she says. “The U.S. has a diverse history, some of it is unpleasant, but it is still part of our history. We need to take active measures to educate our children about the real history in order to work toward reducing systemic and institutional bias.”
Dr. Harris notes that parents would benefit greatly from doing some self-interrogation. “One of the things that parents have to do is recognize their own current narrative or their own history, and say Where am I lacking on this? Because a lot of time as parents, we’re in a society that has put us in a position of teaching our children all things. But as human beings, we can’t possibly know everything.”
Recognizing where we might fall short, and that it’s okay to fall short, is crucial. “That’s not a bad thing,” she adds. “It’s saying, Well gee, if I have to talk to my kids about an issue of diversity, how well am I positioned to talk to them about that? It doesn’t mean you have to talk to them about everything. But it means asking yourself: Do I have enough information? Am I still informed enough to talk about it? Or do I feel informed enough to be able to explain it so that my child understands it?“
Myth #6: We Should Teach Children That People Are All the Same
For some of us, it’s easy to opt-out of conversations about race by saying, “We’re all equal,” instead of diving further into a discussion. That’s because the realities of racial tension are difficult and complex. Work — and a constant, evolving dialogue — is required from parents.
“[Kids] have a topic, you don’t talk about it, and, eventually, they may start to believe that it’s not a real thing or a real topic,” says Memory. “Then, when people of color start to talk about issues, they think, Oh, that’s not real, which not only minimizes what the other person is saying but also makes them unable to validate any racial obstacles for anyone else because, for them, it was such an unaddressed topic that it doesn’t exist.”
Lockhart points out a simple, beautiful truth: People aren’t all the same. This is a very good thing.
“We look, dress, act, speak, and do things differently,” she says. “That’s what makes our world and our country so amazing. The problem is when we treat people negatively and poorly due to these differences. We can accept that we are all part of the human race while acknowledging that people also have different cultural, ethnic, and geographic influences and backgrounds.”
Ignoring our differences and pretending they don’t exist helps no one. The sooner that parents — and children — understand this, the better off they’ll be.
For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, click here.