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.
No matter how old your kid is, there’s a good change that your little one understands more than you think. Your little Einstein can, like the great genius himself, be simultaneously brilliant, needy, and aloof. This is especially true when it comes to their connection to people. In five years, kids can figure out how to walk, talk, and do somersaults, but how they treat and understand other kids and adults doesn’t just come to them. Sure, they can build a masterful skyscraper out of blocks and have memorized the lyrics to a million nursery rhymes, but they can just as easily learn to how not to treat others around there.
Keep reading for Fatherly’s guide to using communication skills to teach love in those early years.
Ages 0-1: Connect And Show
By age 1, kids generally know about 50 words. These words are mostly nouns. So in this case verbal communication would not be the best way to pass on complicated notions like race. The best approach is to communicate with the goal of helping kids to build their vocabulary, so that later dialogue about concepts will be easier to understand.
Infants are brilliant readers of emotion. They can both see and convey desires, opinions, and preferences via body language, tone, and facial expressions. Before they’re even 1, you are already being watched — and thus leading by example. Be aware of what behaviors you may be inadvertently modeling. Mimicry is everything to an infant. Movements, expressions, even tone are all in play at this time. Watch what you do and how you act — there’s a good chance they will be too! Your kids are probably more observant of other people than you think. Studies show that children begin observing racial differences as early as 6 months. So what they observe in the way you treat others — especially along race or gender lines — can serve as the foundation for biases that studies show can be held by preschool age.
Ages 1-2: Perform And Mirror
Two-word sentences are the most common form of communication at this age, as verbs enter the fray. Kids can follow directions, point to familiar objects when named, and mimic words, but language is still mostly a game for them and its meaning is limited to simple, timely need
Ages 2-3: Talk And Cuddle
By age 3, kids know roughly 1,000 words and are fast becoming wordsmiths. They are starting to understand meaning and, with the aid of pictures and storybooks, they can understand basic concepts of morality, albeit simplified notions of “good” and “bad.” This is a time to test their verbal limits. They may be less limited than you think.
At this age, kids can show affection and concern for friends without prompting. Empathy is developing now, as is fear and concern for themselves and others, especially family. Show them what true affection is by modeling physical signs of affection to people in your inner circle. Couple that with showing physical signs of respect and kindness for those outside of your circle. Their growing vocabulary and developing sense of empathy is your cue to begin to have more expansive conversations even if they don’t seem quite ready. Don’t worry — if they don’t follow, they’ll still pick up bits and pieces and curiosity will help their understanding to grow. Avoiding discussions about race can create a breeding ground for prejudice, bad behavior, and racist attitudes.
Ages 3-4: Emote And Empathize
From 3 to 4, toddlers are able to express themselves emotionally and read others’ emotions. While they may have fast-growing vocabularies, speech mixed with emotions is most readily understood. Experts recommend adding simple emotional words like “sad,” “happy,” “excited,” and “scared” into your conversations. Playtime for your kid suddenly becomes a bit more imaginative at this stage, making it an excellent conduit for introducing more sophisticated concepts around life lessons. Doll play is one of the most effective ways to talk to kids about difficult, complex subjects like discrimination and unfairness. This is one of the reasons play therapy is so effective for young children — it’s truly speaking their language.
For kids this age, empathy begins to take on a more cooperative edge. They can understand what others are feeling and thinking, and can also help them to shift their mood. This is a useful way to communicate how one can help and to socialize. Toddlers aren’t just looking to parents for signals to understand the world — they’re also taking lessons from anywhere they can get them. Positive or negative associations with kids who look different than them come from what they observe — and if parents aren’t there to clarify or lead the way, biases that don’t belong to the parent, but are pervasive to society, may start to creep in.
Ages 4-5: Talk And Let Them Learn
By age 5, kids have a whopping 10,000 words or so at their disposal. They are fluent communicators, and with repetition and careful delivery, they can understand big life lessons. So talk to them frankly and without oversimplifying too much. Kids are growing fast at this age, and developing a sense of independence. You still need to lead by example, but giving them thematic projects and activities to do on their own is a great way for them to figure some things out for themselves. Seize this opportunity to point out diversity with your kids. We all look, dress, act, speak, and do things differently. Parents should celebrate and explore the differences with their kids, making sure to avoid qualitative language. Differences are neither good or bad — they just are. But exploring those differences? That’s very good indeed.
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