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Alycea Tinoyan

Great Communication Starts With Understanding Your Kid

The first five years are an explosive time in terms of development. Your little one understands more than you think. Here's how to talk to them.

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.

You probably think your kid is a genius. Most parents do, but in this case they’re right. In the first five years of life, kids make leaps in development that dwarf any other period. In this time, parents witness kids evolve from entirely helpless creatures to little Einsteins, fluent in 10,000 words and a great stream of independent thought.

But throughout this period, they must be guided. 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 Frere Jacques, however they can just as easily call another kid “stupid” and shove them.

Kids aren’t naturally cruel. Instead, becoming a kind, empathetic human is hard. This is why it’s one of the most important lessons to come from a parent. It all starts with communication. Of course, the way you pass on lessons will need to evolve with your child. A 1-year-old is going to understand a very different lesson than a 4-year-old. There’s no way around it. And while all children develop differently and developmental milestones never follow like clockwork, there are predictable elements. Here’s your communication cheat sheet from birth to 5.

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 and more effective.  

Infants are brilliant readers of emotion. They can both see and convey desires, opinions, and preferences via body language, tone, and facial expressions. As such, they can see how you treat them and others. 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 everywhere — they will be.

That eye for mimicry is a wandering one. 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.

1-2: Perform and Mirror

From 1 to 2, kids start to develop their own opinions and can start saying “no.” Where do they form those opinions? Almost entirely from first-person observations. They pick up on your opinions and test them. As such, parents must watch themselves.

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 needs.

Kids this age can and copy others, especially adults and older kids. This is the source of some defiant behavior and the place where prejudices may creep in. It isn’t the child’s prejudice you’re seeing — it’s a mirror of yours or someone close to them in their life.

2-3: Talk and Cuddle

By age 3, kids have roughly 1,000 words and are fast becoming wordsmiths. They are starting to understand meaning and, with the aid of pictures and a storybook, they can understand basic 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.

Kids continue to copy adults and friends and can now 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 — with cuddling and hugs and physical signs of affection for everyone 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 concept based conversations even if it may appear that they are not quite ready. Not to worry. Even if they don’t follow, they will 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.

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 mixing 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, and is 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 three and four year olds, empathy now 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 or complete a task. 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 taking lessons from anywhere they can get them. Their 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.

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. This means that they aren’t absorbing everything you say as much as they were. You still need to lead by example (always), but giving them thematic projects and activities to do on their own is a great way for them to figure some things out 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.

For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, click here.