How to Talk to Young Kids About Race

Frequently asked questions from parents of young kids, answered.

by Fatherly
Originally Published: 

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.

The most challenging thing about discussing race with your children is that by the time they are able to form words and have a discussion, so much of how they perceive, react to, and process differences in appearance has already been shaped. Even before your child is old enough to have a conversation, they are hard at work building a vocabulary for dealing with the world around them.

The best way to intercede before it’s too late is by modeling good behavior. Let’s consider a few times when a slight change in tone, attitude, or even physicality can do wonders for your child’s growth and development when it comes to race.

0 – 1 Years Old: Can we even discuss race this young?

The short answer is: No. Not in the sense of a back and forth dialogue. However, we can consider age appropriate modes of communication. At five months, a baby can match a happy sound like laughter to a picture of a laughing face, regardless of race. Yet just a few months later, they begin to tap into different regions of their brains (specifically the occipital-temporal region, where adults do their recognition work) and begin reacting and responding more quickly to faces that look more like theirs. But the whole process relies on non-verbal expression. They will absorb so much through your tone and body language. With children, this is called “social referencing.” They look to you and your body language and demeanor to know if a place or a person is safe.

For example:

When you’re out and about with your little one, are you conscious of your body language when you interact with people?

Tensing up with someone who looks different from you, or changing the tenor of your voice around certain people will communicate your attitudes to your child that is observing you for behavioral cues.

1-2 Years Old: What can a toddler learn from my behavior?

By the toddler stage “social referencing” in your child has blossomed into outright mimicry. They not only look to you for cues, but also begin to adopt your mannerisms. The old “I learned it from watching you” cliché is true.

When telling stories or relaying a work anecdote over the dinner table, pay attention to how you describe people. Do you focus on skin color first? Do you casually remake about “those” people and therefore create unconscious separation? Do you mimic accents or ways of speaking in broad and cartoonish ways?

Each of these things in context may not be overtly racist or negative, but they create a sense of otherness in people who look and sound different, and even at this young age your child is absorbing that, and may begin echoing it back at you. By mimicking your prejudices, they learn to be prejudiced before they’re even aware of the concept.

2-3 Years Old: Do young kids have a sense of discrimination?

These are the years when a child begins to develop empathy for others. They are more open about showing physical affection to friends and loved ones. While this is positive, it can also raise fears of discrimination — not in those exact words, of course, but more like an understanding that it feels really, really bad to be left out. Some things are just… unfair.

This is where you can reinforce a strong sense of inclusion by surrounding them with TV shows, movies, and toys that expand their perception of what pretty is, what a hero can look like, and how having a crew of different people with different backgrounds and abilities (“she’s bilingual!”) makes for greater adventures. Thankfully, these things are a bit easier to find than they may have been 20 or 30 years ago. Media companies have realized black, Latino, and Asian children want to see more of people like them in prominent and diverse roles. They now understand that doing so helps teach white children that their bubble is not the only one where cool, fun, and exciting things happen.

3-4 Years Old: Can you use games or activities to teach kids about racism?

During these peak imaginative play years, your child is exploring the limits of their imagination — but also forming tools that will be used to navigate a very real world.

Start with dolls, action figures, and representative people. Strip away the fantastical trappings of the dolls or action figures they’re playing with, and you’ll see they’re play-acting real human interactions. One doll is mad at another. One is trying to get the other to join them on an adventure. One is clearly the dominant leader.

First, make sure your kids have a diverse set of dolls that represent a wide range of gender and race. But just as important, get involved in doll play and begin to ask questions through the cover of “making up a story” that will nudge your child towards thinking about concepts like dicrimination or privilege.

Your kid may assume that the doll that looks more like them is prettier or more suited to be in charge. Use another distinctly different doll to try and lead a story or adventure and note how your child reacts. Do they go with it, or do they immediately pigeonhole certain types of dolls into certain types of roles?

4-5 Years Old: How does one deal with the racism kids bring in from the outside world?

Between 4 to 5 years old, children begin to absorb less from you and more from their own perspective and experience. They’re growing independent, and are more fluent communicators. They will stop solely mimicking your words and start to bring some in from the outside.

Even if you show kindness and acceptance and tolerance in your own words and actions, your child will meet someone else — perhaps someone their own age — who has had a very different experience.

Your child repeats a racial slur. Do you get angry? Immediately forbid it and punish the child? That will only make it mysterious and, while initially a source of fear, they may eventually start to grow curious about why a word would have such a negative impact on you. The goal is to get them to understand why.

By explaining that a racist epithet can make someone feel ashamed or embarrassed or angry or sad attaches cause and effect to the word. “Saying this may make someone feel attacked. How would you feel if someone called you a nasty nickname because of how you looked?” Or “People use that word to make other people feel like they don’t matter.” The act of putting themselves in another’s shoes removes the forbidden allure of the word that simply saying “No! Don’t say that!” puts around it.

In the end, there’s now a figurative face to the epithet, and hopefully an understanding of the impact of “just words.”

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

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