Years before I became a child psychologist, I was a swim teacher and taught kindergarten. I remember working in the water one day with a four-year-old white girl who started to rub my arm.
“Does it come off?” she asked.
“Does what come off?” I asked back.
“The black.” She was rubbing her arm on mine as if to get some of my skin color on her.
Her mother, who had been sitting near us, gasped. She turned to me, pale and embarrassed. “I don’t know where she’d come up with such a thing,” she said. “We never talk about … things like that.” She pulled her daughter out of the water and ended the lesson, shushing the girl as they left.
As a teacher, I had heard these kinds of comments from children before—directed not just at me but at other kids or adults—then witnessed the crestfallen looks on their parents’ faces. The parents would ask, “Where do kids get this stuff from? They can’t even notice race yet, right?” Or, “Does this mean my child will be a racist?” Or they would get defensive: “We don’t teach them that at home.” “We have plenty of friends of different races.” “We don’t even talk about race, so how can they know what it is?”
In my work with children as a teacher and as a psychologist, I’ve found that scientific research can assuage many parents’ fears. While there’s no easy answer to the question, “How do I raise a tolerant child?” research does offer some constructive suggestions for how kids learn about race, and when and how to discuss it with them.
Let’s start from the beginning: Do kids even see or notice race? The answer is yes, they see and notice racial differences from a very young age, even in infancy. In fact, several studies by psychologists Phyllis Katz and Jennifer Kofkin have found that infants and very young children (from six to 18 months) will gaze at the faces of people of a different race longer than they look at faces from their own racial group. A prolonged gaze is how infants and toddlers commonly react to new information, and here it suggests racial difference is visually salient to them. This means that kids are able to notice and pay attention to racial differences even before they can speak about them. Katz and Kofkin also found that, by the age of three, children will start choosing to play with people of their own race more than people of a different race.
While they may notice racial differences and even prefer members of their own race, this doesn’t mean that kids this young understand race in the same ways adults do, nor does it mean they’re burgeoning racists. For children under the age of seven, race—or, rather, physical traits like skin color, language, and hair texture—are just signs that someone is in some way different from themselves, similar to gender or weight. It’s not unusual or unhealthy for kids to gravitate toward the familiar so early in life. Kids’ views only become prejudiced when they start linking these physical traits to flaws in character or behavior. We adults are the ones who ascribe malice to simply noticing racial differences.
So in and of itself, recognizing racial difference is not a cause for alarm—quite the opposite, in fact. For years, studies have found that children who recognize these kinds of differences from an early age show a stronger general ability to identify subtle differences between categories like color, shape, and size—which, in turn, has been linked to higher performance on intelligence tests. Researcher Francis Aboud has found that children between the ages of four and seven who show this advanced ability to identify and categorize differences are actually less prejudiced. So parents, rest assured: When children notice and ask about racial differences, it’s a normal and healthy stage of development.
Now comes the tricky part: How do you answer those questions? In fact, many parents have opted not to answer them. These parents have, often with good intentions, embraced the ideal of colorblindness. They assume that if they raise their children not to recognize racial differences, they’ll prevent them from becoming racist.
The problem with this approach, however, is that we all do notice difference. When we abstain from discussing race with our kids, we may confuse them and implicitly send the message that it is bad or wrong to talk about racial differences. This may affect children of color as well as white children. For example, researchers Phillip Bowman and Cleopatra Howard found that when African-American parents did not teach their children anything about race, those kids felt less prepared to handle racial discrimination, and in general felt like they had less control over their lives and environments.
Instead of trying to ignore race, research suggests that parents should be more pro-active. They can tell their kids it’s OK to recognize and talk about racial differences while still communicating that it’s wrong to hold racial prejudices. My own research with 67 racially- and ethnically-diverse families, all of which had children under the age of seven, indicates that talking and answering kids’ questions about race may help them understand racial issues and become more tolerant. I found that the children of parents who talked more about race were better able to identify racism when they saw it, and were also more likely to have positive views about ethnic minorities. This was true for both the white families and the families of color in my study.
Other researchers have made similar findings. A study by Aboud and Anna Beth Doyle took 9-to-11-year-old children who held prejudiced attitudes toward ethnic minorities and placed them with other 9 to 11 year olds who held less biased beliefs. They asked the kids to talk for two minutes about some of the race-based beliefs they had endorsed earlier in the study. The results were remarkable: After these conversations, the high-prejudice kids demonstrated lower prejudice and more tolerance. Given this impact of a two-minute conversation with a peer, imagine what a childhood of conversations with parents could achieve.
While there is strong evidence suggesting parents should talk about race, researchers are still studying the best ways to talk about it. For both white families and families of color, there is some evidence suggesting parents should avoid language that induces fear in their kids, because kids won’t know how to respond. For example, explaining to a child, “You know, people are going to be mean to you and treat you unfairly because you are X race,” without providing coping skills, empathy for the child, or support may actually cause more fear and bias toward others. However, following this kind of statement with, “But that doesn’t mean we should be mean to others,” and, “But those people don’t really know how great you are and how special it is to be X,” or, “And if that happens, you can come to me and I’ll help you out,” may actually provide the support and coping skills children need to handle such discrimination.
Other research by Bowman and Howard suggests that helping kids feel pride in their racial or ethnic identity helps boost their self-esteem, with the caveat that lessons of pride shouldn’t undercut other groups. In other words, the message shouldn’t be, “We’re so much better and smarter than Ys,” but rather it should support other groups, too: “You know, some Ys do things that way and that’s great. We do things differently, and that’s really nice, too.” Teaching children about pride, and how to make sense of the differences around them, can actually be an act of teaching and supporting tolerance.
First and foremost, though, it seems that the simple act of having these conversations about race can help. Since research shows that kids notice and try to make sense of race as early as six months old, these conversations can begin when they’re very young. To that end, it’s important to make kids feel comfortable broaching the subject. That means parents should try to avoid making race seem like such a big or intimidating topic that kids believe it’s off limits, and they should try not to make kids feel awkward or inappropriate for asking questions. One of the best ways for parents to do this is to practice talking about race—with friends, with each other, with colleagues—so they can reduce their own anxiety before discussing these issues with their kids. There are websites, chat rooms, and organizations out there to help parents get this kind of practice. One place to start is the blog Anti-Racist Parent, where parents discuss their efforts to raise racially-conscious kids.
So parents, next time you’re on a playground and you hear your child say something that seems racially confused or even offensive, don’t be embarrassed. Don’t scold or shush. And don’t end the conversation with, “We don’t say things like that.” Instead, you might want to try, “Hmm, why don’t we talk about that some more?”