One of the most talked-about recent studies on how parents talk to their children about race, featured in the book Nurture Shock, is famous for an odd reason: The study was never completed, and no findings were published.
Why? As it turns out, parents had signed up for a study investigating how they communicate with their children, but when they found out that one of the topics was race, they backed out en masse. The researchers had secured grant funding to do the research, managed to work out the logistics of bringing parents and kids to the research site, and set up the laboratory. Yet they failed to anticipate that, with the possibility of researchers overhearing or analyzing what they were saying, parents would simply refuse to talk about race.
The findings from this study—or lack thereof—are striking because they reveal how deeply ingrained the idea of colorblindness is in American society. Colorblindness dictates that we should not notice or talk about race, and thus the right thing to do in polite company is to not acknowledge difference.
The goal is noble: As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., movingly said, we want to judge people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Yet in our increasingly multicultural society, our children are going to be exposed to race-related issues sooner or later—and they need to be prepared. Children may witness acts of exclusion or rejection based on race, or will themselves be targets of discrimination. It is precisely for these instances that parents must provide their children with a framework for understanding difference.
Think for a moment about how you might best react if your child saw or even experienced bullying. I doubt many parents would cope with the problem by not talking about it. Rather, a likely response might be to shower our child with love, remind them that we are always going to be in their corner, encourage them to avoid that bully, and make sure that they don’t go hit somebody else. A lot of these strategies apply to racism—but they can’t be pursued if we don’t broach the topic directly, albeit in a developmentally appropriate way.
It is important to understand a couple of reasons why avoiding conversations about race simply doesn’t work with kids. The first reason is that while many parents don’t talk about race, peers certainly do. So it’s critical that we give our kids the tools they need to navigate these early conversations successfully.
But the second, and more important, reason is that the words we say (or don’t say) are only one way children learn about their world. When children see their parents or other adults tense up around members of other groups, or notice that adults’ social networks are not very diverse, or pick up on racial segregation in their environment, there is a clear message being communicated: Skin color does matter—just in a secret way that nobody is going let you in on.
As a result, not talking about race can make the subject even more confusing. And when children are young, the only way for them to resolve this confusion may be by concluding that people of other races are “bad,” thus setting the stage for exactly what many parents seek to avoid: prejudice.
As far as the data goes, the research is clear: Kids have the capacity to notice race from a very early age. Infants will stare longer at faces of people from races with which they are unfamiliar, which suggests they notice the difference.
Yet noticing difference is not the same thing as racism. Research by Clark McKown and Rhona Weinstein suggests that not until kids are six years old do they become more aware of stereotypes and form attitudes that could be considered racist. Before they reach that age, there is a lot of time for parents to teach valuable lessons to their children about how to confront difference.
Rather than avoiding race through a colorblind strategy, I recommend that parents do talk about difference. Parents should strive to go one step further than simply saying “it doesn’t matter.” Rather, parents can adopt a message of acknowledging and celebrating differences—talking, for example (and as a first step), about different cultural traditions, or dishes that different people cook. This is known as a multiculturalist strategy—one that recognizes and celebrates our differences.
At the same time, however, the message of multiculturalism needs to be complemented by a message about our common humanity—in other words, the things that unite us. (A children’s book that mixes these messages well is Sesame Street’s We’re Different, We’re the Same… and We’re All Wonderful.
Research by Frances Aboud and Anna Doyle has shown that being able to talk about race (and racism!) actually leads to less prejudice in children. Other research, by Michelle Lease and Jamilia Blake, has found that the more friends of different ethnicities a child has, the more socially skilled that child is.
Together, this work suggests that by providing our kids with the tools to understand and talk about race, we help our kids grow—rather than perpetuate cycles of discomfort and intolerance. So try to get past the secrecy and confusion, and talk to your children about race. Within these conversations lies an important gift for them.