If you have ever spent time with a toddler, you know that they love to talk. They ask a constant (and sometimes unrelenting) amount of questions, make random statements that seem to come out of nowhere, and make connections that seem so odd that you think that they are brilliant. I was definitely one of those kids who talked constantly (sorry Mom!) and I never outgrew it. I still talk all the time and ask questions all of the time. Kids do this as a means of making sense of the world around them. The world is a pretty confusing place! There is a lot going on and all of that information can be hard to process. As a child's brain develops, he or she is trying to put things in categories in order to make sense of his or her surroundings. This includes race and ethnicity.
There are people who argue that children are born colorblind; that they don't "see color" until they are taught to. This is absolutely not the case. Studies show that children appear to prefer faces of their own race as young as three-months-old (Kelly, Quinn, Slater, Lee, Gibson, Smith, Ge, & Pascalis, 2005). Children start to really see skin color around 5- or 6-months-old. By 15 months, children are already starting to choose playmates based on racial preference (Burns & Sommerville, 2014). So, all children see color. They have to; it helps them to understand their world. And that's ok. It is the value that they assign these categories that should be addressed.
This is where parents, family members, and educators come in. Race needs to be discussed with kids. If you do not want your kids to assign negative biases to certain racial and ethnic groups, discuss it with them, over and over again. Your kids will receive all kinds of messages about different racial categories. Some of it will come from the home, some from school, some from media and TV, and some just walking down the street. If you leave kids to come to their own conclusions about all of these messages, they will most likely lead to ideas that include negative biases about certain races. I want to be clear that this kind of conversation is important for ALL kids. If your child is a part of a majority racial/ethnic group, you do not want them to think that they are better than others or that they deserve certain things that others do not. You do not want them to become a person who has difficulty interacting with people who are different. If your child is a part of a minority group, you do not want your child internalizing the negative messages that they are bound to hear about their racial/ethnic group. You want to try to shape your child's positive views of him or herself. If your child is multiracial, then the messages that he or she will receive can be incredibly confusing. Help your child to make sense of these mixed messages by engaging in conversation.
This is not the kind of conversation that can happen once and then your kid is good to go. Race is complex-adults do not completely understand it either! So start the conversation early and keep the lines of communication open. Once your child realizes that this is not a taboo topic (which is often what is communicated to kids), they will come to you with more questions. You won't always have the answers and that's ok! You can ponder and discuss and learn right along with your child, which is another value lesson to teach them.
Although this appears to be written mostly for parents, the same applies to teachers, family members, and other loved ones who regularly interact with children.
Let me know your thoughts on this topic. What burning questions do you have? What else do you want or need to know? I have a feeling this will be a topic we visit again...and again...and again...
Dr. Sweeney is a licensed school psychologist and cultural competence expert. Here are her musings on life in a multicultural world.
Interested in writing a guest blog post? Contact me for more information!