How to talk to kids about race: "They aren't chocolate and vanilla."

May 1, 2013

At the YWCA in Kalamazoo.
At the YWCA in Kalamazoo.
Credit Dustin Dwyer

  A few weeks ago, we reported on research showing that children become aware of race at a very young age, and they seem particularly prone to developing stereotypes. The message from that research is simple enough: If parents don’t want their kids to develop racial biases, they need to talk to their kids about race. 

To quickly review: the reason parents need to talk to kids about race is that if they don’t talk to them about race, kids will come up with their own ideas. Those ideas will usually be wrong, sometimes be harmful and occasionally, they’ll be ridiculous.

Cherée Thomas has a story about that.

"Many years ago, my son was in a classroom and a kid licked his hand because he thought he was chocolate," Thomas says.

She's standing in a gym in Kalamazoo, looking out over a swarm of rambunctious toddlers. She oversees the Children’s Center at the YWCA in Kalamazoo. The YWCA is different from other child care centers and preschools for a number of reasons. One of them is that staff members get racial justice and gender equity training every month. And the kids learn about race too.

"We’re able to actually talk to them about skin tone and color and culture," Thomas says. "And they’re able to get it, and know that they aren’t chocolate and vanilla, but you know they are actually, black white, Latina, you know Native American. But we’re all friends."

In February, the kids learned about black history month.

"A parent came in ... and said, 'My kid said the word segregation and they’re so glad segregation isn’t alive anymore.' I mean, so just being able to have that level of conversation with a preschooler, it’s pretty phenomenal."

So, okay, maybe four year olds can handle a conversation about segregation. But if you have a four year old, how do you start that conversation? What if you say the wrong thing?

“I’m not sure that question is different than any other parenting question," says Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton,  a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, and co-author of the book, Are We Born Racist? He says figuring out a child’s developmental stages is always ambiguous: "In the sense that, you know 'Oh my gosh, is my child ready for potty training?' Well, you know sometimes … "

Sometimes you have no idea. Mendoza-Denton says knowing when or even how to talk about race is the same as with potty training or reading or math. Just try it out, and see what they’re ready for.

"So, my general advice would be to remember that it’s a long-term process and that any one phrase or thought that’s expressed is not going to make or break a child’s attitude,” Mendoza-Denton says.

He says the idea is not to just sit down one day and have one big talk about race. Instead, he says, find smaller opportunities when the context is right. Introduce age-appropriate books that talk about differences. Mendoza-Denton recommends three books in particular: The Colors of Us, We're Different, We're the Same and It's Okay to be Different.

Some parents might worry that if they bring up race, their children will become too focused on it – that it might actually cause the child to become racist.

Psychologist Rebecca Bigler says it is possible to go overboard. She’s a researcher at the University of Texas, and she’s spent the better part of two decades studying how kids develop biases around both race and gender.

"You should talk about race and gender when it’s relevant in a situation," she says. "And when you’re there to explain something about society and the meaning of race and gender in society."

But Bigler says if racial or gender differences get mentioned all the time regardless of context, that can be a problem.

"So it should never be routine to do it," she says. "And it shouldn’t be unexplained."

That means, basically, don’t bring up race all the time with your kids. But don’t brush it off when it comes up on its own.

And it will come up.