Experts agree that conversations about race have to start young. For parents of color, this is not new information. By nature of the world we live in, these parents have to have these conversations early. But for white parents, some of us are just now learning that our young children actually aren’t too young to talk with about race.
But if we introduce race and skin color as a conversation, are we teaching our children, especially young ones like toddlers, to see differences they otherwise wouldn’t notice?
The short answer is no. Toddlers do see differences, and it’s our job as parents to create positive associations around those differences instead of avoiding these conversations.
“After 6 months of age, babies aren’t colorblind, so we can’t be either,” said Dr. Aliza Pressman, a developmental psychologist, parent educator, the co-founder of Mount Sinai Parenting Center and host of the Raising Good Humans podcast. “When talking to your toddler about race, look at skin color as another observation. At this age, you’re teaching them about the range of shades with no one color as dominant.”
It’s true: studies show that starting as young as 6 months old, babies show a preference for their own race, associating own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music. Some research suggests that this preference may start even younger, with babies as young as 3 months old showing a preference for own-race faces over other-race faces.
Multicultural activist and designer of Mixed Up Clothing Sonia Smith-King said not to wait until kids start asking questions to begin having these conversations. “The anti-racist parent [or] caregiver isn’t waiting for children to bring up these questions or conversations. They are meeting the child at their developmental level and being proactive in their approach to discussions around race,” Smith-King said.
How do you create positive associations across different races?
Farzana Nayani, author of Raising Multiracial Children, explained that adults often worry that pointing out race is creating judgment, but that’s not the case. “Noticing race is actually important, and creating positive associations with race is very important,” Nayani said. “If we don’t point it out and create a positive association, what fills in the gaps is stereotypes from media, inherent bias, lack of seeing children of color in default shows, toys, or books, so then there isn’t a sense of healthy identity around it. You actually have to be proactive about it.”
The best thing a parent can do is not minimize their child’s talk about differences, Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, child and adult psychiatrist, explained. “It’s good to help children notice and understand differences, and let them view it through their eyes of openness. It’s important to help them see the world with this open curiosity and encourage that and not think of it as a negative,” Dr. Narasimhan said.
While toddlers are limited in how much they can understand at such a young age, there are simple, practical things we can do as parents to facilitate these positive conversations and associations.
What age-appropriate activities do experts recommend?
1. Use Books to Draw Parallels
Make sure your child’s books reflect a diverse range of people and use the characters to draw parallels to real life. For example, point out that Ada Twist, the scientist, has the same skin color as their Black friend or teacher and talk about their favorite qualities of that friend or teacher. “You could say, ‘Oh that person has the same color as so-and-so, isn’t that great?'” Nayani suggested.
2. Explore Through Paint
“One exercise recommended to me by an educator for kids of this age group is to give them white paint, brown paint, and yellow paint and have them mix the colors together to give them a visual aid and get a real sense of the range of colors skin can come in,” Dr. Pressman said.
3. Make Art With Multicultural Crayons or Construction Paper
Have your child draw with Multicultural Crayons or Multicultural Construction Paper, and ask questions like, “What color matches your skin?” and “What color matches your friend so-and-so’s skin?” to neutralize negativity around pointing out difference and normalize that we have a range of skin tones, Nayani recommended.
4. Talk About Age-Appropriate Cultural Differences, Like Hair Texture
Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon, president and Chief Data Officer at Polis Institute, said that talking to children proactively is key: “If a parent does not guide a child to have positive values about other races, the child is helplessly left to sort through signals from TV and other children, which can lead to racist behaviors as early as preschool, like pointing at other children or teasing them.”
To help children learn to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, Dr. Maroon suggested talking to your preschooler about the beauty and difference in Italian, Jewish, or Black hair texture, so that the next time your child is playing hairdresser, she’ll be more welcoming of children with textured hair.
5. Learn About Rituals From Different Cultures
“Talk about heritage and rituals that might be different in different cultures,” Dr. Lea Lis, adult and child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships, said. “For example, in Mexican culture, many celebrate The Day of the Dead. Teach your children about this and other holidays from different countries and cultures. Talk about what makes these events, celebrations, and rituals meaningful, unique, fun, and amazing.”