It is a common saying that raising children doesn’t come with instructions. We may know this all too well as we try our best to negotiate potty training, deescalate temper tantrums and establish a weekend curfew. The challenges of child rearing seem daunting as we desperately seek guidance from family, friends and many, many books. This all worked well for me, until I realized that I had to talk with my children about human differences and specifically race. As a white woman raising mixed race children (my husband identifies as Black) it wasn’t an option not to have these conversations with my young boys. As young as three years old, my sons engaged me in conversations about skin color differences, stereotypes and feeling marginalized. It was challenging on many fronts and not ever having these conversations before, made it difficult to engage family and friends. I began reading and reading a lot. What I learned almost immediately, is that most white people don’t talk to their children about race and most people of color do or what I then understood, have to. It is true, we are all born with bias (defined by Howard Ross, author of “Everyday Bias” as a tendency or inclination that results in judgment without question) and it’s a survival mechanism that we can never get rid of, only work hard to manage. Also, research has found that “infants are non-verbally able to categorize people by race and gender at six months of age.”1 “Three to five year olds not only categorize people by race but express bias based on race”2 and thankfully, “explicit conversations….about interracial friendships (helped) children dramatically improve their racial attitudes in a single week.3 This research was eye-opening, as I had believed children were colorblind. I know understand, young children do see skin color and we can do a lot of good if we talk to them about their skin and all human difference. This knowledge led me to write my first children’s book, “The Skin on My Chin.” I hoped a rhyming picture book about skin might be one way to actively engage in a conversation about human skin colors, with children. I believe that we should talk to our children consistently, as young as six months old, about human difference and literally point it out and name it. In my parent and teacher workshops, I make the analogy of talking to children about sex to talking about race. The research finds that kids who have good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity, have fewer partners, and use contraceptives when they do have sex.4 Using that logic, it only makes sense that kids who have good conversations with their parents about race are more likely to have comfort with human diversity, skills for social interaction, accurate language and recognize unfairness and skills to act against racism. If this sounds difficult, it is and you can do it. Over the years, I have immersed myself in understanding race, racism and other forms of oppression and have realized there is not a right way or one way to educate children. What I have learned, is if there were instructions for raising kids, having a deeper understanding of human difference would be in chapter 1.
1 Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young
children. In S. S. Luthar & J. A. Burack (Eds.), Developmental
psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and
disorder (pp. 51–74). New York, NY: Cambridge University
2 (Aboud 2008; Hirschfeld 2008; Katz 2003; Patterson & Bigler 2006)
Aboud, F. E. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental
theory of prejudice. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.),
Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp.
55–71). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
3 Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions
of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook
of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54).
Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do
they begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897–909