Science & Technology

Should we talk to young children about race?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

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 about how parents 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 out 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-or lack thereof – of this study 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.” Accordingly, a large study of racial socialization (Hughes et al., 2006) concluded that parents of majority and minority children alike do emphasize hard work, virtue, self-acceptance, and equality when raising their children.

source: BotMultichillT (Wikimedia commons)

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, for helping them place such experiences within a developmentally appropriate narrative about the meaning of race both within their family and their culture. 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, to avoid that bully, and additionally make sure that our child doesn’t go hit somebody else. A lot of these strategies apply to racism – but they cannot be enacted if we don’t broach the topic directly, albeit in a developmentally appropriate way.

It is important to understand a couple of reasons why a strategy of 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 point out differences, and it is critical to equip our children with the scripts and strategies 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 modality through which 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. That message is that skin color does matter, just in a secret way that nobody is going let you in on. Thus 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 they are unfamiliar with, which tells us they notice difference. Yet difference is a long shot from racism-an awareness of stereotypes and racism doesn’t begin to happen until about age 6 (McKown and Weinstein, 2003). Between those ages, 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 in 1996 showed that being able to talk about race (and racism!) actually leads to less prejudice in children. Other research by Michelle Lease and Jamilia Blake in 2005 found that the more friends of different ethnicities a child had, the more socially skilled the child was. 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 a cycle of discomfort and intolerance of difference. So talk to your child about race, and unveil the shroud of secrecy and confusion from this topic. Within these conversations lies an important gift for your child.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved; cross-posted from Psychology Today.

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Comments to "Should we talk to young children about race?":
    • David Hastings

      Young children needs to be exposed to other kinds of all races so that they can learn to respect each other. The onus is on the parents to guide their children to say no to racism.

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    • Imraan

      No i think its not right to talk with children about race as it ‘ll create a negative impact in their upbringing. In tender age children should be taught about patriotism, friendship, helping attitude. This ‘ll nurture the child in a +ive way.

      Regards
      imraan

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    • Lou Collins

      Berkeley is a treacherous town and I don’t blame the author for needing to tread lightly when he writes

      As it turns out, parents had signed up for a study about how parents communicate with their children, but when they found out that one of the topics was race, they backed out en masse.

      I would assume that as a post-mortem the researchers would have disaggregated the data to see if there was any pattern to which parents left the study? Any particular group more likely to leave it? What would that tell us? A quick search led me here.

      But that study didn’t pan out, because so many of the white parents in the study dropped out or refused to talk about race with their little kids. So the researcher started looking at why the white parents were so uncomfortable talking about race with their kids.

      Again, Berkeley–the actually existing Berkeley as opposed to the radical Berkeley of popular imagination–is a racially treacherous place, as anyone who has passed through it, north to south and west up into the hills can attest–so I don’t blame the author for not highlighting this absolutely crucial detail. That said, an earlier commenter seems to have assumed something that wasn’t actually the case, through no fault of his or her own–anonymous comment :( –as the information wasn’t there.

      James, the excerpt that you highlight addresses behaviors of members of various races and backgrounds. The paragraph continues with a helpful reminder from Martin Luther King, for all of us. As you have demonstrated, prejudice is neither created nor perpetuated by “white” people only.

      Unfortunately, in the case of this particular study–I only want to put data on the table I can concretely cite–it was overwhelmingly one group’s behavior that sank the study, and that was white people. I leave it to others to connect this to a larger pattern. Shouldn’t be terribly difficult…

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    • Kate Holroyd

      I’m in the UK and I had never thought about what not talking about race could lead with my 21 month old daughter. Something I hope to rectify – thanks for the insights.

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    • Dirk Brandistock

      I believe that it is necessary to talk to children about race today than know about it at a latter age. It is good to make them aware at an early age than develop discrimination against other races due to misinformation. Misinformation often comes from people who are racists, in a way or another.

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    • Jonathan Winters

      When I was a child in 1964, and our house was shot at due to work my parents did for fair housing, it was clear to me that difference mattered, and also the stand one took was a charged issue. If kids can read a headline in the newspapers or hear on television ‘birthers’ who call their president a ‘monkey’ (not making this up!), then it has an influence.
      I think race/ethnic difference needs to be positively spoken about at an early age, just as sexual orientation and gender identity does. And I agree that ‘blindness’ is not the goal, but positive consciousness of diversity is healthy at the earliest possible age.

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    • Anonymous visiting scholar

      “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.”

      James, the excerpt that you highlight addresses behaviors of members of various races and backgrounds. The paragraph continues with a helpful reminder from Martin Luther King, for all of us. As you have demonstrated, prejudice is neither created nor perpetuated by “white” people only.

      [Report abuse]

    • Reginald Johnigan

      I, for one, think that discusssions about race are not only invaluable but imperative. The history of race relations in this country seems to indicate that true understanding can only be achieved through open, honest dialogue. We do our children a real disservice by perpetuating the myth that if we don’t talk about race then racism doesn’t exist. I thought the “heads in the sand strategy” was part of a bygone era.

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    • Melodi

      When I was young I had a caregiver whose daughter was also my age and in my play group. My mother told me that one day I asked her why this little girl’s skin color was different than mine and my mom replied, “you see how there are many different colors of flowers in our garden?” I responded, “yes.” She continued, “Well, people are like flowers, they come in different colors, too, but we all live and grow together in the same garden.” She told me my response was, “oh, ok!” and off I went to play. This was age appropriate and set me on a path of acceptance and understanding that I hope I, too, have passed on to my daughters.

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    • Anita Prentice

      My son brought up race to me when he was four years old. I drove him from our (mostly white) suburb to a wonderful child care center in downtown Baltimore. “Mom, do more black people live in the city? Why?” We had great conversations in which I attempted to explain the Great Migration, redlining, what melanin is, etc. With friends of all colors, he is now a graduate student in anthropology and one of the least racist people I know.

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    • James R

      “The findings-or lack thereof – of this study 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.”

      No, it shows how profoundly whites fear the very real consequences of being branded a racist for openly discussing what they know about non-whites from daily interactions and reportage: loss of livelihood, public shaming, and physical danger. On the other hand, their behavior — where they buy homes, where they educate their children, and whom they associate with — pretty much tells you all you need to know about their baseline attitudes.

      Most liberal whites talk a good diversity game, but it’s straight up hypocrisy. They all want to live in the relative safety of Leave-it-to Beavertown when raising their kids.

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    • Avi Rosenzweig

      Anecdotally, I vividly recall a moment during a day trip into Baltimore with some suburban relatives: my cousin’s small daughter and son reacted to her change in body language on the street when African-American pedestrians approached by crowding closer to us, and it strongly resembled the way one’s pet dog will read one’s body language when out for a walk. This incident was non-verbal and perhaps not even consciously noticed by my cousin, but her kids were clearly absorbing a fundamental lesson about ‘safety’.
      A whole lot of intentional expressions of commitment to equality and celebration of difference still won’t undo the lessons learned by toddlers when their mom’s face tightens and her gait quickens during an urban adventure.

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