Do Children See Skin Color?

Cynthia Roelle, mom to a 2-year-old daughter and award-winning photographer, believes that children do see skin color and that it’s up to parents to teach them it doesn’t matter.


I don’t generally get worked up over things I read on Facebook but earlier this month a friend posted something that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

My friend was with her girls at the playground. A little girl with blonde hair approached her and asked if she was the girls’ mom or their babysitter. When my friend told the little girl that she was their mother the little girl said: “Well they look different than you. You know, their skin is darker and yours is like mine.”

My friend looks similar to me. She’s a taller-than-average white girl with shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. Her daughters are both blessed with beautiful dark brown hair and skin that’s a creamy shade of caramel. What I would give for skin like that. Those lucky little ladies got it from their father whose family comes from Ecuador (though he’s pretty light himself).

One of the cool things about my friend is that she doesn’t have thin skin, fair though it may be. But something about her encounter with the little girl left her feeling sad. After explaining the scenario on Facebook she wrote: “I can only say that for various reasons, I don’t think that what happened this afternoon was a clear cut case of either curiosity or prejudice.”

Most of the people who commented on my friend’s post saw the exchange as a “teachable moment.” But one woman had this to say:

“[Y]ou taught that little bigot about life. What difference does skin color make…. Most young children do not see skin color unless some adult brought it to there [sic] attention.”

I wasn’t at the playground that day so I can’t speak to the girl’s tone or demeanor but to call a little girl a bigot? Wow. That’s harsh. And to say that children do not see skin color is simply wrong. They just don’t form judgments about people based on skin color. They can’t, because they have no framework in which to do so.

That’s where parents come in. It’s up to us to teach our children that color is, quite literally, only skin deep. It’s up to us to teach them that people come in all colors, shapes and sizes but that skin color and physical characteristics do not define a person. It’s up to us to teach our children that while every person is unique, we are all equal.

Children learn and form assumptions about the world based on what they observe. They just haven’t developed a brain-to-mouth filter that keeps them from asking blunt questions.

In the case of the little girl at the playground, it seems to me that she did the best thing she could have done. She noticed a difference in skin color between my friend and her daughters and asked about it. She made a blunt comment about the difference but her comment, at least as I read it, was free of judgment.

What do you think?

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  1. by Jill Cordes

    On February 27, 2013 at 9:03 am

    Hey Cindy. Great great topic. I read in this amazing book, Nurture Shock, that even if you live in a super diverse city like NYC, where you are always around different races, you can’t assume your kids think that we are all the same. No matter what, you need to talk to your kids about skin color and teach them that we are all humans, all equal, etc. I thought that was interesting because I just assumed that if I raise my kids in a place like NYC or LA, they will just “get it”…but no. We still need to bring it up and make it a point of discussion whenever necessary. And yes, the fb comment was ridiculous. Great blog!

  2. [...] Do children see skin color? (Parents.com) [...]

  3. by littleduckies

    On February 27, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I hope your friend said something along the lines of, “Skin color depends on both Mommy and Daddy. I am their Mommy. But what would you think if I wasn’t?”

    She’s just curious – and honestly, an adult would have just stared and made their own assumptions. At least the kid asked! (And, no, she didn’t mean it rudely. She was just curious.)

  4. by Katie

    On February 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Great topic Cindy.

  5. by Lucinda

    On February 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Cindy – I couldn’t agree more. Great points and great topics!

  6. by Linda

    On February 27, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Being a white mom to two beautiful skinned daughters (one biracial, and one Guatemalan – what I wouldn’t give for their skin!), I’ve had a lot of questions from kids. Although their words are sometimes blunt, I think they are just curious. The worst comment I have heard was from a friend when we were considering adopting our biracial daughter. “I feel like there is a white baby out there for you. I’d hate to see you settle for this.” Unbelievable!

  7. by Kim

    On March 1, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    They do see color, but don`t understand how it makes them different. A great example was in my twos class. One of the little girls had hearing aids. A little boys threw a ball to her, and the hearing aid popped off. He freaking flipped out, honest to God thought he`d yanked out her ear. It took no less than half an hour to convince him otherwise.
    Unfortunately most kids don`t understand the concept of `rude`, and often are just curious but ask the question the wrong way. Doesn`t keep itfrom hurting your feelings though.

  8. by Amanda

    On March 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    My son was 4 when he noticed his friend of a couple of years was “brown like chocolate.” His observation: “Nathan is like chocolate and I’m like Nilla but we both have the same color tongue. We are both pink on the inside!” I can’t help but giggle at the thought of these two in the corner of the playground somewhere looking like a pint of Neopolitan ice cream comparing tongue colors. Out of the mouths of babes! We are all pink on the inside. :)

  9. by Nikki Elledge Brown

    On March 2, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Such an important conversation – and I love the “we’re all pink on the inside” story!

    In my intercultural communication class, my prof said he had a friend who resented the “I don’t see color” mantra because it ignored a part of who she is. “Colorblind” isn’t necessarily the ideal here, although loving and respecting each other for the content of our character absolutely should be!

    I think it’s important to emphasize to little ones that God made each of us look different and special. We can teach them to acknowledge and accept those differences and take them as challenge to find those real similarities, which will ALWAYS be there.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. by Denise

    On March 2, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    I agree. It was simply a curious question, trying to understand the world she lives in. We have become a nation of name callers. That needs to end.