Talking About Race, Age-by-Age

Find out what children understand about racial differences and how to talk to them about it in our age-by-age guide.
Talking About Race

One day you're standing in an elevator and your 3-year-old points to a person of a different race, blurting out, "Mommy, that man has a funny color skin." What do you say? With the help of Rebecca Bigler, Ph. D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied children's racial attitudes, we've highlighted what children understand about race and how to talk to them about it.

Ages 6 months to 1 year

Studies show that babies recognize differences in skin color and hair textures. Even before they can talk to their children, parents can teach through their actions. In addition, do your best to expose your child to a diverse environment. It's important for kids to see their parents interact socially with people of other racial and ethnic groups.

Ages 2 to 3

When children become more vocal, it's normal for them to spontaneously start talking about skin color. So help your child by replying in a calm, positive tone, "Yes, he does have brown skin. It's not the same as yours, but it's a really nice color too." It's also fine to bring up people's physical differences before your child does. A smart time to do this is when you're playing with toys and already pointing out various physical attributes: "This doll has a hat on, that one doesn't; this one has dark skin, that one doesn't."

Ages 4 to 6

It's common for children this age to assign positive traits to people of their own ethnic group and negative traits to people who look different. As a result, you may hear troubling comments like "That boy has funny-looking eyes" or "Her skin is dirty." The best way to respond is to rebut these statements in a calm, straightforward manner ("Her skin isn't dirty, it's just not like yours. People are all different skin colors").

Ages 7 to 8

Racial attitudes tend to improve around this age. Children become receptive to the idea that we're different and alike at the same time, so stress this concept whenever possible. For example, if your child points out that a friend at school has hair texture that's different from his, say, "That's true, his hair isn't like yours, is it? But you both love playing baseball." The key is to find a way to point out similarities so your child doesn't get the idea that children of another race are so very different from him.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2004 issue of Child magazine.

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