Tips for Answering Kids' Questions About Making Friends of a Different Race

Kids notice race early and make friends of different races even earlier, but it's up to parents to help them develop an open-minded perspective. Here's how.

Diverse group of pre-teen girl friends take a selfie.

Gabriel Bucataru/Stocksy

At an early age, kids begin to see differences. They notice comparisons amongst themselves - by height, size, gender, and even color. In the mind of pre-schoolers, differences aren’t as embedded with meaning. Most 4-year-olds don’t jump to race, culture, or ability as a barrier to making friends. But, naturally, they will ask questions to satisfy their curiosity. 

A recent study by Katherine Lingras reads, “Children notice race from an early age. They also observe and can understand injustices among people. However, research shows that not all caregivers discuss race, identity, and racism. Some avoid the topic altogether.” 

So maybe adults are the problem? Better yet, perhaps, adults and caregivers prepared to discuss race responsibly are the solution. 

Philadelphia-based Licensed Social Worker (LSW), Certified Clinical Trauma Professional (CCTP), and Certified Oncology Social Worker (OSW-C) Silvi Saxena says, “Having and encouraging an open dialogue about race and identity is important. Discussing your own heritage and background is important. It helps to normalize that all kids have backgrounds that can sometimes look the same but sometimes look different and that it's ok.” 

Saxena and Darlene Taylor, a clinical social worker turned parenting coach, share tips to help parents feel empowered to have these delicate conversations.

Welcome Children’s Questions

Saxena says, "It's important to recognize how there is implicit bias in your world and how that may influence your children.”

When children notice different people treated in different ways, they’re likely to ask questions. And when they are in the presence of someone who looks or sounds different, they may not know how to respectfully verbalize their curiosity. Don’t discourage them from coming to you with questions. Ignoring their question or chiding them will only instill fear and shame.

Asking why a friend has brown skin is no more offensive than asking why the sky is blue. Instead, offer better word choice, if they’re using terms that could be perceived as offensive, and explain to them why words matter. 

Also, acknowledge when they’ve asked a question that you don’t know the answer to. 

Explore and learn together, by finding websites and books that fill the knowledge gap. For tweens, Taylor suggests they “read stories and fiction about kids their age who are of different ethnicities, races, or life experiences. Letting them explore and hear stories from peers who are different will make more of an impact than talking to them about what those differences are.”  Books like Don't Ask Me Where I'm From, When You Trap a Tiger, and The First Thing About You are good places to start.

Reinforce Core Values

Noticing differences is natural, but treating people differently is not OK. If your child is displaying hints of prejudice or reluctance to befriend a child from a different background, constructively redirect them. If you notice they only play with certain kinds of kids or have started saying disparaging remarks, “It's important to probe and ask more questions to learn about where this comes from, where they heard it or where that belief came from,” explains Saxena.

In an age-appropriate way, challenge those beliefs. Reiterate the core value of respect. And use teachable moments to ask how they would feel if they were mistreated for their appearance.

If you find that the underlying reason is within your realm of control, nip it in the bud with open dialogue. This may mean talking about it with teachers and school administrators, and asking that they also watch out for signs of discrimination or bullying. If the conversation started from friends or neighbors outside of school, talk with the adults in those kids’ lives to ensure you’re on the same page about antiracism.

“It's important that children learn that everyone is equal, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, their family structure, their family makeup, and lineage. Everyone is equal. It's important to also recognize the ways in which there is implicit bias in your own world and how your children may be influenced by that,” reiterates Saxena.

Model Inclusive Behavior and Language

“Discussing your own heritage and background is important. It helps to normalize that all kids have backgrounds that can sometimes look the same but sometimes look different and that it's ok,” advises Saxena. We often assume that kids understand their own cultures, but that takes an active caregiver to explain the “why” behind the experiences they see in their daily lives. Highlighting how your cultural or religious identity came to be may help them respect that other people value their own heritage just as fiercely.

On the flip side, children learn by observing and imitating. Adjust your behavior. Remember to use inclusive language and be prepared to be corrected by your kids. Let your kids know you are also teachable and model that learning is a lifelong process. This may mean apologizing and taking accountability. If you must eat your words, do it in front of your children. They can replicate your example whenever they are in a similar situation.

Don't Forget...

Depending on the question, it is easy to feel blindsided and caught off guard. Even answering in that instant might not be appropriate. Rather than turn down the conversation completely, you and your child can agree to talk about it at a better time—before bed, after school, or another quiet time when you have the bandwidth to launch into a meaningful discussion. Just remember to revisit the conversation.

“It's important to normalize that differences don't mean good or bad, but that differences are to be expected,” says Saxena. If you notice an inferiority complex or any other psychological downturn, seek help from a school counselor or pediatric therapist who can support healthy identity formation in tots, tweens, and teens.

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