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? We've highlighted what children understand about race and how to talk to them about it.
Studies show that babies recognize differences in skin color and hair textures, says Rebecca Bigler, Ph. D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied children's racial attitudes. 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.
While it’s important to talk about physical differences (hair type, skin and eye color, and even height), you should also call attention to the special talents inherent in diversity. Try, “Everybody is special, and so-and-so is special because his family can speak another language,” says Harriett Romo, Ph.D., director of the Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio. By doing this, you’ll teach them to focus less on how someone looks and more on what they offer."
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."
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, says Dr. Bigler. 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").
Talk to them about smashing stereotypes by learning about the important contributions made by people of color. Chapter-book series such as Who Was? illustrate the accomplishments of men and women like Jackie Robinson, Malala Yousafzai, and Frida Kahlo. Celebrate your child’s own cultural strengths, and encourage them to step it up. “For example, if you see someone struggling with a language barrier, help them out and tell your child, ‘See how important it is that we speak two languages and can help [translate],’” Dr. Romo says.
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, says Dr. Bigler. 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.
Older kids are also more likely to be exposed to news about racial injustices and stereotypes, whether in the classroom or at home during evening broadcasts, so it’s critical to dispel cultural myths. “To get them to understand that you shouldn’t make generalizations about people before getting to know them, say, ‘Some kids like vanilla ice cream, but not all kids like vanilla ice cream, so you can’t make a statement that applies to everyone in a group.’” This will help them focus on the individual instead of the group.