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

By Kara Corridan and Wanda Medina
October 05, 2005

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.

Ages 6 months to 1 year

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."

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."

Your Age-by-Age Guide to Talking About Race
Credit: Brocreative/Shutterstock

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, 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.

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, 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.

Comments (6)

March 14, 2021
What I was taught is that we are all human beings and deserve the respect as such and should always stand for human life. That means everyone and always! Race and differences were easily explained. None of us are of one nationality. German, Dutch, Irish, and even a little Arapahoe Indian. The Vice President has various nationalities. We are a country of different nationalities. All human beings deserve all of the same rights, freedoms, and respect.
June 6, 2020
I don’t think it’s meant for only white people. My family and I are Hispanic and have different shades of brown skin. I have actually had the experience of my daughter( 5years old), who has brown skin, see someone who has darker skin than her and she says she doesn’t like or that she doesn’t want to have skin that dark. Or even ask why others skin is dark. I think this is something all or most little kids say. I have taught both my kids that all colors of skin are beautiful because God made all of us with love and made us all to be different and I think it’s important to talk to them and explain that no matter what the color of the skin, everyone is special and important.
June 6, 2020
I agree with Anonymous. To assume your audience is white (people of color DON’T want to have fruitful, age-appropriate conversations about race with their children?) is peculiarly tone-deaf at this moment in time. Additionally, the advice given is so bare-minimum, it was no help at all. What parent DOESN’T already say and do these things? I was looking for next-level advice. For example, I recently informed our little guy that a long time ago, people in our country actually had SLAVES. We talked about what that meant, and his little head was reeling. I found in the end that I couldn’t even tell him that the enslaved people were black like his friends at school. You see? I, the adult, fumbled it at the last minute, because it was so difficult. (By the way, all this was in preparation for reading him Frederick Douglass’ biography. I’d got a big stack of biographies at the beginning of the quarantine.) Anyway, maybe you could take this article down and come back with a way-better researched one.
June 5, 2020
I am highly offended by this article and the fact that you think it's that simple as following a guide. It's very insensitive to what we as AA are dealing with today. How about starting with one of the problems and come up with a guide on why it's not okay to be racist! Please discontinue sending your magazines to me.
June 1, 2020
Anonymous, I just want to thank you for leaving your comment. You're right, this article was probably written by a white person or directed towards white parents. Unfortunately that didn't even occur to me until I read your comment. I've been wondering how or if I should discuss current events with my 5 and 7 year olds. They've always described people as different levels of brown. Hispanic, African American, Filipino, biracial, people with a tan, etc. And I like that idea. Even though they're blond haired, blue eyed boys, their skin is not white. Our cat is white. They describe their skin as "kind of yellowish light." So I guess my question or concern is whether I should discuss this with my kids or not. We don't discuss other people's weight bc it's rude to talk about other people's bodies. We don't use the word fat ever. So why should skin color become an issue for them now if they don't see anything but different shades of brown?
May 30, 2020
Obliviously you assume your audience is white. I thought I would get some helpful information only to see microagression within the article. "Why is that person's skin dirty?" Even if that's a statement that was made why would you place the comment in an article that people of color might read. Let's start with the adults before we advise the kids. Do white people tan for dirtier skin? As an African American my skin was kissed by the Sun. Disappointed that this was approved to share with all parents. I would not use any of this in a conversation with my children. More than likely I won't receive a response, but now I know contributors to this publication are just as poorly informed as the kids. SMH.