Updated: May 24
Many ethnic-minority parents recognize the importance of talking to their children about race, especially during the current racially charged climate filled with police brutality, divisive rhetoric, and hate crimes. However, despite understanding its significance, many parents have questions regarding how to talk to their children about race, especially when their children are very young. This is due to a common misbelief that children this age, say 3 to 8 years old, are too young or not emotionally prepared to handle the complexities of race.
Studies have found that racial-ethnic socialization (RES), the messages that parents of color provide their children to foster their sense of identity, self-esteem, and to prepare them for discrimination experiences or threats to their safety and wellbeing, have been positively related to academic and behavioral outcomes AND should be used with very young children (Reynolds, 2017).
Here is why it is important to talk to your young children about race, along with some tips on how to do so.
1. Talk About Racial Differences
Sorry to break it to you, but we do not live in a color-blind world. Not only do our young children recognize racial differences, but studies have found that children as young as 2 years old begin to form preferences for those individuals of their same race and that they experience discrimination through experiences such as being excluded from play groups (Hirschfield, 2008).
You can begin preparing your children to live in a diverse society in developmentally appropriate ways such as:
- Providing the appropriate vocabulary for racial or ethnic differences
- Model the use of inclusive and culturally sensitive language
- Being intentional about providing teachable moments while in public
Here are some children’s books to help begin this important conversation:
- All the Colors We Are/Todos los colores de nuestra piel: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color/La historia de por qué tenemos diferentes colores de piel by Katie Kissinger
- Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney
2. They have questions. Answer them.
Have you counted the number of questions young children ask daily? It can be overwhelming and many times a simple “hush” is the only thing we can stomach. However, answering your children’s questions about racial differences not only creates positive, open communication between you and your child, but it also demonstrates that you are comfortable tackling tough questions. Your children need to know that they can come to you with questions like “why is my skin dark?” or make statements such as “I wish I was white”. No more avoiding or telling them to “wait until you are older”, sit down, roll up your sleeves and engage with their questions in open, honest, and developmentally appropriate ways.
3. Focus on positivity and self-esteem
Studies have found that the RES messages that specifically focus on culture, heritage, and racial pride are associated with more positive child outcomes (Reynolds & Gonzales, 2017).
- Read books with people of color as the protagonist such as I Know I Can by Veronica Chapman
- Expose them to their culture and heritage through food, music, artwork in your home, and family stories
These activities will begin to foster a sense of belonging and connection to positive representations of their racial and ethnic group, which is invaluable during this malleable developmental stage.
4. Don’t shy away from talking about hardships
I know it is tempting to avoid the hard conversation about the harsh realities of life as a person of color, but don’t shy away from these conversations! It’s important for your children to know that they can come to you with questions if their friend at school says “I can’t play with you because you are black”, or if someone yells “go back to your country” on the playground. If you are having trouble navigating this conversation, check out the following scripts and find what works for your family.
What methods/resources do you use to talk to your young children about race? Share below!
Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Reynolds, J. E., & Gonzales-Backen, M. A. (2017). Ethnic-racial socialization and the mental health of African Americans: A critical review. Journal of Family Theory and Review. doi: 10.1111/jftr.12192.
Reynolds, J. E. (2017). Predictors of ethnic-racial socialization in early childhood among African American Parents. The Florida State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10258625.