Talking About Race with Young Children

Updated: Sep 17

Written by Tasnim Begum


The science behind the benefits of talking about race with children is clear and conversations about race should be normalized within families. Some parents avoid or delay this topic in fear of exposing children to racism and discrimination from a young age. However, when parents stay silent, it creates another problem: children are left to try to make sense of race on their own, which often leads to false assumptions.


Race vs. Racism


The positive sides of a diverse society are endless. Introducing race from early childhood can yield positive racial identity development in children; such as academic success and better mental health outcomes (Anderson et. al, 2015). Yet, given the prevalence of racism in society, many people tend to equate race to racism and; thus stems fear and discomfort around this topic. Literature shows by the time all children begin school, they witness stereotypes and those in the majority may display prejudiced traits. Due to decades of injustice against minority racial groups, parents fear that conversations about race in the early years will expose their children to inequities at an early age. Introductory conversations about race are going to be different by race because what it means to be X race is different historically and in the present. For parents of color, the fear may be exposing their children to racial injustice which may lead to self-doubt or feelings of false inferiority as well as increased levels of mistrust of other races. In contrast, for White parents, there may be an assumption that children hold the same racial beliefs and that they are “colorblind” to racial differences. (Zucker and Patterson, 2018). Additionally, some parents feel hesitant to discuss race with their children in fear of promoting racism and xenophobia. As a result, some parents believe avoiding discussions of race will suffice, but it has been found to promote racial biases. (Apfelbaum, 2010).


Parental Discussion by Race


Parents and caregivers approach talking about race differently based on their own racial identity and experiences. Often these conversations serve as a part of racial socialization in families. Racial socialization is defined as the verbal and nonverbal communication that takes place among families emphasizing the significance of race, interactions, and identity (Lesane-Brown, 2006). For instance, Black families tend to use the process of racial socialization in order to prepare and protect their children from discriminatory encounters, and promote racial pride (Anderson et al., 2019). However, this same conversation about race in a White family should focus on acknowledging systematic privileges, which teaches children about how people of color are treated unfairly. Unpacking one’s White privilege is important because it is the first step to recognizing that there is a problem. Examining it allows white individuals to see ways they have benefitted from and sustained racism (Helms, 1995). Acknowledging White privilege in families does not mean White families do not have daily life struggles, instead their struggles are not because of their race (Griffin, 2020).


Race in Early Childhood


A justification for avoiding “The Talk” is: kids don’t see color. However, literature has demonstrated that children are able to distinguish racial features as early as 3 months old (Sangrigoli & de Schonen, 2004). Before starting a conversation about race with our children, it is important to note that adults should be educated on the topic. In order to initiate this conversation, adults need to assess their own racial identity. As Dr. Bedford Palmer stated, one of the major and first questions to be asked is “What is your relationship to your skin color?”. Having this question answered will guide you to answer concerns or questions your kids may pose. Research shows the beliefs parents have about race usually have a strong influence on their children’s racial identity development (Cooper & Smalls, 2010). Understanding what race is and how it impacts the lives of people from different racial backgrounds helps adults to confront biases when addressing race with kids. Additionally, it enables adults to differentiate between race and racism. In order to build an anti-racist society, we must have these uncomfortable discussions because shying away from them will not prevent children from wondering why their skin color or physical features are different than others.


In addition, conversations about race have to be constant and welcomed between adults and children. Research shows parents approach race in a reactive manner rather than proactive (Priest et al., 2016). Addressing racial wonders from a young age allows children to navigate the encounters they face when out in the real world. Furthermore, initiating this “Talk” with your children does not have to be formal either. Children are always curious! Approach their curiosity in ways that make sense to them. For instance, when walking down the toy aisle of their favorite toy store, explain to them why there is a doll that is Black and another that is White. Remember it is never too young to talk about race or gender with children (Brown & Anderson, 2019).



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