My three-year-old daughter has recently been noticing other peoples’ skin colors. In her preschool, there’s an African American boy in her class. Her teacher reported to me that she commented that the little boy’s “arms were dirty.” My daughter apparently said it in a non-judgmental way, but I was nonetheless horrified when I heard this.
Do you have any advice for how to deal with this specific situation and the broader question of how to talk to children about race, especially since we live in the Tahoe area, a place that is not exactly known for its multicultural diversity?
Dear Confused Mom,
Thank you for writing. I am also raising a child in Tahoe, and I think about race and diversity often. Here is what I have to share with you.
How to deal with this specific situation:
Don’t be horrified. Your 3-year-old daughter is a scientist. Toddlers notice the tiniest changes in our mood, facial expressions, and intention in our voices. If you act shocked, that will show her a level of fear about what she said. It was expressed without any intention of harm so try to avoid gasping or saying anything that could introduce shame.
This is the time to show her that her thoughts are welcome and up for discussion, not judgment. Build her trust so she knows she will always be heard, no matter what she spits out.
Respond by asking an open-ended question first, and go from there. “Oh, really? Why do you say that?” Give your child time to process and think things through.
Eight Ways We Can Talk to Our Tahoe Kids About Race:
1. ASK QUESTIONS
Younger children will be learning the issue of race for the first time, so ask them questions to see how they are processing the topic.
The older a child is, the deeper you can go with conversations. And again, make sure you openly talk about these topics so you know it is happening in a safe, respectful environment.
2. DON’T BE AFRAID OR AVOID THE SUBJECT ALL TOGETHER
Race is an identity everyone has. By avoiding talking about it, we skip a part of another person’s identity. If you are white, talking about race might be an option. If you are a minority, you probably have no choice because it is a part of your everyday life.
3. USE BOOKS
Check your child’s library for books that cover diversity. Talk about the skin tones, hair colors, what language you think the person speaks, and anything else you can add about diversity. You’re also teaching your child vocabulary about race when you do this.
Use books to ask questions like, “This child’s skin color is called black, but I think it looks brown. What do you think?” Or, “Our skin is called white like this child in the book, but when I look at your skin, it looks kind of light pink, and mine looks kind of peach colored.”
Here are some book recommendations for toddlers and school-age children: It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Parr, The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka, and We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates.
4. CITE EXAMPLES FROM EVERYDAY LIFE
Once I was in a classroom where a child asked a teacher what color his crayon was. She looked at the peach color and said, “skin color.” Lately, art supply companies are creating “multicultural” boxes of crayons for all skin colors because “skin color” is not just one color.
The smallest details like these are impactful to children. Think about it, what color are your Band-Aids at home?
5. MAKE CONNECTIONS
Observe and comment on the lack of diversity in the toy aisles and in the books we read.
Tell your child it is not representative of the world we live in. Discuss injustices as they come up. Then when the children are older and can develop more understanding about race, they will understand why someone their own age would roll their eyes at a comment, or feel the need to say something in a conversation that does not sound right.
When we plant the seeds in their young, foundational years with support as they get older, they will grow to be active and outspoken when we need it the most. If your child is older, it’s not too late to talk to him or her now.
6. BE A ROLE MODEL FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR
Modeling reflective and respectful behavior is one of the most impactful ways we can teach children to internalize this topic.
They want us to be models of consistent behavior so they feel safe. You can think out loud about race, speak out against racism, and talk in a race conscientious way in front of your child. You can even correct your own language to teach that we all make mistakes.
7. FILTER POLITICS AND NEWS ACCORDING TO AGE
“Make the news easy to digest for your child,” said Jess Darkenwald, counselor at Kings Beach Elementary. “Avoid too much news input, or avoid it all together. Childhood stress is something we can help our children avoid. Keep in mind that little ones can’t digest the news the way adults can.”
• Toddlers and preschoolers: Don’t allow them to see it.
• Elementary school students: Talk to them about what’s happening without the news.
• Middle school students: Talk about biases and clarify the truth since there are many sources out there.
• High school students:
Talk about injustice and what they can do to help.
8. MOST IMPORTANTLY, MIX IT UP
All of the above suggestions work for any town or city, but we have to work harder to show our children the beauty that lies in diversity. Have your child be in situations where they are the minority, and also where they aren’t. Find a diverse school in the area to send your child. Also, have your child play and be in classes with children of different races.
Your parenting partner,
~ Abbie Lara is the teacher/owner of Conecta, a parent-toddler center that offers classes to toddlers and their parents. She also offers parenting classes and consultations to the community. Find out more at conectatahoe.com.