Thought this title might grab your interest. Far too often we silence children about race. The curiosity of a 3 year old provokes an awkward question being made open in public, “Mommy, why is his skin dark like that?” Out of embarrassment the mommy quickly says, “Shh”. Silencing a child and not responding to the question doesn’t take their question away, it merely teaches a child to learn not to talk about race publicly. It is impossible to avoid topics about race, or to convince ourselves that our children are protected from the conversation. As adults we need to recognize that what upsets us also impacts our children. Even the youngest child will pick up on a change of mood or emotion in the adults that care for them. Research shows that young children notice race at a very young age and also develop racial biases by ages 3 to 5. What we can’t do is pretend that by NOT talking about it, our kids won’t know that something is going on.
The events surrounding the deaths and court decisions of black men in this country should be conversations in our homes, schools, churches and playgrounds. We need to guide our children in ways to understand the upset that they are bound to see and feel as protests and demonstrations come closer to home.
Are we proud of students who walk out of class for an important cause? Are we upset that students are taking stands about who gets to protest and who must take a back seat? Do we see a place for these conversations in our high schools? Middle schools? What about elementary schools? How young is too young to have this conversation?
No matter what age your child is, the most important place to have this conversation is at home. They need to know how you see the situation, and they need to voice their thoughts and opinions where they will be heard and safely guided.
Your child may have opinions that are derived from mis-information, or from a complete mis-understanding of what they have overheard. It is our responsibility as adults to help fill in gaps, to explain what is not known, to distance the discussion from the specific facts of a specific case and discuss the broader implications of what is happening in their lives.
Some wonderful resources exist for teachers - starting with the twitter hashtag #fergusonsyllabus. But what can you do about having this conversation with your young children at home?
First, it is important to note that there are some myths about young children and color that need to be addressed. One of them is the notion that children don’t care about skin color and need to be taught to discriminate. The truth is that children are exposed to the biases of our culture no matter how we try to insulate them.
The famous Clark doll study has had consistent results for almost 40 years. Young children of different races are asked to choose between a black baby doll and a white baby doll, and consistently choose the white doll. The white doll is the “good doll” or the “pretty doll” or the “nice doll” even to children who clearly understand that the black doll looks more like them.
Psychology Today (commentary, research and news that cover all aspects of human behavior) offers some important thoughts about how children expose one another to racial bias, and what we as parents should do to ensure that our children know how to handle discriminatory language and situations that they may experience or witness.
We know that children see differences and ask questions. It is the responsibility of families to discuss race and issues about race with their children. It is even more important now when high school students are making choices about what part they should play in protests and demonstrations, and what positions they want to take in school discussions, that we start these conversations at home.
0 - 3 year olds -
● Does your child have dolls that represent his or her own race? What other kinds of dolls does your child have access to? Watch how your child plays and join in. Roll play with the dolls and help your child see what you want them to see when they look in the mirror.
● Gift a racially diverse set of dolls to your child’s day care home or center.
● Look for books with heroes and characters of different races.
● Broaden your social circle and help your child be comfortable with many people.
3- 5 year olds -
● Make sure your child feels safe with individuals of different races. Take a trip to the police or fire department and introduce your child to community helpers.
● Gift books to your child’s school or day care center that have diverse heroes. Talk about the races of the characters and who the good guys look like.
● Wonder with your child about the race of princesses, about the way the bad guys have accents or the good guys dress in white. Make the conversation OK in your home.
● Let your child talk about race and difference, and change the subject when you see that it is time.
5 - 10 year olds -
● Provide opportunities for children to bring up their feelings about news they’ve heard of. Talk about when the police come to their school and how it feels.
● Talk about protests you’ve heard about or demonstrations led by high school students or that you have participated in. Talk about how it makes you feel.
● Listen. They know more than you think they know and need to express their fears, concerns, opinions and misunderstandings.
● Offer your perspective & help to guide their developing views.
● Be protective and watch for signs that your child needs to change the subject. This is difficult material and they may only be able to handle a bit at a time.
10 - 15 year olds -
● Ask your child if they are interested in joining you in watching a report or reading an article about a protest. Watch, read, and discuss what is happening together.
● Listen. They have strong opinions that aren’t always grounded in truth and they need your guidance to understand what they are trying to process.
● Admit that you don’t have the answers, that you are confused, that you have strong opinions too. Make it normal to wonder and change your mind as events unfold.
● You know your child best, stay alert to changes that may indicate that they have reached a threshold and aren’t able to process more information.
15 - 20 year olds-
● Discuss the demonstrations they are interested in or hearing about. They have opportunities to be a part of many different activities, marches, die-ins, pickets and online forums. Know what your child is participating in.
● Talk about your views - the range of perspectives and views on what are the “right” activities to engage in are wide. Help your child understand where you stand and why so that they can make choices.
● Stay alert to changes in mood or behavior that may indicate that the situation has become more than your student can handle. These are important developmental years and your child may become overwhelmed by the struggle.
Being silent about race does not keep children from noticing race; it just keeps them from talking about it. So next time your 3 year old blurts out the question “why is his skin dark like that?” avoid the “shh” response and respond appropriately, “Honey, the world would be boring if we all had the same color of skin. Just like we are born with different color hair and eyes, people have different skin colors.” Remember you can make each moment a teachable moment.