WHEN MY DAUGHTER was 3, her preschool teachers decided it might be good to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of the holiday celebrated in his honor. Julia came home from school that day to announce that she had learned about "a man called the King."

Who was he, I asked.

"He was a good man, and a white man killed him because he was black," she replied.

She had retained nothing more.

We moved on. About five minutes later, Julia returned to King. "What is a white man?" she asked. "What is a black man?"

I tried to explain that people come in different shades of skin color and that the darker ones sometimes are called black and the lighter ones sometimes are called white.

"No," Julia insisted, "people are pink."

I left it at that. Sometimes, children are wiser than teachers.

Four years later, a different school, a more complex mind at work. Again, the topic was King, this time taught with considerably more subtlety. Julia came home eager to talk about unfair laws, about when you must disobey rules, about justice. She wanted to know who this Jim Crow character was and where he came off being so unfair.

She had absorbed the lessons of Martin Luther King. She had strong ideas that stood up even to my persistent efforts to find the weak points in her logical foundation. I probed for soft spots: Should you be allowed to form a club that excludes people who smell bad? Absolutely not, she said. "But I don't have to be friends with them if I don't want to," she added.

I persisted: What if you have a club of people who like to eat wolf meat on Thursday afternoons? Shouldn't you be allowed to exclude vegetarians, who would just make fun of you if they came to your meetings?

"It's not fair to say they can't come," Julia replied. "But they won't want to come."

But what if they do want to come? "Then you have to let them," she said.

Even if they tell you in advance that they're going to misbehave? She was cornered. No one wants their party to be upset, but the lesson of equality of opportunity had sunk deep roots. Julia turned the tables on me: "It's not the same as telling black people they have to go to the back of the bus."

No, it isn't the same. I congratulated Julia. I liked this. I was smugly comfortable with my child's developing sense of morality.

Later we went to a basketball tournament at American University. The players came from several schools all around the area, but virtually every kid on the floor was black. Julia wanted to know why.

The question caught me off-guard. Her history lessons had caused her to look at her world with a new eye -- for the first time, she was jaded. Or was she just realistic?

I talked about opportunity, about people for whom a bouncing ball offers a rare route out of despair. I talked about heroes, and kids who want to be like their heroes. I talked about basketball being an urban game, requiring none of the expanses of land needed for baseball or football. But then Julia wanted to know why more black people live in cities and more white people live in suburbs. And she didn't buy the land thing for a second.

Our conversation was tumbling headlong into the abyss of race. In this dangerous territory, adults watch their every word, wanting neither to prejudice their offspring nor reveal -- to their kids, to the outside world, to themselves -- their own biases. We are never more pure than in the version of reality we pawn off on our young ones. This is how cynicism is born: Meaning well, we shade differences and create stories designed to soften reality, to ease tender minds into the rough ride of adulthood. Our kids listen to us, but they also exist in the world beyond us. Children are blessed with the ability to see straight through artifice. They know spin when they hear it.

I flattered myself to think that I would now have to strip away some of my kid's innocence. I would have to talk about the pain people inflict on one another. I would have to tell it straight, even though I spend much time trying to protect her from premature exposure to reality. I didn't want to do this.

What I should have realized is that I didn't have to.

She was already developing her own sensibility, even about something as complicated as race. What she needed from me was not direct teaching, but something far more subtle -- not something I should say, but something I had to live.

In the end, another blessing of childhood saved me from the difficult moment. The mystery of the "bonus" sign on the scoreboard caught Julia's attention and we detoured into a rambling conversation about fouls. Reality would wait.

Marc Fisher's e-mail address is fisherm@washpost.com.