Dear Doctors: My daughter Sandy is 5 years old and has never talked about race. Should I bring it up or wait? We are black. J.E., Memphis

Dear J.E.: Children usually talk about racial features or differences around 3 or 4 years of age. If most of the people around them are of their own race, this is less likely. But with television and some traveling, most children hear people talking about race and are curious.

Occasionally, parents don't hear the question because the children are sometimes indirect. Sometimes the question makes parents anxious. If Sandy senses that you have trouble talking about a subject, she might not bring it up again.

It is not helpful to hold a special session with her to talk about race. But she should begin to become comfortable with who she is at an early age, so wait for the next natural chance to mention race and do so. If you have a television set or you travel in areas where there are white people, the natural chance will come. Grab your chance. This will reestablish race as an okay topic for Sandy to discuss with you.

Be casual and natural in your comments. She probably will raise some specific questions. "Am I black?" "Are you black?" She may want to know if Mary - who is white - is black. If Sandy is light skinned, she will want to know how she can be black when she is white or light brown.

Answer her at a language level she can understand. "Yes, you are black. Yes, I am black. No, Mary is white."

You want to get across the fact that black is the name of a group and white is the name of a goup and not the skin color; that people in the black group range from white to black and the people in the white group range from white to very dark.

She will not truly understand this concept until she is 7 or 8. But you can give her a start now.

And don't put down all other groups, or she may have difficulty relating to children who are different. She may also sense that you put down others because you are uncomfortable being who you are.

It is true, and helpful, that blacks laugh at themselves as individuals and as a group from time to time. There is a difference, however, between this and consistent and deeply felt animosity toward one's own race.

Children can sense the difference between kidding and group depreciation. They can tell when their parents' true message is: "Black is not really good, but I am black; therefore, I must pretend it is good." They will pretend in the same way.

But they will have a good deal of mixed feelings, anxiety and anger - some directed at you - about being black.

The most troublesome situations arise when a black child who has been told black is beautiful then has his rights and needs ignored or abused by his own black parents.

Positive feelings about being black come first from the way a child is cared for; second from performing well in a family, neighbourhood or school, and third from being able to handle racial antagonism and being aware of the contributions of one's race.

I know many black children who have a positive racial identity, whose parents used only natural openings to discuss race. These youngsters handle themselves well with all groups. They can discuss race issues easily. They show a mature concern about racism and injustice by the age of 10.

On the other hand, I know children who have been bombarded with discussions about race, almost from birth, and who are insecure about being black - even in all-black settings. -- Dr. Comer