Adults tend to argue about complexities of race and racism. We worry about saying the wrong thing or maybe worse, not saying anything at all. But toddlers usually have little associations with race. Research suggests by the time kids go to kindergarten, some even say preschool, they already prefer to play with other kids or dolls who look similar to them. Which is why the toddler years are the perfect time to start talking about race.
Here are 5 reasons I teach my 2-year-old about race
1. Toddlers are not colorblind
Last week while waiting for our food at a restaurant, my 2-year-old dumped a box of crayons on her high chair tray. She showed me red and purple, her favorite colors. Then she held up a brown crayon, “Mama, look. It’s brown like Daddy.” I smiled and asked her what color crayon I was. She held up the white one. “What color are you?” I asked. She scanned the pile of crayons, “Mama what’s dis one?” That’s peach, I told her. “I’m peach,” she said proudly.
It was first time I realized my 2-year-old was keenly aware of the different shades of skin color in our family. Even if everyone in your family identifies with the same crayon, most toddlers are aware of differences at this stage. They are learning their colors and pointing out a blue car and a green ball, so why not help them name and notice skin color? Of course there is more to people than just the color of their skin, but to deny skin color is to ignore part of who they are. White people are the only ones who have the privilege pretending that skin color doesn’t matter.
2. Toddlers are learning to categorize and organize their world
I praise my daughter when she puts all of the red blocks together and then all of the blue blocks. Experts say kids do the same with skin color. They use their own skin as a base and notice people who are similar or different. They probably haven’t picked up on the intricacies of social class and privilege, but they do notice race. I often ask myself, what do I want my toddler’s first understanding to be about race? Do we have books and toys that show people who look like her and people who look different? My daughter loves the book “Global Babies” and I do too, because there is no story, no cultural bias, just babies from around the world.
Even more important than books, it is actual people in your life who will affect your kids’ understanding of race. If the only Latino or brown skinned person your child sees is the woman who cleans your home, then it’s no wonder certain stereotypes get reinforced from a young age. Do I have friends who I regularly see who look different from me? Studies show kids and adults who have meaningful relationships with people from different ethic or cultural backgrounds feel more comfortable around new people of different races. Our toddlers get their first cues how to organize and categorize their world from us.
3. Toddlers pick up on cultural stereotypes and subtle emotional cues
We all know that how we talk about something is just as important as what we say, especially when it comes to people and race. Perhaps equally important is what our children see around them. The famous Clark Doll Study of the 1940s asked white and black children a series of questions, and almost unanimously both groups preferred the white doll. In 2010, University of Chicago Professor Margaret Beale Spencer and her team of psychologists re-created a similar study and surprisingly found that sixty years later white kids still associate positive attributes to their own skin color and negative attributes to darker skin.
As white parents, we should be asking “why?” Pay attention to cultural stories and fairy tales that we show to our kids. Listen to how we talk about colors. Disney movies, up until recently, only featured white princesses and white people. The next time you’re watching a movie or reading a book with your little one, try asking yourself two questions: Are there non-white people? If so, what roles do they play? Even if it’s not direct, kids start to recognize patterns and notice who gets what part and who gets left out.
Whether we like it or not, woven into the fabric of our country’s Anglo-Saxon history and literature are stories that glorify white as pure and clean and black as dark, evil and dirty. One Kindergarten teacher seeking to give her students new language and associations with skin tones, developed a unit on the beauty of the color brown. She helped them create poetry and art by tasting and smelling things like chocolate, chai and cinnamon in hopes of developing new connotations for this color. She realized that many children’s songs and storybooks leave out brown and black all together, and if they were included, there were mostly negative associations. She helped re-shape kids’ understanding of these colors, and I think we can start doing the same.
4. Toddlers are learning to ask questions
Researchers say babies as young as 6 months can distinguish skin color and facial features among ethic groups. So when your 3-year-old points and asks at the grocery store, “Why is he black?” Don’t hush or ignore him. Instead help him. Reframe the question, “Yes, he is black. Do you want to go say hello and ask him what his name is?” Toddlers ask, “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why is his skin black?” in the same breath. They don’t associate meaning until they intuit our discomfort.
As kids get older, use time at home to brainstorm and practice questions they can use when they meet someone new or see someone who looks different from them. Things like, “Mama, that looks like a new friend. Can I say hello?”
Pay attention to what questions you ask someone whose skin color is different from yours. One multicultural mom writes about how she stopped asking, “Where are you from?” when meeting someone new. By asking, you are essentially implying, “you look different and not from here.” Maybe when you’re vacationing in Italy and see another white family wearing tennis shoes there is no harm in asking. But when you are at your local grocery store and your adopted son or daughter gets that question it feels very different.
5. Toddlers will grow up to be the next generation of leaders
As a parent I want my daughter to know not only how to talk about diversity, but also how to build deep friendships with all kinds of people. I want her to be able to see the beauty in peoples’ differences and also the similarities in our humanness. Sadly, researchers say this does not just happen “naturally” when we send our little ones off to school. Like most parts of raising kids with character, it takes instruction and modeling.
My daughter will eventually learn about diversity. She will notice how I am treated when I walk into a store versus how her daddy is treated when he walks in. I want to be part of how she navigates these differences and makes sense of her own “peach skin” in a world with very defined ranks and order for skin color. Part of that means that I, as a white mom of a biracial daughter, must constantly unravel all of the ways I interpret the world from a perspective of privilege. It is only through that process that I can begin to address my daughter’s observations and feelings.
One of the best ways we can begin to fight racism is by simply acknowledging it. From there we can start to talk about it with our toddlers. Let’s give our kids the tools they need to understand the world they live in, with all of it’s profound differences and colors. Let’s teach them the words they need to be able to talk about these differences with love, respect and empathy. Let’s make room for their questions and all of the colors they notice.
In the end, it might be just as valuable for us as it is for them.
Michelle is a former special education teacher. She currently lives in Guatemala where she works in non-profits while trying to raise a bilingual and bicultural daughter. Michelle writes about motherhood, marriage and life in between two cultures and countries at simplycomplicated.me. You can find her on Twitter @MichelleAcker.
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