Talking to Kids About Race {Guest Post} | Confessions of a Stay-At-Home Mom

April 16, 2012

Talking to Kids About Race {Guest Post}

A friend of mine (who also blogs) (and also has a preschooler and a baby) will be sharing 2 posts that she created for a seminary class around the topic of talking to our kids about race.  In light of some of my recent thoughts and posts, I felt it was timely and a good discussion to be having.  I'd love for you to weigh in, give your thoughts, and share!

Today will be Melissa's first post about WHY it's important to talk to kids about race.


Why Talk To Kids About Race?

Thanks to Steph for letting me post on her blog!  I should start of by saying I'm not an expert on children and race. I'm a seminarian at Princeton Theological Seminary and a parent of a preschooler and an infant. The information I share below is part of a project I did for a class on critical race theory. I wanted a resource for talking to my children about differences in skin color so I put together this guide.

I'll be sharing this information in two posts. The first, why it's important to talk to your kids about race. The second, how to talk to your kids about race.

Why do we have to talk about race with our children? 
Attitudes about race and ethnicity begin forming early on. We get information for these judgments both directly and indirectly. Children see the way race plays out among teachers, friends, parents' friends, doctors, nurses, wait staff, house cleaners, the unemployed, and the homeless. By age twelve their attitudes about race are primarily set. Providing a safe place for our children to explore issues of race is an important part of starting this formation in the right way.

Why do we have to start so young? 
Children begin to notice physical differences from birth (studies show that babies as young as six-months old can discriminate on the basis of skin color!). Rebecca Bigler concludes from her studies conducted at the University of Texas - Austin that children are prone to in-group favoritism. Children naturally make sense of their world through categorization, and they most heavily rely on visual cues. This is a natural part of their development, and children will process their self-identification by identifying what defines them as "good" and what defines the differences of others as "bad." 

By the time children are five years old they begin to place value judgments on these categories of difference and similarity. This is a crucial period in the development of attitudes about difference. Children between ages five and eight are old enough to think about more complex ideas such as race but still young enough to be flexible about these beliefs. By the time children are in fourth grade their racial attitudes are much more rigid and difficult to change.

Isn't it better to ignore race differences and encourage children to be color-blind? 
All physical human differences, including race, are clearly visible to children. If we don't talk about race with our children they will begin making judgments on their own. "Bigler contends that children extend their shared appearances much further—believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn't like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism." 

An important study by Phyllis Katz, then at the University of Colorado, looked at 100 white and 100 black three-year olds to discover how they think about race: 

Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they'd like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: "I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect." 

Color-blindness is a myth and starting with premise can lead to harmful racialized attitudes later in life. 

In my next post I'll share some guidelines for talking about race with your preschool-aged children.


What do YOU think? Do you feel it's important to talk to kids about race? How do you, as a parent, handle the subject?

Leave a comment - we'd love to hear your thoughts!

And thanks Melissa - we look forward to Post #2!

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Hey! Share a thought or two - I'd love to hear from you! ~ Steph

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