I used to like the idea that kids are colorblind. I love the vision of American being this great melting pot where kids of every race play together in perfect harmony. I think we are getting there. But as my kids are getting older, I’ve begun to realize that children do, in fact, notice race. I’ve even had the sinking feeling as I’ve observed playground interactions that Jafta is sometimes excluded because he looks different. When he is with his long-time friends who know him well, this is not the case. But when he is the new kids on the playground, kids are very wary of playing with him, where they may be more welcoming of another white child. He had a really difficult time with being left out at his very vanilla preschool at first, and I think this was a factor, too.
I thought I was just being paranoid until I started doing some research on it. A simple seach on race and exclusion yielded dozens of recent studies on the impact of race in preschool and elementary school. The findings were scary: race is one of the biggest factors in children being left out by their peers. It’s as impactful as gender, physical differences, and even cognitive ability.
I’m not sure why I was so naive to think my own kids didn’t notice these differences. I feel like I have done a good job of exposing my kids to lots of cultural diversity. But they let me know in subtle ways. I was mortified when my son pointed to a Mexican man who was bagging our groceries and asked what that gardener was doing. He also yells “hey neighbor” to any woman he sees wearing a head covering, because there is a Muslim woman who lives across the street. And my daughter? At only 18 months old, she displayed her observation of racial differences. We attend a gospel choir rehearsal at an African American church, and my daughter begins enthusiastically singing one of the songs every time she sees a group of Black people. Um, awkward!
The truth is, at the age that most children begin to notice gender differences, they also begin to notice race. I think many of us are unaware of this, because it can be subject we inadvertently avoid. We want our kids to be “colorblind”, so we pretend not to notice differences and encourage them do to the same. But in doing so, we might miss some important conversations. (Like pointing out that not ALL Mexicans are gardeners). If we avoid the subject, we leave our kids to their own assumptions that are often based on a lack of exposure.
I have a few friends who decided to broach the subject of race with their children, and they were shocked at what they found. One child expressed how glad she was that her skin was light because lighter was prettier. Another child said, point-blank, that he didn’t like kids with brown skin. Another parent decided to just observe her son at their next park outing. She watched her child allow a white child into the circle to share sand toys, but tell a Mexican child he had to play elsewhere.
Now, let me point out that these are not bad, abnormal, or cruel kids. These are sweet kids from amazing families, just expressing a typical (albeit flawed) developmental preference for similarity. A child who is wary of children who look different is not a racist in the making, any more than a child who wants to play with kids of their own gender is a budding sexist. These are normal developmental stages. However, like many “normal” childhood traits (impulsivity, selfishness, etc), this brand of xenophobia may need some gentle guidance and education from parents.
So what’s a parent to do? Here are a few things we’ve been trying at my house:
2. Be intentional in showing your children positive examples of other races in the media they watch. Some great examples are Go, Diego, Go!, Little Bill, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Dora the Explorer, and Cooking for Kids with Luis.
3. Take inventory of your own racial biases. Be careful with the language you use around your children. Avoid making stereotypical statements or racial jokes in front of your children. (or better yet, don’t do it at all).
4. Look for opportunities to immerse your family in other cultures. Try to find situations where your family is the minority. This is a great stretching and empathy building opportunity for you and your kids. Try attending a minority church event or a cultural festival. Again, observe your child’s reactions and open a dialogue about how that feels.
5. Read books that depict children from other races and countries. Some of our favorites are We’re Different, We’re the Same, The Colors of Us , and Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Book) . For an incredible list of multi-cultural children’s books, check out Shades of Love at Shelfari.com.
6. Just observe. Watch how your children plays with children who are different, whether it be skin color, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process their feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding them to accept children with differences.
7. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.