Open Communication Can Help Kids Develop Healthy Attitudes About Race
Two years ago, San Bruno mother Mary Mendoza-Newman’s three-year-old son asked her in a restaurant why the man sitting across from them was brown. “It was my first realization of his awareness of differences,” she says. “I explained that we all come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. I further explained that Mamí herself was Latina, Tita and Papa (his grandparents) were from a country where people have darker skin—and he, too, gets darker in the summer.”
Talk about differences
Now almost five, Mendoza-Newman’s son takes Spanish and attends a preschool where diversity is celebrated. “His best friend is Filipino,” she says, “and his other friends are Chinese, Iranian, Vietnamese, and multiracial. We talk about the different rituals, languages, and customs. He came home one day and shared that he was Filipino and celebrated Hanukah and wanted to go to Mexico.” Rather than correcting him, she supported his embracing of diversity.
El Cerrito mother Kerry Woodward and her partner have an adopted 22-month-old daughter of a different race. “She has a babysitter who is African American,” says Woodward. When her daughter called other African Americans by the babysitter’s name, “we acknowledged that they did look like her babysitter. Then we started reading books, mostly about hair and skin color.”
Woodward also began bringing her daughter to a multiracial playgroup. “I tell her, ‘Today we’re going to see kids with hair that looks like yours.’ (Since she is adopted) we want to acknowledge that she doesn’t look like us, and to have models who look like her.”
Tarah Fleming, director of the Berkeley Multiethnic Education Program and mother of a half white-American, half black-Jamaican son, says, “Parents can respond to their children’s questions about race by saying, ‘It sounds like you are noticing differences. What other differences do you see? Let’s read a book about it.’ This takes away terms of judgment, like she has ‘good’ hair because it’s straight rather than nappy.”
Open communication is important in developing healthy attitudes about race, says Parents as Teachers Child Development Specialist Jane Kostelc. “Young kids won’t be shy about what they see; they’ll just say it out loud, so it’s important to respond calmly. It is essential not to make (race) a topic that kids feel uncomfortable raising.”
Lee Klinger Lesser, former site supervisor for College of Marin’s Children Center, advises parents to watch for natural opportunities to open dialogue about race, “to let them know it’s OK to talk about. Name stereotypes when you see them, because kids absorb judgments.”
Notice your own feelings
“One main difficulty is our own attitudes and sensitivities about race,” says Kostelc. “We have to be conscious of what we say and how we say it. Even when we think we are comfortable, we may send signals of discomfort, (for example) when boarding an airplane with someone who looks Arab.”
“Parents need to be proactive,” says Lesser, “because kids absorb everything around us.”
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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