Open Communication Can Help Kids Develop Healthy Attitudes About Race (page 4)
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.”
Help kids overcome biases
Van Nuys preschool teacher Michelle Krehl recalls a child named Gail who told a student teacher, “I don’t like you because you are black.” Krehl says, “We had a very open dialogue and recognized that Gail was afraid of the student teacher because she had not had much interaction with her. It is almost always fear of the unfamiliar that breeds prejudices.” Krehl met with Gail’s parents, who realized that Gail had not interacted with any African Americans.
After the student teacher spent time with Gail in normal classroom activities, says Krehl, “it was felt that the issue was resolved. Of course, we did continue to follow up. I incorporated an activity where we traced all the children’s bodies and then they painted themselves and added hair. We were able to have many discussions about how we are unique and also alike and different.”
Don’t get offended
El Cajon teacher Cheryl McGrew, who is African American, says when she first arrived, “parents assumed I was an assistant teacher, so I’ve tried to have open communication with parents. That same first month a Caucasian girl asked me, ‘Why are you chocolate?’ I told her that my skin is just different. She then asked, ‘Am I vanilla?’ I said ‘Yes.’
“I think it’s important that teachers not get offended by children’s comments, but instead let the kids know it’s OK that they have questions. I have a lot of literature in the classroom and I try to (talk about) different cultures.”
Challenge inconsiderate behavior
In San Bruno preschool teacher Pauahi McGinn’s diverse classroom, she says, “this year I had an incident where some children laughed when we sang a Tongan song. I asked the children what made them laugh. The kids finally came to the conclusion that the words were funny.” McGinn then asked the children, “How do we feel when someone laughs at us?”
“The conversation just exploded from there,” she recalls. “The kids gave examples of when others had laughed at them. We talked about how people feel when they are laughed at. I think the more you voice your opinions when people are biased, the more others will think before they are inconsiderate.”
Embrace your own identity
San Jose mother Sandy Baba, a Chinese immigrant, and her Japanese husband work to support their daughter’s developing cultural identity: “At home, I read her Chinese stories and sing Chinese songs.” Baba’s daughter also attends an education program where the teacher prepares Japanese meals and shares Japanese folktales. “Our goal,” says Baba, “is to raise our daughter so that she understands her own cultural values and behaviors and will have a strong foundation to learn and respond to others.”
White San Francisco mother Mary Jean Koontz says that when her three-year-old son began singing, “Happy Birthday, brown daddy!” to his Caribbean father, she and her husband didn’t respond with discomfort. They were just pleased that he was noticing differences—and celebrating them!
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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