Years before I became a child psychologist, I was a swim teacher and taught kindergarten. I remember working in the water one day with a four-year-old white girl who started to rub my arm.
"Does it come off?" she asked.
"Does what come off?" I asked back.
"The black." She was rubbing her arm on mine as if to get some of my skin color on her. Her mother, who had been sitting near us, gasped. She turned to me, pale and embarrassed. "I don't know where she'd come up with such a thing," she said. "We never talk about & things like that." She pulled her daughter out of the water and ended the lesson, shushing the girl as they left.
As a teacher, I had heard these kinds of comments from children before directed not just at me but at other kids or adults—then witnessed the crestfallen looks on their parents' faces. The parents would ask, "Where do kids get this stuff from? They can't even notice race yet, right?" Or, "Does this mean my child will be a racist?" Or they would get defensive: "We don't teach them that at home." "We have plenty of friends of different races." "We don't even talk about race, so how can they know what it is?" In my work with children as a teacher and as a psychologist, I've found that scientific research can assuage many parents' fears. While there's no easy answer to the question, "How do I raise a tolerant child?" research does offer some constructive suggestions for how kids learn about race, and when and how to discuss it with them.
Let's start from the beginning: Do kids even see or notice race? The answer is yes, they see and notice racial differences from a very young age, even in infancy. In fact, several studies by psychologists Phyllis Katz and Jennifer Kofkin have found that infants and very young children (from six to 18 months) will gaze at the faces of people of a different race longer than they look at faces from their own racial group. A prolonged gaze is how infants and toddlers commonly react to new information, and here it suggests racial difference is visually salient to them. This means that kids are able to notice and pay attention to racial differences even before they can speak about them. Katz and Kofkin also found that, by the age of three, children will start choosing to play with people of their own race more than people of a different race.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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