6 Tips for Talking With Your Preschooler About Diversity
Every day in America, children encounter people of different races and cultures—and sometimes they ask tough, even embarrassing, questions. Do only black kids play basketball? Why do Chinese kids have funny eyes? Why do we call people white when they’re really pinkish-yellowish?
Questions like those can make parents nervous, but don’t panic. What we’ve learned from decades of research can help you discuss race and culture with your preschool (and older) child. Here are six tips from the experts:
1. Answer, don’t ignore, your child’s questions about race. Research shows that children notice race from a very young age, and they’ll even start sorting themselves into racial groups by age three. But that doesn’t mean they’re racists. “Skin color is just one more thing that children notice and want to describe,” writes teacher and mother Skila Brown, “And parents needn't be afraid to talk about it.” In fact, studies by McGill University psychologist Frances Aboud and others have found that preschool kids who are able to identify people by race are actually less likely to show prejudice. So if your child asks you if the black rubs off, don’t run away from the question—answer it.
2. Recognize differences without embracing prejudice. For preschool children, physical traits like the color of skin, hair, and eyes are cause for curiosity—which will turn to animosity only if others connect these traits with behavioral flaws or make them the target of teasing. It’s not prejudiced for a white child to notice that his eyes are different from those of a Chinese classmate. But what if your child makes fun of Asian eyes? Treat it just like any other hurtful comment and help your child see the damage it might cause.
3. Be positive and nurture your child’s curiosity. “Talk about differences among people in a positive way to help children appreciate the special qualities of all people,” advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Talk about the similarities among people to help your child understand that all of us are more alike than different.” Race and culture are, of course, different categories, and yet they demand the same skills in recognizing, tolerating, and negotiating differences between people. So we as parents shouldn’t be afraid to openly share what we find beautiful or interesting or curious about other cultures. If a child asks, for example, why Mexican-Americans make use of scary skulls and skeletons to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, you can find out together and explore how that holiday is similar to Halloween.
4. Be patient. When University of California Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and his colleagues studied cross-racial friendships, they found that people needed “time to allow each other to be understood, time for us to relax, time for us to simply talk and get to know each other,” as he writes in the book Are We Born Racist?. This is also true for parents helping their children learn to negotiate a world filled with people who are different from each other. We teach our kids to share, say please and thank you, and clean up after themselves—fundamental parental duties that can be a long-term struggle. In those struggles, as in this one, patience is a virtue.
5. Put your own fears aside, and try to understand what motivated the question. Any anxiety triggered by our kids’ questions can prevent us from hearing what our children are really asking. If an Asian child asks if only black kids play basketball, he may really be asking if it’s be okay for him to play basketball since he isn’t black. The correct response? "Well, it looks like a lot of black kids like playing basketball! Do you want to play basketball with them when you're older?"
6. Expose kids to a variety of experiences: “Children won't be comfortable with difference if they never experience it,” writes Lucy Rector Flippu. “Expose your kids to food, languages, and cultural festivals from cultures around the world. When possible, enroll them in a school or other activities that include a mix of children from various races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds.” This won’t just help your kids negotiate a multiracial world. It’s also fun for the whole family!
The bottom line is that we as parents must be brave and patient in answering questions about race and culture—and trust our children’s natural curiosity and sense of fairness.
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