Children are great observers and always quick to point out what they see. But sometimes, they point out something frank enough to make the most hearty parent blush. When your kid shouts, "Mommy! That man's skin is really brown!" in the middle of the checkout line, you may shrink with embarrassment. But they're not intentionally being politically incorrect. Skin color is just one more thing that children notice and want to describe. And parents needn't be afraid to talk about it.
Melanie Killen, Professor of Human Development at the University of Maryland, says “Parents sometimes get overly embarrassed or self-defensive with kids' questions about difference, especially when those questions are asked in a public way. They're trying to figure out what other people may think about them, or what they're thinking about their child.”
Instead of hushing your child, or sashaying them out of there as quickly as possible, Killen advises taking a deep breath. These questions should not be treated as a bad thing, she says. Instead, parents should treat them as honest inquiries, and explain the facts to them as if they were asked a scientific question. "Feel comfortable about it and explain that people have all kinds of colors of skin. Look around you and point out all those colors. Use it as a teaching moment. Don't worry that asking marks your child as a racist. Tell them that difference is one of the wonderful things about the world." Whispering about it or acting embarrassed is not the answer. And it doesn't help things. “If a child asks a question about someone's brown skin and the parent gets defensive or tries to brush the question aside, that child starts to associate that and think, 'Is there something bad about brown skin?'” Killen says.
Once you're home, follow up. A public place is usually not the best venue for a long winded explanation. But once you're in private, extend the conversation. Affirm your child’s comments as being true. And then point out how different we all look – from the color of our skin, to our hair or eyes, to our shape and size. "The important thing for parents to recognize is that their child is starting to become aware of ethnicity and so now is the time to start talking about it," Killen says. It's also the time to take the opportunity to begin exposing them to people of different backgrounds, whether it be through school, visits to different restaurants, or art performances. "Compelling research has come out to show that extended contact really does reduce prejudice. Even if it's just through stories or movies. Bringing home books with stories of different ethnicities interacting, of characters of different races being friends, seems to make a big difference in reducing prejudice," Killen says.
As your child gets older, watch for comments with a more negative tone. “Jenny’s skin looks dirty.” Or “I don’t want to play with Noah because his skin is too white.” Use this as an opportunity to talk with your child about racism. Focus on ways we are all alike. And help your child to empathize by putting him in the shoes of his classmate. “How would you feel if no one wanted to play with you just because your eyes are green?”
Books can be a great way to launch into discussions about how the characters might have felt. The story of Rosa Parks, for example, can be a great way to explore with your child what he could have done if he had been on the bus with Ms. Parks. Ask, "What could you do if you see someone else treating people badly because of the color of their skin?" Help your child find alternatives such as standing up to the bully, telling an adult about what is going on, or simply stepping in to be a friend to someone in need.
Most of all, help your child learn to identify racism as she gets older by pointing it out when you see it. Explain why you didn’t laugh at Uncle Fred’s joke or why you walked away from a conversation other people were having. Talk about stereotypes and explain how someone might think a person is nice or mean, fun to be with or not fun to be with, just because of the color of their skin. "Turn the tables," Killen says. With older kids, start by talking about other categories like school clubs and then ask, "What if someone said, 'Everyone in the journalism club is stupid'. Then move on to race and ethnicity."
Explicit racism has diminished dramatically in America. But implicit forms are alive and well. Sometimes teens might not even be aware that they're discriminating. "They might say they don't want to be friends with someone because it makes them uncomfortable, but they might not even realize it's the color of their skin," Killen says.
If you've got a younger child, relish their honesty. Your child doesn’t see the world in black or white, and neither should you. Try to pick up on your child's more specific and delicious ways of labeling the colors of people’s skin. Make sure that your construction paper stack and crayon box includes lots of varied flesh-colored tones, so that she can find the right fit for a self-portrait. Help her to appreciate the beauty of diversity by asking her to create a masterpiece with only one crayon and use that experience to illustrate the value of having a diverse community.
Finally, point out how wonderful and colorful our world is by reading some great picture books about race with your child. Here are a few to get you started:
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka
Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff
Talking about race doesn’t have to be a sticky thing! By approaching it with an honest, patient and matter-of-fact tone, your child will come to feel comfortable talking about it too.
For more resources, activities, crafts and worksheets to celebrate Black History Month with your child, click here.