How children think about differences
We may think that if we don’t draw attention to race by talking about it, that they will literally grow up colour blind. However, children notice obvious differences such as a skin colour, just as much as they see the difference between red and blue.
An experiment was done with preschoolers, where 4- and 5-year-olds were given t-shirts to wear for 3 weeks. Half were given blue shirts, the other half red. The teachers never mentioned the colours or grouped the children any differently. The children didn’t separate each other either, happily playing and working together. However, when they were asked which colour team was better, would win races or were smarter, the children chose their own colour. This is known as in-group favouritism.
Even if no teacher or parent mentions racial differences, children will use skin colour on their own to make distinctions, just the way they would with different coloured shirts.
In a famous study by Phyllis Katz, photographs of different children were shown to 3-year-olds and they were asked to choose whom they would like to have as friends. 86% of the white children picked children of their own race.
Children aged 5 and 6 were given a deck of cards with people on them and asked to sort the piles in any way they chose. 16% of the children chose to use gender, a further 16% chose things such as age or mood of the person. Without any prompting, however, 68% of the children used race to split the cards.
So the truth is that our very young children are noticing racial differences and we cannot just leave them to figure it all out on their own.
You can start talking about race from as young as age 3, but don’t wait too long. There are developmental windows or stages when a child’s attitude is most open to change. This window closes at around age 8 or 9. You can always, of course, shift your child’s thinking if it’s problematic at a later age, but if you have the open gap, use it.
One study had children of different races work on tasks in school together. Children in Grade 1 chose to play with the friends they worked with in class more than they did before, with more cross-race interaction. Children in Grade 3, however, showed no difference at all.
How to talk to your children about race
Be explicit. Saying, "We are all friends" or "God made all of us", without mentioning racial differences in particular, is way too vague for children to understand it refers to skin colour.
Author, Po Bronson, tells a story of a friend of his who repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, 'Remember, everybody's equal.' She really thought she was being a great mom and getting the message across. After 7 months of repeating this idea over and over, her son asked, ‘Mommy, what’s equal mean?’
Just as you would tell your children that both mommies and daddies can be doctors, you can tell them that doctors can be any skin colour too. Or when you talk about not teasing the girl with red hair and freckles, you can also mention not teasing anyone just because they are different to you, such as someone with a different colour skin or different type of hair.
Also, remember to emphasise that just because you're different to somebody else, doesn't make them or you any better.
This type of conversation needs to be repeated and reinforced. Use opportunities such as movies, books, stories your child tells you, events on the news, etc. as springboards for discussion.
Finally, when talking about race, don’t be vague. Make it unmistakable what you mean in a way that your child will understand.
Do you talk to your children about race? What do you say?