Talking to Children about Race

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Talking to Children about Race

Have you ever read a book you couldn't stop thinking about? I keep returning to Nurture Shock because it has challenged some of my assumptions about child development.

Take race relations, for example. Popular thought goes something like this: We can raise our children to be color-blind if we just put them in diverse environments and never talk about race.

But does that really work?

The authors of Nurture Shock say it doesn't. Instead, they present convincing evidence from many studies to show that even young children do notice skin color.

I admit that as parents, we can be very uncomfortable talking about race. I am even a touch hesitant to write about it, lest I unintentionally/needlessly offend. In their research, co-authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman pick up on parents' extreme hesitance to talk about this issue.

In particular, they note that white parents tend to feel especially uncomfortable talking about race. Perhaps parents seek to avoid any hint of prejudice by simply never mentioning skin color. But we do our children a disservice by remaining mute on the issue. Our children need us to help them make sense of their world in so many other arenas … why not race, too?

Children Are Not Color-blind

Have you noticed that children have a driving need to categorize and organize their world? As the Bronson notes, "Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age." And it appears children categorize by skin color as well.

For example, researchers tested three-year-olds by displaying photographs of other children and asking whom they would like to have as friends. A stunning 86% of the white children chose photographs of other white children. When those same children were five and six, researchers gave them a small deck of cards and asked them to divide the cards into two piles any way they wished. While 16% sorted by gender and 16% used other factors (such as age), 68% of the children sorted the cards by race. Even at six months old (through a fascinating study I don't have time to explain here), children were naturally attuned to race differences. Researcher Dr. Phyllis Katz concluded "At no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau-type of color-blindness that many adults expect."

Since children notice these categories during their most formative years, it follows that we should help them understand what they see.

Here are some pointers from the book:

1. Parents should not just drop hints about racial equality. We should talk about it explicitly.

When parents want to teach their children about racial equality, they tend to say things like "God made everyone equal." But Bronson's findings show such vague statements don't convey much meaning to kids. They don't translate into the concrete messages we want our kids to embrace.

So instead, we can say things more explicitly, such as: "God made people with different skin colors. He loves all of us, no matter what color our skin is or where we come from. Our family also loves people who are black, brown, white and anywhere in between!"

2. As kids generalize in order to understand their own identity, they may say things about race that make you cringe.

This doesn't mean they'll grow up to be racist, but it does mean you have a great opportunity to teach.

When Bronson's young son, Luke, began asserting that his favorite basketball player on TV was the one "with skin like us," Bronson kept talking with Luke until he got to the bottom of the issue. It turns out that Luke was self-conscious about his hair, which looked so different than the black players' hair-styles. I like how Bronson sums it up: "My son was looking for his own identity, and looking for role models. … I dealt with these moments explicitly, telling my son it was wrong to choose anyone as his friend, or his favorite, on the basis of their skin color or even their hairstyle. We pointed out how certain friends wouldn't be in our lives if we picked friends for their color. He got the message, and over time he not only accepted but embraced this lesson. Now he talks openly about equality and the wrongfulness of discrimination."

3. Merely placing children in proximity with children of other races doesn't seem to help unite races.

Bronson says that the more diversity there is in a public high school, the more the students will self-segregate by race. Unless there are specific initiatives to help children think constructively about race relations and form cross-racial friendships, the pressure to fit in with one's own ethnic group trumps.

In their research of many scientific studies, Bronson and Merryman found that merely putting children in situations where they encounter other races isn't enough. Parents need to talk about the fact that we can be friends and interact with people of other races just as we would with people who happen to have the same skin color as we do.

4. Books about race relations can help children understand their world more appropriately.

Bronson didn't spend much time on this point, but I of course found it fascinating! And it reinforced what I already knew: literature helps open up important conversations you need to have with your children.I have found that to be true in my own family. It never crossed my mind that I needed to talk to my children to let them know that just as girls can grow up to be doctors and engineers, so too can Blacks, Native Americans, Whites and Hispanics. But, my children grew up with clear understandings of racial issues.

I believe this is because we studied so many cultures around the world and did not shy away from difficult racial issues. As the children grew, we simply read, discussed and were deeply impacted by Sonlight books we shared, such as:

Why do I think reading is a huge key to helping raise children who don't judge others based on race? Read more here.

If you're as intrigued as I am by these reflections on race relations and child development, I'd suggest you track down a copy of Nurture Shock. Perhaps you'll find the whole book as interesting as I did.

As parents, may we be purposeful in imparting to our children all of our heritage and raising them with a right understanding. Let's help our kids make sense of this fascinating world God created.

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