Q&A for Parents About Discussing Race With Children - An Interview with Nurture Shock

Browse → Serious Issues → Tolerance & Dignity
To bring more knowledge about tough subjects to our readers, whyzz asked Ashley Merryman, co-author of the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, to answer some questions about discussing race and prejudice with children.
NurtureShock is written by Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson. More of Merryman and Bronson’s wisdom can be found by visiting their book’s website, www.nurtureshock.com, or by checking out their Newsweek blog, http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/nurtureshock/default.aspx.
1. When should you start talking about race with your children?
According to April Harris-Britt, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, parents should start talking to kids about race about as soon as children are able to pay attention to the images in a picture book. Once caregivers are pointing out the physical attributes (e.g., "Look the ball is colored red. What color is the boy's shirt? Is that blue?”), descriptions of people's skin color should also be included in the dialogue.
Of course, Harris-Britt doesn't expect parents to conduct long discussions about race with infants and toddlers. Her point is that when we omit talking about the most visible descriptors of people, we are already communicating that it's not all right to talk about race. The kids start learning that they can't talk to us about race, before they can even talk. 
2. Talking about race is a pretty scary idea for many of us, because we think we'll say things that will only make things worse.
I've heard many parents say they talk to their kids about race, but when I ask them what they actually say, a lot of it is like: "Everybody is equal," or "God loves us all." Those statements are true enough, but there is nothing in them that would suggest to a young child that you were actually talking about race. Instead, we need to be much more specific, and clearer, in what we tell kids. 
The best advice I've heard from the scholars is that we should talk about race (and ethnicity, language differences, etc.) in the same way we talk about gender. I don't think anyone would have trouble saying something like: "Boys and girls can both play soccer." Or "Boys and Girls can both be doctors or or cooks or gardeners or lawyers, or teachers. Whatever they want to be." 
Well, in the exact same way, we should say, "Brown and white people can be doctors or or cooks or gardeners or lawyers, or teachers. Whatever they want to be." And "It doesn't matter what color someone is – brown or white or whatever – they can still be our friends."  
3. How do I teach my child about diversity if I live in an area where my child doesn't regularly encounter people of different races?
First, while it may seem that families in more diverse settings have an advantage, I don't think that's automatically the case. For example, kids in a more diverse setting may learn to embrace stereotypes rather respect people's differences. So kids still need to have parents and other caregivers actively teaching kids about race, no matter what the environment.
For parents in more homogeneous communities, I'd suggest teaching kids about racial and cultural differences in much same way as they teach them about history, science, or geography. Those are all subjects that kids have little direct contact with, but we still expect kids to be able to learn about them. We explain to kids what it's like to be a kid growing up in Africa or 19th century New York. So the tools we use for that material – books, t.v., movies, internet and most importantly – through conversation– are equally available for exposing kids to other races, ethnicities, and cultures. 
The important thing to note, however, is that specificity is still important. Rebecca Bigler, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied materials that claim to be "multicultural." And she's found that most are little more than depictions of a bunch of rainbow kids dancing around. 
That sort of material doesn't help kids, because the content still too vague; young kids just don't understand the message. To be effective, look for materials that are more cross-cultural in nature – books that specifically show kids exactly how kids of other ethnicities approach things in similar and different ways. 
4. How do you explain different races to children?
Teaching kids about race will have to vary depending on how old a child is. A very young child probably won't be able to grasp anything beyond the fact that people come in different colors, but if that's all he understands, that's probably fine.
Once children are older, a simple explanation that race is related to ancestral roots is probably sufficient. If they are curious, try an explanation that people's color is determined by the melatonin in skin – and that that changes, depending on their homelands' weather. Just like people can tan in the summer, and get lighter in the winter. 
Beyond that, it will depend on what the child understands; let his questions be a guide for the conversation. 
The important thing is that the child feels comfortable asking questions. All of the researchers warn against shushing little kids who react when they have a surprise encounter with someone of another race. The key here is to explain to kids that the issue is about politeness and timing. Instead, explain that asking you questions about race and ethnicity is fine – but sometimes it's better to ask in the car on the way home, than in front of a stranger, because we don't want to say something that might hurt a person's feelings. 
5. Would you address the issue of prejudices?
Of course, it is important to tell children that discrimination is wrong. And that goes for any kind of social exclusion. There doesn't have to be a sign over a water fountain for a child to exclude another on the playground. So that's anti-discrimination messages are always important. 
However, a word of caution – Rebecca Bigler has found that teaching kids about historic racial discrimination improves their cross-race attitudes, and it makes them more willing to see themselves as less than perfect. However, Bigler thinks that the reason kids are open to learning about the discrimination faced by someone like Jackie Robinson is because there is safety in the past. If the focus was on current discrimination, there might be a different result: white kids might go on the defensive, and minority kids might get too hostile. 
Also, April Harris-Britt has found that messages of ethnic pride are good for kids – focusing on ethnic and cultural traditions. However, when we over-focus on racial discrimination, over time, kids think that the people are automatically out to get them; they are more likely to see race as a determinant factor for success or failure. They are less likely to see that their fate is under their own control. 
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