Sunday, January 10, 2010

Talking about race with kids

I finally stumbled on this Newsweek article entitled “Even Babies Discriminate” from September. It’s an analysis by “Nurture Shock” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman of how many parents avoid talking with children explicitly about race in spite of the fact that children begin to recognize racial differences at very young ages. (One study demonstrated that even six-month old babies will stare longer at pictures of people of a different race than their parents.)

Bronson and Merryman talk about the fact that white parents who imagine themselves to be progressive embracers of racial and cultural diversity are uncomfortable talking openly with their kids frankly about the subject and assume their children will be “color-blind.” When discussions of race do emerge, these parents talk vaguely about how “we are all equal” or “we are all friends” – and there are rarely specific mentions of race. Meanwhile, kids spend these early years making generalizations and categorizations on their own – with no help from their supposedly enlightened parents and teachers. And the result is a world where our kids may go to integrated schools but they segregate themselves nonetheless.

This is an important article – the kind of reading that has already prompted me to start talking more openly with Will. I still remember the day a few years back – Will may have been 3 at the time -- when we were walking around the track at the park and a young black man was approaching from the other direction. Will pointed, and said “There’s a basketball player,” with excitement. He was already forming categories in his mind, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t take the opportunity to have a long conversation with Will about his ideas about people of different races – and mine.

Today he and I looked at photos of different kids in a Parenting magazine and talked about skin color and how people of different races treat one another. Will said, “It doesn’t matter what your skin color is. We’re all the same.” I’m glad to hear that coming from him, but I’m still aware that I’m sending him to a preschool where all his classmates are white. I’m going to be more careful going forward about inviting conversations about race – checking books out from the library that feature kids and family of different races, including stories that talk on a simple level about oppression and struggle (see the article for why kids become more tolerant and empathetic when they don’t get a glossed over view of history – and why it’s important for kids to begin experiencing and forming ideas about interracial friendships before they hit second or third grade). Race may be a sensitive subject, but in our family we’re going to talk about it, and hopefully once Will enters kindergarten next year he’ll have the opportunity to live out his desire to be friends with kids of different races beyond some of the brief encounters he’s been having with kids at Lakebottom Park.

How do you discuss race with your kids? What observations from them have surprised you?

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