(This post in the first in a series dealing with the importance of talking about race and equity issues with young children. Click here to see the whole series.)
This week I just couldn’t get enough of celebrating Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday. I come from a bi-racial family, and if it weren’t for his and others’ tireless work, my parents might not have come together. (That’s me in the cool red and white 70’s dress on the left.)
My family and personal history have given me a lot of experience talking about race and diversity issues, both as an educator and teacher trainer. Nonetheless, I have to admit I was a bit dumbfounded when confronted with the topic on the Pre-K level.
I remember a conversation I had with one of my daughters when she was three. It started when I mentioned I was “mixed”. She asked me what I meant, so I explained that my parents are black and white. Of course that led to another question about what it means to be “black and white.” After doing my best to explain this to her at a level she could understand, she pointed to the Beatrix Potter book she was reading and said, “Oh, like this little kitty is black, and that little kitty is white.” “…Yeah,” I said, “kind of…” I was confused. How could I engage in a meaningful conversation with a 3-year old on a such a complex topic?
Topics like racism are abstract, and admittedly 3-year olds are too young to fully understand the nuances involved in political debates such as those about whether President Obama is black or mixed. Nonetheless, I have always felt it is important to talk with children at an early age about prejudice and race. It is understandable that many parents might choose to leave these conversations for the upper elementary years.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of the popular new book, Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children, argue that we should not wait. In the chapter, “Why White People Don’t Talk About Race”, the authors contend parents (especially white ones) avoid talking about race for fear of reinforcing the idea that it will reinforce racial stereotypes. The book’s focus on synthesizing research, made a powerful case for bringing up the subject as early as 3 years old. Unfortunately, it’s not a how-to manual, so even though it was helpful to know that my beliefs were supported by scientific research (I love it when that happens!), it didn’t offer any clear strategies for me to try.
A Tribute to MLK Jr.: Talking about Equity and Race with Young Children
Thankfully, my December 2009 issue of Parents Magazine arrived, and Katharine Whittemore attempted to answer my questions. In her article, “Raising a Child Who Respects Difference” she relates her experience in applying Bronson and Merryman’s theories to her own family. I’ve summarized of some of her key points and added some helpful questions that it led me to reflect upon:
A Tribute to MLK Jr.: Forget Colorblindness
Kids recognize color as early as 6 months of age. (See Newsweek’s article “See Baby Discriminate” by By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.) Some parents assume that immersing their children in a in a culturally diverse environment will take care of things–DON’T. What children DO learn is not to talk about race. Both authors, Bronson and Whittemore, described incidents where their children said something embarrassing or offensive which revealed that even though their children were raised in diverse or socially-progressive environments, they had never learned positive ways to talk about skin color or deal with racial slurs.
Ask yourself: What assumptions am I making about what my child knows about race and racial intolerance? How do I know?
A Tribute to MLK Jr.: Don’t wait for them to bring it up
If you want your children to get the right messages about racial tolerance you need to talk about it–as early as 2 or 3. If you wait until your child is seven it may be too late to change prejudiced thinking that he or she may have learned. As Bronson points out, white families are both less likely to talk about race and skin color, and when they do, they are less likely to talk about it in meaningful ways. For example, they may say: “Everybody’s equal”, or “We should all be friends.” These messages are too vague for little minds to put the pieces together. Small children don’t have the context to understand the history of racial inequity. They need adults to spell it out.
Ask yourself: Am I talking with my child about race? If so, are my conversations meaningful? If not, what am I waiting for? What fears or anxieties are holding me back? What are some easy steps in starting this important conversation with my child?
A Tribute to MLK Jr.: Walk the Walk
You’ve heard this one before: the best way for you to teach your child good values is through example. Whittemore illustrates this well in her article. Here’s an excerpt:
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I believe that modeling is more powerful than teaching,” says Cynthia Garcia Coll, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Brown University who focuses on the role of ethnicity on children’s development and is herself Puerto Rican. “As a parent, if I have diverse friends then my kids will take diversity for granted.” Click. My kids do take gay rights for granted; we have gay friends. My son wanted to use a racial slur; we have few friends who are people of color.
Ask yourself: Am I practicing what I preach? Do my friends, neighbors and associations reflect my appreciation of diverse cultures? If not, what can I do to be more inclusive in my own life? How can I reach out to become a part of a wider more diverse community?
A Tribute to MLK Jr.: Resolve to Challenge Intolerance
Whittemore cites information she found on the Website for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia: “Confront Racism – Social problems cannot solve themselves. We confront racism — publicly, continually, and relentlessly.” If you hear or see something that seems biased or unjust, don’t just talk about it, resolve to do something to change it. And share this experience with your children.
Ask yourself: What am I doing to improve racial tolerance in my community, nation, world? How can I create social change to make the world a better place?
What do you think? What is your experience? Do you have any advice for other families in talking about race?
“Let’s Talk About Race (Series) – A Tribute to MLK Jr.” Related reads:
- MLK “Lite”
- MLK Day… NOT!
- What Color Crayons are in Your Coloring Box?
- Books that Get the Conversation Started