A child of three is read a children’s book by a parent in which there are drawings of white and non-white children and suddenly he notices. “Mommy, why do some of the children have brown skin?” he asks.
Or a four-year old in pre-school comes home and asks his mother, “Kevin in school is my friend. Why is my skin white and his is black?”
These questions have always come up when children begin to notice different racial characteristics. But they have increasing urgency these days in the aftermath of the recent killings of unarmed black people by hostile police and the nationwide protests by black and white people demanding an end to systemic racism that has been a blot on our country for so long.
As a website devoted to the care and development of young children, we have an obligation to put all this in perspective. Child Trends, a research organization devoted to improving the lives and prospects of children and youth, in a recent statement, pointed eloquently to the impact of racism on children that is all around us.
“Black children whose parents are taken from them by police violence and incarceration, Latino children caged at the border, American Indian children whose communities lack clean running water, and Asian American children whose communities have been falsely blamed for a pandemic. Children of color grow up in a society that too often devalues them solely because of their skin color or national origin. Data highlight unacceptable disparities in health, education, and other key outcomes for children and youth of color. Research attests to the lasting physical, mental, and economic toll that racism takes on children.
“Let us honor George Floyd and other victims of racism by affirming that Black Lives Matter and by working tirelessly to end racism against people of color everywhere.”.
And for parents, the question here arises – how does a parent raise a child, particularly a white child, to develop non-racist and anti-racist attitudes in a world where racism has infected so many people?
This Wonderful World of Different Kinds of People
This topic has inspired a number of recent print and online articles on the subject in publications devoted to early child development. A recent New York Times online post, for example, is a article by Jessica Grose, “Talking to Kids About Racism, Early and Often.” The author talks about discussing racial differences in a positive way starting with children between the ages of three or four, or whenever the child shows through his questions or observations that he has become aware of those differences. A parent can talk about the fact that some people have more melanin in their skin that makes them darker and how wonderful this world is that we have so many different kinds of people.
With older children of elementary school age who are more aware of the recent developments because they see it on the news or hear adults talking, you can talk about the violent acts against black people without being too explicit. She quotes Dr. Marietta Collins, a clinical psychologist at Morehouse School of Medicine and the author of a book for children about a racist police shooting, talking about how unfairly black and brown people have been treated throughout American history to the present day, because fairness is something children can understand.”
And it is also very important to emphasize that black people are not only victims but have always resisted, producing great leaders in the process. Reading children’s books with them about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and others can foster the positive attitudes in children that you want to achieve. So too can such positive attitudes be fostered by having a variety of children’s books with both white and non-white people as protagonists. Simple stories featuring people of different races are widely available and speak to the heart of every child.
Pediatrician and child health advocate Dr. Jacqueline Douge emphasizes that with the talk of killing that “First and foremost, reassure them that you’re there to keep them safe.” Child psychologists also stress the importance of creating space for the child to express his feelings, particularly if he feels angry, sad or frightened. And you should respect your children’s feelings if talking about the subject is too upsetting, but leave the door open for future conversations.
A Parent’s Example is Most Important
Most important of all is the fact that children are observers of the adults around them. A parent’s own attitudes are not lost on the children. A casual offhand remark, a thoughtless joke can have a negative effect upon a child’s attitude. His observation that his parents, the most important adults in his life, are working hard to make sure that these injustices don’t continue to happen, that they are part of the millions of people who are doing their best to end these wrongs, do more than anything else to foster anti-racist attitudes in their child.
For some further discussion on this topic, click on the link to The New York Times article which also contains further readings. Also click on this link to Child Trends, an online publication devoted to the support of children’s emotional well-being, for more information and discussion on raising children free from racism. For a general policy statement of Child Trends on fighting racism in light of recent events, click here.