white heart cloud in a black sky, talking with young children about race

Many parents struggle to approach the topic of race with young children. It’s not hard to understand why given our country’s painful racial history. Parents can be anxious they might say the wrong thing. Sometimes they worry that talking about race will draw attention to differences that children are not perceiving. By modeling fairness and equal treatment they hope their children will internalize these same practices. Here is some guidance about talking with young children about race.

Know the research

Research shows that infants as young as six months perceive racial differences. Around age three children begin to form opinions about these differences. At this point in development, they commonly assume that people who are physically the same must also be internally the same. This difference is not limited to skin color. In one study that highlighted this, students were given different color t-shirts to wear. There was no discussion about the shirts and children were free to interact with peers wearing any color. Afterward when the children were interviewed, they perceived the peers wearing the same color as them more favorably. This shows having conversations about race is critical, particularly while children are forming their early perceptions of differences.

Talk openly about skin color and embrace diversity in skin tone

Have conversations with children and see what they understand about skin. Teach that race and skin tone are something we all have. Utilize literature, such as the Colors of Us by Karen Katz or Chocolate Me by Taye Diggs, to introduce the beauty of each person’s skin. This lesson would be great for any classroom or home. Use teachable moments to have conversations about race. For example, if your child asks about why someone’s skin tone is different from their own, have a response that sends the message that these conversations are okay. If a child makes a comment that is biased or insensitive, calmly point out that the comment is unfair and explain why. Teaching children that our views can change as we learn more is a vital message.

Promote diversity through literature

Cod Cod is increasing in its racial diversity as depicted in this child-narrated video, Cape Cod for All. Familiarizing children with a broad spectrum of literature will help them have a more accurate portrayal of their community. Making a concerted effort to read and showcase books that reflect diversity is a way to teach children to honor different cultures. Some of our favorite books outside of our family’s culture include: I am Enough, Max and the Tag-Along Moon, Nighttime Symphony, Of Thee I Sing, Aaron Slater, Illustrator, The Name Jar, Dreamers, We Are Grateful, and Tar Beach.

Openly acknowledge injustices and inequity

By having early conversations about skin color, you will ensure the first conversations about race are not around slavery. When to introduce the history of slavery will depend on your child’s age, maturity, sensitivity, and your parental comfort level. Introducing the topic of slavery provides an important context for the history of inequity in our country and may be appropriate around early elementary age. At this age most kids have an understanding of fair/unfair and are familiar with the concept of money. You can talk about how historically slaves were brought to this country against their will and were forced to work extremely hard without pay. As children grow we can also help them understand the historical impact of poverty, segregation, and unequal rights.

Give examples of courage and perseverance

When being honest about inequity we also need to give kids hope and agency. Be sure to include examples of people that overcame racial adversity. Talk about how acts of courage have made a difference and inspired others. Some wonderful children’s books that can support this are Mae Among the Stars, Rosa, I Am Every Good Thing, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, Ruby, Head High, and Let the Children March.

Make explicit comments about your belief in equality

Children have difficulty interpreting their parents’ racial attitudes when they are not directly stated. Have conversations about the value of people from different cultures and the importance of having friendships across race. Talk about how to be inclusive and listen empathetically when someone’s story is different from our own. Help children think about how they can respond and not be bystanders in situations where they witness exclusion or another form of racial injustice.

Conversing about race is not about saying the perfect thing. It’s about being reflective and staying committed to the goal of equality. By doing our part as parents, we can foster environments in which our children can do theirs.

Leah Rockwell
Born and raised on Cape Cod Leah Rockwell grew up with a love for the ocean. She has always found the kid table the most interesting place to be and knew from a young age she wanted to pursue a career working with children. After studying child development at Bates College she moved to Boston where she received her Masters and CAGS degrees in school psychology from Tufts University. Since 2005 she has practiced school psychology. When she isn’t counseling and writing evaluations, you can find her trying to convince her own kids to play soccer. Leah resides on the Cape with her husband and two very energetic sons.


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