There’s an old saying that kids are like sponges, and it’s proven true. In the early years, children constantly and effortlessly absorb everything, noticing patterns and creating rules for what they see around them.
This means that, whether parents realize it or not, while children are picking up new words and skills, they’re also learning about things like race.
Research shows that as young as 6 months old, babies notice differences in skin color and hair texture; by the time they turn 3 years old, they can begin to distinguish between races, asking questions or making comments about physical appearances. By age 6, they begin to recognize and apply racial stereotypes, which may or may not line up with what their parents believe.
How can parents positively influence this process? By talking openly, honestly and consciously about race with their kids.
The danger of silence
When a child asks an uncomfortable question in public (“Why is that man that color?”), parents can feel embarrassed and caught off guard. They may not feel prepared to respond.
Staying silent or taking the colorblind approach (“I don’t see color”) can actually reinforce the racial biases kids are developing, says Mary Ferguson, racial justice consultant at United Way supported YWCA Metro St. Louis.
“The worst thing to do is to shush them,” Ferguson says. “It gives the message that it isn’t appropriate to notice, talk about or engage around differences. It’s very important to acknowledge that race does have meaning, and it’s okay to be curious about that meaning.”
“Silence has never solved any of the world’s problems, and it certainly won’t solve racism,” adds Amy Hunter, global diversity and inclusion specialist at Boeing. “Having these conversations with young children now will speed up the conversations so we can do less of them later, so that we can live in the kind of world we want, where we appreciate all people.”
So, how do we talk with children about things like racism and equity? Here are some steps any parent can take to have open, intentional conversations.
Practice what you preach.
To prepare for tough questions and contentious topics, parents need to do their homework, too – namely, by socializing with people of other races and spending time in diverse spaces.
“Continuing your own learning and stretching your comfort zone is really important,” says Laura Horwitz, cofounder and executive director of We Stories, a St. Louis-based program that harnesses the power of children’s literature to spark dialogue. “It can be really hard to make meaningful, cross-race relationships, and it takes work to be ready for that conversation.”
“If a parent isn’t challenging themselves or doing their own work on themselves, they are not going to be able to model that or encourage that in their child,” Ferguson says.
Consider it a way to “get in shape,” she says – plus, it’s leading by example.
Point out the similarities as well as the differences.
When children see that there are many ways people can be similar or different, they begin to think of people as multidimensional. Picture books featuring diverse characters can offer these “windows” into other cultures and “mirrors” reflecting common threads, Horwitz says.
“It’s really powerful to have books where the main characters don’t look like you, so you can recognize, ‘Oh, we don’t usually eat that for dinner. That’s different. But we always go to the grocery store together and wait in line, too. That’s the same,’” Horwitz says.
Even after kids outgrow picture books, parents can continue the conversation by encouraging them to read books and watch movies by and about people of color. Diving deeper into studying world history is also vital in helping kids recognize different cultural perspectives and how racism has impacted society over time, Hunter says.
Give them all the information they need, but not too much.
“Our intention is to communicate, ‘Yes, people are different, but we’re also very much the same, and we want to treat everyone uniquely and equally,’ but those are pretty abstract notions for children,” Horwitz says. “Kids need a lot of concrete information to learn how to make their way in the world.”
On the flip side, giving too much information to a child who’s not ready for it can be confusing or intimidating.
“Sometimes we think they need to know more than they’re actually asking,” Ferguson says. “Be very attentive to what they are asking, as opposed to giving them a whole sort of lecture or big sociological explanation.”
Encourage kids to learn and dream.
Parents may feel like they need to immediately know all the answers to their kids’ questions. But not knowing could present a better opportunity for learning.
“Parents don’t have to have all the answers, but being positive, curious and resourceful is also important,” Ferguson says. “They can say, ‘Let’s go figure that out together,’ or, ‘I’ve had that question too; let’s do some research.’”
And tackling those contentious topics – slavery, stereotypes and more – can open doors to more positive ones.
“Instead of looking at it as painful or negative, we could look at it as this wonderful opportunity for innovation,” Hunter says. “What would be possible if we asked kids to imagine a world without racism? I’m thrilled at the infinite possibilities about how things can change if we’re all honest and open.”
About YWCA Metro St. Louis
Formed in 1904, YWCA Metro St. Louis is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. It is the largest agency providing services to at-risk women in the St. Louis region, including sexual assault and domestic violence services, housing, Head Start/Early Head Start, economic empowerment, youth leadership and racial justice work.
About We Stories
We Stories uses the power of children’s literature to inspire conversation, change and hope in the St. Louis area, and a stronger, more equitable and inclusive future for all. Its Family Learning Program introduces families to compelling works of children’s literature featuring diverse characters, provides supportive resources to strengthen family conversations about race and racism and fosters community building around these topics.
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