How To Talk To Toddlers About Race, According To Experts
At this point in time, most socially aware parents know that talking to their kids about race is important. But when do you start? Kindergarten? First grade? Or much earlier? This might come as a surprise, but talking to toddlers about race isn't just possible, it's important... especially for parents who have the luxury of seeing this as a choice.
"White parents must take the lead from parents of color, who begin speaking to their children about the realities of race from toddlerhood," trauma counselor Ilyse Kennedy, LPC, LMFT, tells Romper.
Depending on how you grew up, talking to your 2-year-old about race might feel uncomfortable, or you might not know how to navigate the conversation, but it's crucial that you press on anyway.
"Usually discomfort has more to do with our own issues around race that we learned from growing up and has less to do with any difficulty that children have in talking about it," says Lacey Fisher, LPC, a registered play therapist. But the alternative to feeling uncomfortable is much worse.
"Silence about racism has a far more negative impact on children and communities," Fisher tells Romper. And no, toddlers aren't "too young," because they're not too young to notice that someone's skin is a different color.
"Babies begin to discriminate and show preferences for features that [are] familiar beginning at 6 months," licensed psychologist Han Ren, Ph.D., tells Romper via email. "Knowing this, there is never too young of an age to surround your child with diversity in toys and books."
Fisher agrees. "Multiple studies document the ways that young children take notice of racial differences and note that, as early as preschool, children may begin excluding their peers of different races from play and other activities," he says.
Here are some things the experts say are important for parents to remember when discussing the topic of race with their toddlers.
1. Remain Neutral In Response To Their Observations
The way parents respond to kids' early observations about people of different races can shape their perception for better or worse. “It’s not racist to notice someone’s race," Caryn Park, a professor at Antioch University in Seattle who researches children’s understanding of race and ethnicity, told National Geographic. "An unwillingness to acknowledge her observation might send the wrong message to the child.”
If your kid makes a basic, accurate observation about the color of someone's skin ("Peter's skin is brown"), you can simply agree with them, Park says.
If their comment is a little more complicated, the blog Raising Race Conscious Children's list of "100 Race Conscious Things You Can Say To Your Child To Advance Social Justice" offers the following example suggestions:
In response to a child confusing two people based on race:
“That’s not Julien. That little boy is one of our neighbors… You’re right that he and Julien are both Black, but Julien is much younger! That boy over there is much older – look how tall he is!”
In response to a child looking at Doc McStuffins and Disney Princess advertising:
“Doc McStuffins has brown skin and these girls all have pale skin or white skin. But you’re right about two things. These girls do look similar to one another. And there should be girls with brown skin on this box, too.”
Again, don't worry about starting these conversations too early. "Talking about race explicitly can occur as early as 18 months," says Dr. Ren, but she reminds parents to be aware of what's developmentally appropriate. "Very young toddlers tend to focus more on physical characteristics that are salient. Once children reach preschool age, they can begin understanding other less salient, but still noticeable, differences such as language, food, culture."
2. Let Them Ask & Answer Questions
Your toddler likely asks you "why?" dozens of times on any given day, so be prepared for them to do the same during this conversation. This is a time to embrace those inquiries, Fisher says, because "if children are asking questions, it means they are curious and looking for answers."
As time goes on, you should also be prepared to challenge them, as well. "If you notice your child making stereotypical assumptions about their race or another’s race, you can respond with non-judgmental and open-ended questions like, 'Why do you think that? What makes you say that?' to facilitate some dialogue," says Fisher. Challenging them in these situations will also teach them to do the same when they hear assumptions from friends or extended family.
3. Use Smart Resources
"There are really great kids books on the topic [of race]," says Dr. Smerling, who advises parents to "choose books that present differences in a respectful manner." Some age-appropriate books on Dr. Ren's own kids' bookshelves are The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler and the Sesame Street book, We're Different, We're The Same by Bobbi Kates.
That said, simply reading the book isn't enough, Dr. Ren says. "It's important to have a dialogue with kids as you read, asking and answering questions."
Outside of pointed conversations, Fisher recommends that the stories, movies, and TV shows their toddlers are surrounded by "have a healthy balance of diverse characters that are engaging in everyday positive and ordinary situations, in addition to ones that show diverse characters overcoming adversities and focused on anti-racism." These will give your toddler more opportunities to ask questions and further the conversation that much more.
4. Teach By Example
Dr. Smerling and Dr. Ren both emphasize the importance of leading by example. "Kids are also learning by watching you," says Dr. Ren. "Who you choose to spend time with, the types of cuisines you eat, the music you listen to, the races of the toys kept in the home... these are all other opportunities to celebrate multiculturalism."
5. If Your Family Is White, Acknowledge Your Privilege
Both Dr. Ren and Kennedy say white parents should remember that it's a "luxury" and a "privilege" to have this conversation with toddlers (and beyond) in a way that isn't a warning. "Children of color, and especially Black children, experience trauma on a daily basis because of the color of their skin," says Kennedy. "They are forced to face that reality. It is a privilege that white parents 'don’t have to' talk about racial trauma or the murder of Black folks by the police."
"For BIPOC children, especially Black children, lack of fear is a luxury that they are simply not afforded," agrees Dr. Ren. "Not having fear for authority can mean death in many circumstances. Therefore, Black parents are instilling this fear of authority in their toddlers very legitimately because it's a matter of survival."
The list from Raising Race Conscious Children offers the following suggestions for ways to start the conversation and explain current events in a way young kids can understand:
"There are a lot of people who are sad and mad because a police officer hurt a man who was Black... "
“Usually people call people who look like us ‘white,’ even though our skin isn’t actually white. Usually people call other people with very dark skin ‘Black,’ even though their skin isn’t actually black.”
“This is your friend Nestor. He has brown skin and really curly hair. This is his mom. She is from the Dominican Republic. She also has brown skin.”
“Some mommies and children have a similar skin color, but other mommies and their children have different skin colors, did you know that?”
6. Look Inward
"It doesn’t start with your child, it starts with you," says Kennedy. "It is most important that parents first do their own anti-racism work before speaking with their children about it." An important step is examining your own beliefs and attitudes and where they came from. "Parents must explore their own ideas and biases prior to speaking with their children," Kennedy says. "What was problematic in the way you learned about race? Did your parents teach you to be colorblind? Were you raised in an openly racist household? How will you dismantle this first in yourself prior to teaching your children?"
"Anti-Racism Resources for White People," a comprehensive list of articles, books, podcasts, videos, social media accounts, and more will point you in the right direction when you're looking for answers to these questions and countless others.
7. Be Prepared To Make Mistakes
As with all things in parenting, there is no formal rule book for teaching kids about race, so go into this knowing you're not going to handle it perfectly. "We can expect that there will be questions that we don’t know how to answer," Fisher says, "but we do not have to know all the answers."
"It is much more damaging to not talk about it at all due to your own discomfort," agrees Ren. "The sooner you bring it up and name it as an acceptable thing to talk about and the more you normalize conversations around race in your home, the more your kids will grow up feeling comfortable asking questions around it."
8. Keep The Conversation Ongoing
Talking to your kids about race is something that needs to keep happening, even if it's not in the news.
"It's important to revisit this... adding layers and nuance as [your child] grows," says Dr. Ren. "This doesn't work... if you're only talking about it with them when there's civil unrest in the media."
"What's universal and important to emphasize is the element of agency for all children," Dr. Ren adds. "Everyone can affect change in their environment, no matter how small. [Teach] them to ask about differences, treating everyone with kindness, asking for help when something doesn't feel right."
Additional reporting by Cat Bowen
Lacey Fisher, LPC, RPT, Clinical Director of the Pregnancy and Postpartum Health Alliance of Texas, and Private Practitioner in Austin, Texas
Ilyse Kennedy, LPC, LMFT, PMH-C, Specializing in trauma from childhood to adulthood
Han Ren, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Specialist in School Psychology
Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW