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Children's Questions about Race

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > All Kinds of Families > Children's Questions about Race



Talking to kindergardner about race and racism

Oct 2008

I am a black mother of a biracial 5 year old. We live in a predominantly white suburb. Yesterday, she had a name calling incident on the playground, nothing with racist or racial overtones, just a standard argument among kids. Now that she is in school, I know that first ''racial'' incident is coming soon. How do I prepare her and myself to handle it? Should I confront the child or the parent? Anxious


I can't weigh in on whether you should confront the other parent, but a really excellent book on dealing with race and preshcoolers and early elementary school children is: I'm Chocolate,You're Vanilla by Margurite Wright. Sarah
I just finished reading ''why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?'' It was a great read, does cover biracialism, and has good references to other books. white mama
I think it is never too early to talk to our kids about their identity and the racism they will unfortunately encounter in our society. For your specific incident, I think at the minimum you need to inform the school about it in a ''sharing important information'' way, as it may influence their program choices, playground staffing, and so forth. You may want to do more, such as suggesting social skills/diversity awareness programs for teachers, kids, parents, etc. Check out Second Step, for example.

We need to be our children's advocates in so many ways--by setting the tone for how we see and address people; which schools and communities we choose; how we respond to incidents; consciously providing them positive images and exposure to people of all races; and so on. Small examples in my life include buying subscriptions to magazines like Oprah and Teen Voices; choosing for my daughter to commute to a diverse middle school with both children AND teachers/staff of color; attending cultural events celebrating my kid's bio-heritage, which is not my own; and constantly checking my own assumptions and experience and remembering that they will be different from those of a person of color.

I also recommend the resources from PACT, a national organization which happens to be based here in Oakland. They are an adoption agency and they provide education especially useful for transracially adoptive families, but of relevance to all mixed-race families and anyone raising children of color. They have a great book list with lots of parenting advice, newsletters, educational events, summer camps, support groups, and email lists. http://www.pactadopt.org/

Best wishes to you. White mom of child of color


I am one mom of a two mom family. We have a 9 year old daughter and have started hearing, particularly since the McCain / Palin team that our family should not exist.

I am surprised that you have not already addressed this issue with your child. When our daughter was a very young toddler we began talking about all kinds of families. We also put her in a preschool where we had many biracial children. While we were the first two mom family at the school, we recruited more to come. When families asked, we were open with information about what it’s like to be a two mom family, how we chose the donor, who got pregnant, how a second-parent adoption works. There were probing questions that I did not think anyone would ask. But we took the time to answer every one - - - most of the time with our daughter and her peers present. It helped make our daughter resilient.

I was the one who posted the family tree project question – and we met with the teacher. We asked our daughter what she wanted to say. One mom had the baby and the other mom loved the baby so much that she wanted to make it her own baby in every way so she adopted the baby. I asked what if kids asked questions about the right to exist. She said, well, the kids have not had exposure to all kinds of families. They’re probably saying that because they hear it at home and have never met a family like ours. It’s okay to express your opinion. It’s not okay to be hateful.

So, you may have to talk to your child about the fact that some people believe that the races should not mix. Maybe they feel that way because of what there parents believe, or maybe they feel that way because they have not met any mixed-race people. They can have an opinion. But they cannot name call and they cannot be hateful.

And as I have told my daughter, I will go to the ends of the earth to protect the rights of people to believe and speak their truth. I will also go to the ends of the earth to protect people from name-calling and hate. Early Education is Always the Best Way


I grew up in Central Asia, in a country that had (and still has) two pretty distinct racial groups, although we see ourselves as myriads of various ethnicities vs. “whites” and Asians. My country does not have a history of racial segregation or tensions, nor was I ever “preprogrammed” by my parents, schools, friends or TV on how to handle race and I have to say, I just don’t recall a single instance of race coming up as an issue when I was growing up. Of course, that was a different country, different world and my experience gives me no real insight into the complex situation affecting this country. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice your statement that you “know that first ‘racial’ incident is coming up soon” and I am wondering if it is wise to be setting our kids’ minds up for this ugliness that might or might not occur. Hopefully enough of us have evolved to a point where race, gender, sexuality, height, length of fingers, shape of ears, etc. is a non-issue. My own kids are fortunate enough to be in a preschool with kids of every race (including mixed ethnicities), families from other countries, a boy with the Down syndrome, a girl with two moms – you get the picture. As a result, all these differences are just the facts of life to my boys, not something to celebrate, reject or use as definitions. Maybe I am hopelessly naïve, but I think that the best way to shield your child from the potential negative experiences would be to expose her us much as possible to these various forms of existence, establishing it as the norm, so that if she encounters the ignorance from some unfortunate individuals, she will have the knowledge and confidence to brush it off. I just don’t think that confronting the other child or the parent will achieve anything – it’s not likely to change their misguided perception of the world, nor will it help you daughter develop any useful defense tactics. anon
I too had the same concerns as you a number of years back. I have two biracial boys, ages 11 and 13. The school they attend is predominately white. To the best of my knowledge they have never encountered overt or even subtle negative racial bias from other children, teachers or parents. We do talk to them about racism, similar to how we speak of warnings parents give to their children on all sorts of issues (crossing streets, talking to strangers, and so forth). Hopeful
I've posted this before but I strongly recommend checking out http://www.antiracistparent.com/ and the sites linked from there. They have tons of great advice on the site already, you can submit questions to the community and they have new weekly 'open thread' where you just post to anyone! parker
I'm not a psychologist nor am I African American, but I do have a non-white 3rd grader and wanted to know how to treat racism in schools before she began. Here's what I learned:

I read a couple of books, my favorite being I'M CHOCOLATE, YOU'RE VANILLA: RAISING HEALTHY BLACK AND BIRACIAL CHILDREN IN A RACE CONSCIOUS WORLD. Its written by Marguerite Wright, an African American psychologist in Berkeley who interviewed many many children about their perception of race, and also interviewed many prominent African American adults about how they were raised in relation to racism and what their parents did to give them a healthy attitude towards life. The short story as I remember it regarding your issue is that children perceive race in a very different way from adults, at different stages in childhood. A very young child may talk about a ''white'' man as a man wearing a white shirt, whereas it means something very different to us. Pertaining to your particular issue, it's good to let children know you will not let people walk all over you, but if they are too young to understand what racism is, its better to focus your ''attitude corrections'' on basic human respect. For example, children know that name calling, pushing or hitting is disrespectful and wrong, so it would be good to focus on those issues. I think one example in the book was that a grocery clerk was rude to an African American mom while she had her children with her. She went to the manager and complained about the clerk's rudeness without mentioning that it was racist, but focusing on the rudeness. This demonstrated standing up for herself on topics her children understood. You can focus on the issue of respect rather than having a talk about racism before your child is ready to understand it. From what I remember, the author concluded that about 4th grade was when children have an ''adult-style'' understanding of racism. From knowing my 3rd grader, I agree that her understanding is still different. She can refer to people as ''black'' but there are no societal stereotypes attached.

I remember the book saying that the longer you are able to hold off on the ''racism'' talk, the better. Afr Am adults who succeeded in life got lots of positive early messages about what their possibilities are, not what their limits in society are.

Good luck and have lots of fun w/ your young one! You're a great parent to be thinking about this! Sue


I'm a black mother of a black toddler who is not yet in any sort of school/preschool situation where ''the N word'' might come up. Nevertheless, before I became a mom I remember a friend of mine telling me that she was *really* happy that she had talked to her child about racism before he went to school, because an incident happened very quickly once the kid was enrolled! She talked to him about the ''hateful'' things people sometimes say, and that it was ''racist'' to say those things. So though I'm not yet there myself, I plan on taking a similar approach: A kid who would say that to you is making a racist statetment; you should tell him/her that it's racist, and then tell the teacher. It would be very important to me to let my kid stand up to the bully first -- without bringing in an adult right away. Sorry, but I just can't count on any teacher saying or doing the right thing in that sort of situation. And really, the ''N word'' is a deal breaker with me: Where did the kid pick it up? From parents? neighborhood environment? Kids fuss and argue on all sorts of levels, but to go in that territory is simply off limits and it's not my child's job to take that form of verbal abuse while the bullying kid finds his moral center over time. I'd have my child call it what it is to the other kid's face. Then, the bully kid can discuss ''racist/racism'' with his parents on his/their own time - - since now he knows that the ''N word'' is a hateful thing to say. I don't think you need to talk with the parents yourself unless the behavior continues. And surely if it continues, I'd talk with the teacher at the school about the bully and perhaps arrange to meet with the parents with teacher as mediator. anon

Preschooler's remarks about skin color

Sept 2008

My almost 3-year-old has entered a very literal phase that recently has manifested itself, among other ways, in (loudly) identifying people by their outward appearance. For example, the other day at a restaurant, when our Indian server handed me a menu, he said ''Mommy, what did that brown man just give you?'' Needless to say, we had an awkward little moment at the table. He also has begun to identify good friends by skin color (''Mommy, that kitty is brown like my friend Jennifer!''), and I'm not sure how to run with that. (My response so far has been along the lines of ''Yes, she is brown like Jennifer - we all have different colors...look, your eyes are brown and your sister's are blue!'') I have 2 questions about this, really. One, how to deal with those situations in the moment, when the person being referred to is easily within earshot? And two, how to have a meaningful, ongoing (and preschool- appropriate) dialogue about race and diversity at home? I do not want to squelch his newfound awareness of these things, because I think there is so much value and beauty in diversity, and I would like for him to learn to appreciate it and embrace it. I feel that telling him something along the lines of 'it's not polite to talk about that' would clearly be implying there's some sense of wrongness involved, and I absolutely don't want to go that route. So, how to talk to a 3-year-old about a subject as complicated as race, and encourage him to appreciate the differences in others? Oakland Mom


Have you seen ''Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?'' by Beverly Daniel Tatum? She is a psychologist who addresses the formation of identity for both black and white children through the developmental stages. Her chapter on the early years is too much to go into here, but especially useful, for example telling children specifically about melanin in skin. You are absolutely right that you don't want to squelch questions and have your son think that it is shameful to notice and talk about race. The book also gives ways to look at assumptions kids tend to make as they try to make sense of race. Highly recommended. asymetry
Read ''Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria'' by Beverly Daniel Tatum PhD

Race is not something that should be an uncomfortable topic. We need to discuss it more and more and more. For too long parents and educators have dismissed it because it is difficult, and this has fostered many children to feel that their own questions and feelings about race are wrong or stupid or unworthy of conversation. If we never talk about race, it will forever brew and continue to produce feelings of superiority and inferiority among us. say it loud, i'm black/brown/red/white and proud


Check out these articles on race from greater good: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greatergood/ In particular, the article ''Rubbing Off'' is about how to foster tolerance in children and how small children see race. brown mom
Why is it racist to describe someone's physical appearance? Race/racism has to do with assigning specific meanings to differences, not the differences themselves. I don't think you should convey to your child that it's impolite to discuss these things - rather, see it as an opportunity to talk about the wonderful range of skin tones that exist, including your own, and how that can relate to ancestry and sometimes culture. Have your child see it as something wonderful AND show them that they are a part of this - they look different and have a ''race'' too. It's not wrong for your child to voice an observation, but it's your job to provide some context so your child learns appropriate boundaries and the other person doesn't feel like they're a science lesson or under a microscope. if you feel uncomfortable about them being so vocal, you can tell your child that while skin tone and other differences are interesting, people don't always want to talk about these things with people they don't know. I think parents will be a lot more successful sorting out how to teach kids about race when they themselves have had a chance to think about their own feelings and thoughts about the subject. --
I don't have great advice for you as my son is only 20 months old, but I can totally see him headed for this same phase. I highly recommend checking out www.antiracistparent.com and possibly posting the question there as well - they have an amazing moderator and community of parents that give suggestions on things just like this. good luck!
Hi! This is such a sticky situation. One of the reasons preschoolers are so 'outloud' about race is that they are in a developmental phase that is all about clasification. However, there is a lot of meaning that goes with those classificaitons in our culture, so it can't just be ignored. One book, that is specfically aimed at african american parents, but also very helpful overall is called: I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World (Paperback) by Marguerite Wright. Sarah
I don't agree with everything in this book, but ''I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla'' does have some very useful insights into how kids (particularly small kids) think about color and race. The author makes the point that often their comments are much more innocent than we might imagine, b/c for us it is such a loaded topic. You might want to check it from the library. (BTW, this is a book for parents, not a kid's book.)
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said ''I feel that telling him something along the lines of 'it's not polite to talk about that' would clearly be implying there's some sense of wrongness involved''

I really don't understand why a child pointing out that a cat is the same color as his friend is a big deal. I think it's a big deal because you are making it a big deal. Was the Indian guy offended, or were just you? The guy is brown.....and you are beige. (I'm assuming). no biggie. I think the discussion of race makes us very uncomfortable and we would rather it never be brought to our attention and i think that is a problem. If he starts screaming at the top of his lungs that the brown man is somehow bad.....then you need to have a talk. I worry much more about my kid calling someone fat or weird looking. Just my opinion, we need to deal with our white guilt and acknowledge that people are sometimes brown and some people are the color of cats, chocolate, honey and chalk. That's what makes it all the more interesting. erin


Keep it simple! If you are descriptive without positive or negative connotations, you don't have to talk about ''race'' with all the complicated social connotations. My 6-yr-old understands that people move to CA from all over the world, and your skin color is determined by where your parents, or grandparents, or great great etc parents moved here from. He has been describing people by what they look like for about three years now, starting from when I gave him a bath and he pointed out that he and I ''matched'' and Daddy didn't. He understands that people come in all shapes and sizes and shades of brown- light to dark- depending on where their families came from. Recently he was really mad he has to wear sunscreen every day all summer and wanted to know why. I told him the lighter your skin, the more the sun could damage it, and I didn't want him to get burned. He was surprised--''You mean my friend so-and-so doesn't have to wear sunscreen because he's dark? I wish I had darker skin!'' We have talked and looked on the globe about where gets more or less sun. He has friends who are from (or their parents are from) China, India, the Phillipines, Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, and the two categories I grew up with: ''black'' and ''white.''

I think this kind of description is more meaningful to my kids than ''race.'' There are so many kids in his class that are mixed race (including him) that it's more straightforward this way. I just answer his questions matter of factly about how Gramma and Grampa's mom and dad came from Mexico and that's why Grampa is darker and learned Spanish first.

Maybe we're on the wrong track, but I figure if we talk about this now, we'll eventually get to why and how people came here and what happened then, as he's able to ask more questions. But right now he just wants to describe who he plays with at school. beige


4-year-old's comments about skin color

March 2004

For the past 9 months, my son, who just turned 4, has been commenting on the skin color of persons of African descent. When he sees an African or African-American person, he often says to me (in full earshot) of the person, ''Mommy, that person has black skin.'' His nanny, whom he adores, is African and he often says to me, ''Mommy, [the nanny] has black skin, but you and I have white skin.'' (I should mention that I am Asian and he is bi-racial -- Asian and Caucasian.) Interestingly, my son has never commented on, and seems completely oblivious to Asian or Hispanic racial characteristics. I'm not sure how to respond to his comments. On various occasions I've told my son (1) skin color is unimportant, (2) certain people have dark skin because they or their ancestors came from Africa where people have dark skin, and/or (3) we don't talk about skin color because it makes people uncomfortable. Nothing, however, seems to dissuade my son from making these comments. Sometimes he seems to think the whole topic is a joke saying, ''Mommy, so and so has a black face.'' Maybe I'm reading something into it, but it seems to me that my son is making some type of value judgment that darker colored skin is not as desirable as lighter skin. I have no idea where my son got his notions. I can honestly say that we have never discussed skin color or race at home. Also, we have African-American friends whom my son knows and likes in addition to his African nanny. My son's teachers told me that children his age are curious about racial differences and not to make a big deal of it, but I'm very embarrassed by my son's behavior around this issue. I grew up in a very bigoted small town and was very uncomfortable whenever someone called attention to racial issues, and now I can't believe my son is doing it. What should I do -- (a) ignore it, (b) keep trying to tell him that skin color doesn't matter, but shouldn't be discussed in public? Any suggestions would be appreciated. Embarrassed Mom


PLEASE READ--''Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting In the Cafeteria Together and other conversations about Race'' By Beverly Daniel Tatum. It is very important that you talk to your son about his questions and not try and quiet him. You will see in reading this book that his questions are normal but need to be dealt with by just explaining to him why people have different colors. His questions do not have the charge behind them that adults may have...he is genuinely interested....especially since your child is biracial I would highly recommend getting a little info. (as my children are mixed--black /white) and I have had to read about this stuff as well on an ongoing basis because this stuff will continue to come up! I also read a fabulous book that deals with this stuff for preschool ages...it is called something like ''I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla'' also written by a black child psychologist but her name escapes me. Good luck. These Things are Important
Another way to respond would be to agree and say, ''yes, that person has dark skin.'' It sounds as if your son is only making observations about what he sees and that perhaps he's making a game out of it because he is picking up on your discomfort with the situation. It's okay to talk about skin color, it's not ok to insult/demean/belittle someone because of it. another suggestion
I am a white woman who has a black husband & a bi-racial 10 month old son. From the discussions I've had with my husband & books I've read on rearing bi-racial kids, I would say that the best thing to do in your case is to be honest about it. Everyone is different in some way or another, even if the skin color is the same. Black skin is just as beautiful as white or brown, but unfortunately in America, the legacy of slavery and how blacks have been (and continue to be) treated makes many non- blacks feel ashamed to even discuss this subject. I personally don't think that talking about skin color should necessarily be done only in private, but that honest, open communication and dialog are the best ways to handle it. Maybe you should ask your son what he thinks about black skin. It's an obvious difference and nothing to be ashamed of, either by him or by your black friends/nanny/strangers. anon
It sounds more as if your son is just noticing race, rather than commenting negatively on it. This is quite normal for toddlers -- they notice skin color, disabilities (e.g. someone in a wheelchair) and so on, and comment on it to their parents, often asking why these differences exist. They notice differences, and they're curious about them, that's how they learn about the world. Sometimes this can be a bit uncomfortable for us, but the kids generally don't have value judgments attached (although we often read this into the comments, because of all the things we've learned about the issues involved). If you can come up with a calm, matter-of-fact response (like your mentioning that so-and-so's ancestors came from Africa, or maybe even just saying something about different people having lots of different skin colors, that's the way the world is), and not make a big deal of it, your son will eventually let it go. I wouldn't tell him that it shouldn't be discussed in public, as that might make him feel that there IS something wrong with having skin of a particular color. I also wouldn't tell him that it is unimportant, because it clearly is, to him, or he wouldn't mention it. Karen
sounds to me like your son is just making observations and maybe looking to you for confirmation/explanation. the racial issues maybe yours and yours alone. trying to shut him up will probably only have the opposite effect, same with showing your discomfort. telling him that people are similar to their parents seems like a good way to go and pointing out the differences and similarities in your own family might also interest him (include skin, hair, eye color any thing that stands out). does he have any african-american or african friends his own age? kids can talk about this on their own level and don't generally take offense at young ages - its good education for kids to have different friends even if race doesn't come up in conversation. ilona
He is interested in skin color - he is starting to notice the differences between people. He is making an observation about the world as he sees it - a correct observation, btw.

What I would do is either use this as a learning experience - yes, people are different, look at how daddy and I are different too and how you are mix of us, but only take it up to the point where he is interested. Or you can just acknowledge what he is saying and let it go.

What's really, really important is that you don't confuse observations with value judgements - and that by your attitude you don't let your son confuse them either. anon


My caucasian 4 yr. old son has said similar comments - he started pointing out pictures, saying ''those people have brown skin - I have clean skin''. We've had a lot of talks, clarifying what ''clean'' actually means, etc. But in the end, I have to agree with him - that yes, some people have brown skin, some have really dark skin, and some people like himself have skin that's not as easily named - pink? yellow? really light brown? red when he gets a sunburn?

Talking about race and skin color makes us grown-ups feel uncomfortable, but to embrace and realize the differences and talk about them is all part of accepting and learning and understanding. It's not necessarily wrong to make the observation, just impolite to talk about it out loud.

My son has also told other friends and relatives that they're fat or short, and fortunately, after the initial hesitation, they laugh and say, yes, you're right.

But then it is up to the parents to explain what's socially acceptable - that's the hard part! But it goes along with teaching all the other socially unacceptable behaviors, so eventually they do get it. Another Embarrassed Mom


I noticed a couple of things in your post that might help you understand what's going on.

Your son is NOT commenting on race, but on skin color. As yet he has no concept of race. For that reason telling him that skin color is unimportant is only confusing him. Skin color IS important to a 4 year-old -- its just not any more important than other identifying characteristics.

Likewise, the statement ''we don't talk about skin color because it makes people uncomfortable'' is confusing because he's not uncomfortable, YOU are. He's 4.

You might have more success just asking him not to comment loudly about the people he meets -- rather than singling out the race or color statements. For him, color is just an adjective, not a political statement.

I am more interested that he says people have ''black'' skin, when so few actually do. It seems like that perception comes from a grownup somewhere. You might want to know what others are saying to your child.

For instance: After 3 weeks in a Berkeley first grade, my daughter came home completely frustrated, saying, '' I don't get it! They keep talking about black kids and white kids at school, but all the kids I've seen are brown and pink!''

I really don't think this is a problem unless your child decides color is an indicator, instead of just a descriptor. Heather


Isn't this kind of thing challenging as a parent?? I would urge you to join your child in talking about race rather than avoid it and teaching him it is a taboo topic.

What about, ''yes. That person has black or dark skin. Isnt it great how people can look different on the outsides? Doesnt it make life more interesting?.... Does your skin really look white to you? ... let's look in this magazine and see all the differences we notice among people... this one has light skin, this one has red hair... this one is quite short... shall we make a collage showing all kinds of different skin colors?...'' I also recommend the book: 40 Ways to Raise a Non-racist Child by Mathias and French. Peggy


One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is the fact that we are surrounded by diversity and multi-culturalism. Your sons interest in this diversity is both understandable and desirable. Given your background, your discomfort with his curiosity makes sense, but perhaps you could find ways the channel that curiosity in ways that will help him learn tolerance and learn how to embrace the diversity that surrounds us. If the race issue is a source of shame and embarrassment and therefore ignored, one runs the risk of pretending racism does not exist either. We Americans ignore racism all the time, yet it's all around us. Anyone with first-hand experience with racism will tell you that race in fact does matter in America, yet we are ashamed of ourselves for it and try to ignore it. You worry that your son may be making value judgements based on race, however this is a wonderful opportunity for you to help him develop an understanding of differences, and to acheive a level of tolerance that was missing from the people in the town you grew up in.

With that said, it seems that your son is simply curious about different skin colors. Ignoring his curiosity seems to make him even more curious. Let him work it out. Get him some of those multi-cultural crayons, maybe you've seen them. They represent all the different skin colors. I think Crayola makes some. Also, Lakeshore Learning Center in San Leandro has not just crayons, but coloring books, clay, dolls, and a whole range of things for kids that help teach racial diversity and tolerance. This can be a good thing for your child. Let him have fun with it. Diversity is good


Hi, Your comments really struck home because we have had the same experience with our 2 kids blurting things out that sounded really inappropriate. Also, as a white teacher who taught in an all African-American school, I got it in reverse from the kids who commented on my skin, eyes, and hair.

My suggestion is to step back and realize that these are little kids and they are simply curious. They do not intend any harm, nor is harm usually taken by others. Humor and kindness replace embarrassment really easily. For instance, I'd say to my kids after one of those ''his/her face is so dark'' comments ''Yeah, isn't it amazing how we all have such different skin, eyes and hair. I think it's really beautiful.'' That came easily because it was truly how I felt and also how I hoped my kids would feel.

As they've gotten older, we've been able to talk about pigmentation and how we inherit our looks and how different races have developed physically, but it's always grounded in the simple admission that yes, we are different on the outside, but pretty much the same on the inside. In addition, we've reinforced that there is no value derived from the shade of skin or eyes or hair. This is tough in a world where children are taught that ''people with blue eyes are the children of the devil'' as I heard from one of my 3rd graders and white skin is more beautiful than dark skin as I've heard from both white and African-American children.

When my class commented on how pale I was deep in the winter and if maybe I was sick, I said ''no, I'm healthy but working toward invisibility except my freckles keep messing me up'', and got a good laugh.

Relax and be thankful that your little boy is observant and talking to you about what he sees and thinks. Leanne


My son is the same age as yours, and he's also taken to commenting on skin color, especially very dark-skinned folks. When he says ''That man has dark skin,'' I say, ''Yes, he does.'' This is often followed by ''Why does he?'' I say basically the same thing you do---people from different parts of the world have different skin tones.

I absolutely don't shush him or tell him it's not something to discuss in public. He's merely commenting, noticing people around him. He's not making any judgment, and from what you say, neither is your son. If your son is merely commenting, as mine is, I don't see that it's necessary to say that skin color doesn't matter---it'd be like saying it doesn't matter that that car's hubcaps rotate or that that's a really big loaf of bread (other things he's commented on).

For me what makes the most sense is to hear what he's (really) saying and acknowledge it. I think ignoring, shushing, or telling him that's not something to talk about in public would make it a bigger issue than it is, possibly confuse him, and also potentially make him feel ashamed and less likely to pose questions, certainly none of which you intend. DL


I'm not sure why it embarasses you that your son is noticing that people have different skin colors. Undoubtedly, the people he's pointing to know they have black skin.

My proper southern aunts (who thought they were very liberal) only whispered the word ''black.'' As in, ''My friend's neighbor, the one with the new car, she's (whisper) black.'' When I was a child, this made me wonder if it was a secret that the neighbor was black, or if it was something bad to be black. (This was before we had to say ''African-American.'' I'm sure if my aunts knew the new terminology, they would whisper it, too.)

I'd say if a person with black skin is offended that a 4-year old is pointing it out, then that is a person looking for something to be offended about. My African-American friends are not offended to be called ''black'' or have their skin described as ''dark'' or ''black.'' It's just the facts. reformed southern belle


There is a third option that is neither ignoring the remarks about race nor disagreeing with them. That is simply to say, ''Yes, honey, that's right.'' Very often a child who makes remarks like this is simply observing something, and wants those observations to be heard. Your upset reactions are puzzling to him, and he's trying to find out what's going on. If you respond calmly, as if he were saying ''The sky is blue,'' I bet you'll find this behavior disappearing naturally. Ann
Saying that ''race doesn't matter'' is kind of silly, I have always thought--since it obviously does matter. So I have always taught my children that yes, some people have black skin and some people have tan skin and so on. I use their observations as a jumping-off to have conversations about differences in race and to allow them to have their viewpoint. You can say something like, ''In the olden days some people thought people with black skin weren't as smart. Weren't they silly to think that? What do you think?'' ''Do you think people with yellow hair are as good as people with red hair? Yes, me too!'' You get the idea. This ''not talking about race in our house'' perhaps is not something that should be a source of pride, but maybe makes it clear that it is time to have those discussions with our kids who live in this rather colorful Bay Area! anonymous
c) none of the above. It seems to me that your son is simply pointing out what he sees. I don't hear a value judgment in noticing that skin colors differ. It's true, there are many different skin colors. When my daughter made remarks similar to your son's, I replied by saying, ''Yes, you're right!'' as I would have had she said, ''That man is in a wheelchair,'' or even ''That tree has no leaves.'' It's not skin color that makes people feel bad; it's being treated in a negative way because of the color of their skin. From what you describe, I don't think your 4-year- old is guilty of this. unembarrassed mom
Please talk about it! We live in a very race-conscious society and pretending that race does not exist does NOT make it go away, and in fact it only enables racism by cloaking it in denial (how can there be racism if race does not exist?). Also, especially for a bi-racial child (I have three of my own), it is crucial to openly and honestly discuss race. Noticing and comparing skin tone is a normal observation for children and it is important to validate their observations. Your child will one day have questions about his own identity and the earlier you are able to talk about it, the better off and more secure he will be. If you are worried that your son is attaching different value to different colors, then the task is to unpack why he thinks that and talk to him about your ideas on that topic (''people of all colors are beautiful and interesting...'' etc.). Also, IMHO, so-called ''colorblindness'' (refusing to admit that color exists or matters) diminishes people and takes away from the totality of who they are and/or the reality of their experiences. Color is not ALL that people are, but it is a PART of who they are, and to me, it is a very cool and important part. --Talking about race to my kids
My daughter does very similar things in a very non-judgemental way. She is the same age as your son. I am caucasian and my husband is half Japanese. I believe she also comments more frequently on people of darker color skin, i.e. african- american, Samoan, Pacific Islander. I don't feel embarrased. My husband can sometimes feel embarrased. I think it is a very normal thing for children to 'blurt'. If you feel that he should be more sensitive to other people(s) or your own feelings, you might try saying to him that there are some things that we don't 'yell' or 'blurt' out,...like we don't blurt out that we are having to poop or that the man over there is fat or that the lady over there has 'ugly' hair. (I'm really not trying to trivialize this issue because i do feel it is important). Maybe somehow you can integrate into a conversation with your son that sometimes people are sensitive about certain things and that you are sensitive about color and that other people are too. It's okay to talk about but not in a loud or hurtful way. liz
My 3 year old was doing this for a while. She told my husband(who's white) that he's brown because of the hair on his arms, she would tell me I'm white because I'm lighter skined than she is. She would tell the nanny who is Asian that she's brown, she tells her African American preschool buddy that she was brown. She even once did it to some friends of ours, a couple that is mixed race. I said something like, different people have different skin colors and ignored it other than that. I haven't noticed it for a while. I did notice it happening more when we were watching the ''Best of Elmo'' video where Elmo and Whoopi Goldberg discuss being brown and red. Fortunately we are surrounded by many different cultures and colors in the Bay Area and children get exposed to many different things. I really think they are just innocently noticing the differences between themselves and their surroundings. Been there
4 is an age when kids start to take note of differences between thenmselves and other people -- in a way, to figure out where they, themselves, fit in by classifying people on all kinds of dimensions. Skin color is a particularly easy one, because the contrasts can be very noticeable. If it's any consolation to you, research has shown that kids don't really start to understand the social implications of different ethnic groups (including their own) until about age 6. So it's probable that your child is not being racist -- just observant, in his own way.

However, it also sounds like he's picking up on your sensitivity about the issue and starting to respond by testing you a bit. It's completely understandable that you would want to make sure he does not develop racist attitudes, but to him, skin color really does matter! (Though not for the reasons you fear.) There is nothing wrong with telling him that it's impolite to talk about other people in their presence, but telling him not to talk about it all will simply give the subject a forbidden air, and make it much more attractive for him when he wants to push your buttons.

Try asking your son what he finds interesting about different skin colors, instead of assuming that you know what he's trying to communicate with his comments. That way you'll open up the topic for discussion and make it less of a taboo, and get a more accurate sense of just where he is at with the whole thing. Keep the conversation at his level, and resist the urge to probe for some sort of hidden agenda -- if you keep looking for it, he might tell you what he thinks you want to hear, in order to please you (4 year olds really do want to please!), and that will only increase your worry.

All in all, it sounds like your son's teachers are right. Take their advice if you can and don't be overly concerned ... or embarrassed. Lauren


I have no special training or experience on this subject, but I have worked with children and trained staff who work with children for many years. My advice is to prepare yourself to have a conversation with your son the next time he brings up the subject (turn it into a ''teachable moment''.) When he does, you can say to him, ''It seems like you are noticing and thinking about differences in skin color a lot lately. What do you think about that? Do you have any questions?'' Whatever his response is, it will probably lead you to more insight as to why he is is making these references.

Remember that your son is only 4 years old and, generally, people should and do understand that. It's good that he is sharing his ideas about differences now, so that you can help him form his opinions. Good luck. Paula C.


Your son is making observations that are true. You are the one with the fear of value judgements, because you know that there are people in the world who judge according to race. But I'm not sure that telling children that skin color ''doesn't matter'' is helpful--because, really, that's not true, either. It matters, it's a part of an individual's identity, and not necessarily in a negative way. What about saying, ''Yes, and you have white skin with pink places, and I have creamy skin with some brown spots (for instance).'' In other words, make it not about the person who your child is observing, but just about your kid noticing how things and people look around him. It's possible that your sensitivity about racism is priming you to make your kid think it's not OK to talk about skin color at all. What is really not OK is to make judgements about people because of their skin color. Those are two different things. Donna
My son did the same thing at the same age. He also added to my shock and embarrasment by stating in public that he ''didn't like people with dark skin as much.'' It was awful & scarey.

At the time I attributed his comments and new found awareness to a recent ''diversity sensitivey'' module at his very diverse and wonderful preschool. Perhaps it was also just normal for the age.

My approach was to do much what you are -- calmly explain that it's not polite to comment on people's appearance, especially in public; and to ask him how he'd feel if someone made a similar comment about him. I also pointed out that he did indeed have many friends with dark skin. Eventually he got the message that what he said was not nice and not true. Thankfully it was not a longtime issue. SJM


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