Children's Questions about Race
Berkeley Parents Network >
All Kinds of Families >
Children's Questions about Race
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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!
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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
say it loud, i'm black/brown/red/white and proud
Check out these articles on race from greater good:
In particular, the article ''Rubbing Off'' is about how to foster
tolerance in children and how small children see race.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My caucasian 4 yr. old son has said similar comments - he started
pointing out pictures, saying ''those people have brown skin - I have
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,
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.
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.
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
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
Relax and be thankful that your little boy is observant and
talking to you about what he sees and thinks.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
--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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
this page was last updated: Nov 23, 2008
BPN is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit and we are transitioning to a new website during
The opinions and statements expressed on this website
are those of parents who subscribe to the
Berkeley Parents Network.
Disclaimer & Usage for
information about using content on this website.
Copyright © 1996-2015 Berkeley Parents Network