Children are incredibly observant. They have to be in order to learn language and the ways of the world. And once they have language, they are quick to use it to talk about what they see.
According to research, babies as young as six months old can recognize racial differences. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that young children sometimes refer to the variations in the skin color of others. When my own children, who are biracial, were young, they could be heard making comments like: “Dad’s skin is so, so brown, his fingers look like pretzel sticks,” or “I wish that we all matched, I wish that we all had the same color skin.” While their observations were sometimes amusing, sometimes challenging, I always tried to respond affirmatively. Conversations about race can be uncomfortable, but now more than ever, they are essential.
So how do you address this issue with your young child? My first piece of advice is not to wait until your child brings it up. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge differences, albeit in a positive way, pointing out your child’s or someone else’s wonderful hair or beautiful skin.
When talking about skin color, you can explain to even children as young as three, that each of us has melanin in our bodies that determine the lightness or darkness of our skin. People living in hot climates developed more melanin to protect them from the sun, which made their skin darker. Point out that while we may have some physical things in common with other people, we all have a set of characteristics such as hair and eye color, hair texture, height, weight, and the shape of our features, that make us unique.
Like any issue that your child raises, it is essential to keep the lines of communication open, sending them a clear message that there are no taboo subjects.
Secondly, be sure that your children are exposed to children’s books and programming that includes a diverse array of characters. Fortunately, children’s literature has become more inclusive, publishing stories with protagonists with varied ethnic and racial backgrounds. Children’s toys have evolved, as well. Dolls and play figures now come in all shades. Be sure to include diverse choices in your child’s toy collection and use them as conversation starters.
And finally, if you want to send a positive message about race to your children, the most important thing that you can do is be inclusive in your social circle. Reach out and develop relationships with people who do not look like you. Not only will you be enriching your own experience, but you will also be expanding your child’s as well, sending a clear message that differences are not just to be tolerated but celebrated!