In my last post, I mentioned the (fading) tendency for many parents to avoid discussions about any topic that is potentially controversial or dangerous, apart from the obvious “Stranger Danger” talk, which is commonly accepted as suitable for young children’s ears. I have written about talking with kids about race and sex before, but I wanted to follow up. Partly because I keep hearing well-intentioned comments like, “Kids just need to know we’re all special and unique”, and partly because reading about the White Man March made my blood boil–writing here let off some steam. Hordes of parents thoughtfully, respectfully, proactively educating their children about differences among people is the march in which I want to participate.
A study mentioned in NurtureShock’s chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” shared that even in a liberal-leaning city like Austin in 2006, most white parents weren’t talking about race. Not because they didn’t believe it was important, but because they were afraid of saying the “wrong thing.” So, instead of commenting specifically on racial differences, these parents fell back on safe phrases like “everybody’s equal” and “we’re all the same under our skin.”
Not all families have the luxury of ignoring specificity. If you’re a family with two moms, it won’t be long before your child takes note that your family structure is less common and inquires about it. Or perhaps an older child will bring it up at the playground first, catching you off guard. Either way, those moms will talk thoughtfully with their child about all the possible combinations of people that may comprise a family. This conversation will continue throughout their lifetime, too, because it’s importance will grow. The same goes for families whose members are of a minority ethnicity, whose child has a disability, who practice an uncommon religion, who are vegan, etc… In fact, I would surmise that conversations about differences are common practice for families who find themselves in just about any type of minority group.
Parents in exceptional situations learn to speak directly to their children regarding the societal attitudes that impact them. This necessity for specifically educating children is even greater if their particular minority group is feared or hated. Those parents know there is an inherent element of risk in just being who they are. To be silent on the topic is to risk allowing their children to internalize the stigmas, face isolation and experience deep pain, let alone experience worst case scenarios like the Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepherd tragedies. Black parents will have very frank discussions with their sons about how they must carry themselves to avoid danger. White parents do not have to do this. I would not worry if my husband or boys got pulled over by a cop. I would if I were black. Those in the majority groups have the luxury of deciding whether or not to enter the conversation. This is one of countless examples of how majority privilege plays out.
The problem with discussing race and other differences vaguely (“We’re all unique, like snowflakes!”) is that, like adults, kids are not difference-blind. Young children are quite observant of all human characteristics, particularly those that are different than themselves. Even babies as young as six months show they are sensitive to new facial features by staring at pictures of people from unfamiliar ethnicities longer than pictures of people familiar to them. Later, as children age, they become “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.”¹ This is why by age five and six, most kids begin to prefer playing with the same gender, or at a minimum begin rejecting anything stereotypically associated with the other gender. “I don’t want the pink cup. I’m a boy!” The same goes for race. Even in racially diverse environments, children will begin to naturally segregate into their “known” group whenever possible. Again and again, this happens unless a specific conversation takes place.
Consider how babies and toddlers learn concrete vocabulary. Prior to speaking their first word, babies will understand many words and phrases. They are soaking in all the labels tossed at them during walks, story time, playtime and mealtime. The first time parents realize their child truly knows a word is magical. Baby might have casually heard the word milk and began kicking their legs excitedly and babbling. Parents naturally tune into their child’s ever-growing vocabulary base and begin to stretch it. “Milk? You’re hungry? Ok, time to eat!” Similarly, once parents realize their child understands the word for flower, they will begin labeling specific flowers. Meanwhile, the child’s brain is busy mapping all these new words, figuring out the semantic relationships–what is a category and what is a subcategory, what is a noun and what is an adjective? Eventually they understand that flowers have some things in common (petals, stems, leaves) but that their shapes and color may differ. The same thing needs to happen for kids to understand the differences among people. A tulip does not lose it’s beauty nor value by being labeled more specifically. Nor does a person lose their beauty or value by being labeled appropriately. Rather, understanding differences, and the reasons for them, provides opportunity for greater appreciation.
So, I choose to enter the conversation.
Choosing to enter the conversation means I didn’t dodge the awkwardness when my then two-year-old commented that our visiting black friend has “dirty” skin. Instead, I stepped right into the heart of it. (Remember, this is not a mean comment coming from a little kid. My white son knew his fingers got darker after playing in dirt. He knew that his skin is dirty when it’s dark brown, so he was simply applying his truth to someone else.) I said something like, “Oh, Natalie’s skin isn’t dirty. She has brown skin all the time. People have all sorts of different skin colors, and ways their faces and bodies look.” Since Natalie was in touch with what kids need, she asked him if he wanted to touch her skin. She rubbed it to show she didn’t have dirt coming off. By doing this, she invited him further into the conversation.
As my boys age, we talk with increasing detail about differences found in people. I provide my children with the proper labels for ethnic groups, for referring to people with disabilities, for talking about people who are overweight, etc… We began with the most common people groups of the United States and move towards deepening and broadening their understanding over time. They know that many of their friends are multi-racial and how that happens. They know that others were adopted from other countries. They know that some friends have gay parents. Having these conversations makes it acceptable to discuss that someone looks different, acts different, or has differences in their family. Because we all do.
Sometimes knowing what term is correct can be tricky (black vs African American, Asian American vs Amerasian, etc…). Asking friends if they have a preference will quickly clear up confusion. Questioning politely, with your child present, models to your children that this is a safe topic when handled respectfully. It helps to keep stigma at bay and maintain open lines of communication. In general, stick with teaching your kids the most correct terms you know and be open to the understanding that they may change. Soon enough your kids will inform you if you don’t stay on top of it. (“They’re not Oriental! They’re Asian!” has been groaned by thousands of forty year old white children to their parents.)
Older kids can be invited even deeper, learning about how places of origin often determine skin color, facial features, height, etc… Every time we have this discussion, I find a world map and the internet quite useful. We have talked about how America was initially inhabited by Native Americans and then looked at pictures, read books, etc… We have talked about many people came to America from different places and that’s part of why we see so many different types of people, whereas some countries remain relatively homogenous. The lesson incorporates race, geography and history.
Choosing to enter the conversation means that I share developmentally appropriate details about racism and how various people groups, including kids, have been treated poorly because of how they look. With my first grader, it means educating him on a handful of details about slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as introducing him to a few key brave people who fought to change these laws. It also means letting him know that plenty of injustice remains and talking about how we can help.
Choosing to enter the conversation means that I don’t rush my boys along when they pass someone in a wheelchair and stare or inquire about it. If the person in the chair appears open to converse, I will sometimes engage them in our conversation by introducing myself and letting them know my boys have questions (which is already obvious to them, but it helps break the ice). Once this led to one exceptionally friendly woman demonstrating everything her electric wheelchair could do, including moving it into a full stand. My boys thought she was bad-ass! She enthusiastically answered their questions. In fact, I think she was touched. She was seen. She was heard. Her differences were acknowledged as worthy of discussion. My kids weren’t shushed as she passed. We welcomed her presence.
Choosing to enter the conversation means that I talk to my boys about different family structures. Some parents are divorced. Some parents are both dads, some are both moms. Some kids are adopted. It means we talk about how some people don’t think all of these families are ok, but that we do and why.
Choosing to enter the conversation even means I don’t lie to my three year old when he sees a Diva Cup in it’s invitingly brand new bright pink and purple box on the kitchen counter and asks if he can have some candy. He says, “What is it? Can I suck on it? Does it taste good?” He thinks it’s some sort of cool lollipop! I don’t give him all the details, but I tell him it’s something women use to catch blood from their vagina. (Yup. I’m saying these things. To a kid under four feet tall. It was embarrassingly awkward the first time, but now it feels pretty easy and even quite comical.) “Women bleed every once in awhile because this is how their body works. It’s what allows them to have babies.” There is no reason for this to be an off-limits topic, so I enter in. (Random side note: Why does Diva Cup include a little lapel pin saying “Diva” in their box? Are we supposed to wear it while we’re menstruating so people treat us a little kinder? Should we also have one if we’re gassy?)
Engaging in these conversations takes some thought and practice. It felt very uncomfortable at first because it hadn’t been modeled to me. Even now, every time I encounter a brand new topic I feel awkward and fumble quite a bit, especially if a stranger is involved (“Look, mom! That person is ROUND!”). My ability to formulate bites of information appropriate for their level of language comprehension has improved with practice, but I’m also growing more comfortable with the novelty of these discussions and feeling embarrassed in public. (“Mom, what’s that on her face?” “Mom, look at that person’s bottom!”) There is room for fumbling, asking questions, figuring it out together. My primary goal is to respect all the people involved.
As strange as it feels in the beginning, these conversations are best started with kids as young as two and three, because by five and six kids already have clearly divided categories upon which they’ve placed their own labels. Simply by observing the world, those older children have already divided people into groups. Having the basic knowledge of proper vocabulary can also help them understand what holds all these groups together, as well as what separates them. This allows them to have a conversation about them in a respectful manner. They can begin to connect the categories that were once divided because they now know how they fit onto their vocabulary map. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.
1 NutureShock, pg 53 (forgive my lack of APA documentation--this is my lazy footnote attempt)