Time plays the cruel joke of parenting being all lilacs and daffodils on all of us. While parenting is undeniably a masterwork of the living, bringing about natural streams of tenderness alongside fits of fury, unconditional love accompanied by an undying sense of worry, and a thirst for offering one’s own kids the best life possible with a strong punch in the gut inflicted by the possibility of things swerving in a negative direction; it surely is to be defined as a potent mix between heaven and hell. With the DNA part established, the greatest question remains on how to ideally feed your child’s brain the proper moral nutrients that help them challenge sociocultural influences.
Babies Are Not Colorblind
Given the recent and devastating racially-packed climate in the country, and with the protests sparking questions from children, parents have undoubtedly been contemplating that pendulum that swings right between the pre-existing racial prejudice in the world, and the ideal approach to talk to their kids about it. However, what some of the parents might not know is that a baby’s brain scans a face differently if this face belongs to someone from a different race, which indicates that the process of racial distinction starts at a very early age. According to a study published by HealthyChildren - the only parenting website backed by 67,000 pediatricians, both Dr. Ashaunta Anderson and Dr. Jacqueline Dougé confirmed that as early as 6 months, a baby’s brain can identify racial differences. By age 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias, until they form their own set of beliefs by age 12. Now, it’s a no brainer that a 6 months old baby’s perception of skin color can’t be construed as neither positive nor negative. But as those types of judgments are prone to develop over time, parenting comes in to exercise a pivotal role in confirming or disproving them.
As parents aim at sending both deliberate and unconscious messages to their children, two factors come into play. One, the ultimate approach to ensure a positive outcome where racial prejudice is severed and defied; and two, combatting the risk of their kids picking up on racial bias from society at large.
Doll Test - The Effects of Racism on Children: The "doll test" is a psychological experiment designed in the 1940s in the USA to test the degree of marginalization felt by African American children caused by prejudice, discrimination and racial segregation.
I conducted a survey in hopes of gathering more parental opinions regarding the matter. The first thing I was curious about finding out was what, in their opinion, would be the most favorable age to approach the subject. Answers mostly varied between 7 to 13 years old, in addition to another two responses, the first one suggesting that 15 would be the best age to address it, given that it’s imperative for the kid to be able to grasp the history from which racial conflicts have stemmed, and the other saying “whenever the child asks about it”. My second question focused on their idea of the ultimate approach. Giving out a historical background on the matter, a religious point of view on equality, watering the progressive flower of open-mindedness, and stressing how “someone’s skin color doesn’t matter”, were all favored methods. Which brings me to my third question that targeted Strategic Colorblindness and whether they thought it proved effective or ineffective. Most parents who took my survey deemed it ineffective as it’s a strategy that avoids the issue rather than addresses it. Others thought avoiding the issue is rather beneficial in terms of leaving the child the necessary space to judge a person by his/her actions, instead of skin color. Not to belabor the obvious, but there are no correct or wrong answers here.
Even more so, certain views on the matter suggest a myriad of reasons as to why the subject of race should not be discussed with kids. Shannon, a mom blogger who goes by StrivingShannon, and who also co-facilitated a Race Conscious Parent Collective in Atlanta, wrote about why well-meaning parents don’t talk to their children about race and mentioned different opinions that came on top.
One parent suggested that it was “developmentally inappropriate”. This viewpoint was supported by the conviction that kids should not be exposed to injustice before they’re 10 years old. Provided that children pick up on more than they get credit for, from their parents locking up their cars and doors in some neighborhoods, to black children observing the fearful reactions towards the police, to children accidently or heedfully watching a scene on TV that exposes racial bias, those ideas, thoughts, and observations stand out in their fragile minds and they hold on to them, which subsequently flares up confusion.
Second one argued against messing up a child’s innocence, bearing in mind that nowadays “childhood is fleeting”. But the question is, is childhood fleeting due to awareness, or the lack of it? It is true that as adults, seeing the world from the eyes of a child starts declining as our judgments get clouded but what we know now. But as children, any acts of violence or something that holds a negative connotation would ignite a frightening sensation. That sensation arises from an internal conflict of feelings, perceiving anything of an unfamiliar nature as a threat to their innate identity. Hence, the process of moulding and recombining the raw perceptual data stored in a kid’s brain is strictly up to parents as they either aid the child in enhancing certain images through positive and uplifting ideas, or they leave them hanging.
Another parent’s opinion fell more on the spectrum of hesitation-inducing fear, assuming that he/she “will get it wrong or make a mistake”. But isn’t that what parenting is all about? Making a mistake in one’s journey as a parent is as likely as spilling food on your clothes while eating at least once in your lifetime. From then on, you learn to be more cautious or even seek tips on how to be. In the context of talking to kids about race, monitoring the outcome is key. Once parents are aware of the delicacy of the subject discussed, evaluating the efficiency of their approach is of the essence. If one approach doesn’t work, a parent must hunt for the proper one. Once parenting is signed up for, all efforts must be exerted. Protecting one’s self from doing something wrong might end up backlashing on both the parents as well as the kids.
A Look at Race Relations through a Child's Eyes: Anderson Cooper details a study that seeks to gain insight into the way black and white children perceive each other.
Strategic Colorblindness: A Two-Edged Sword
However, from a scientific standpoint, an infant’s brain starts molding at quite an early age, leaving the child torn in between acceptance and its twin emotion of seclusion, except a child’s perceptive development at such an early stage solidly relies on the visual world. Still cognitively unable to interpret visual scenes (color, luminance, distance, texture, orientation, motion, and so forth) in a meaningful fashion, parents have to chip in byinterpreting potentially ambiguous juxtapositions of visual attributes. While verbal communication is essential yet not necessarily of utmost lucidity while trying to send a 6 months old race-based messages, modeling a stance of respectful openness at the household is the most viable strategy to start with.
By the time a child’s developmental milestones reach a point where they can grasp the logical connections between “why” things are the way they are and “how” they came to be, it is best for parents to start, in baby steps, educating their children about the subject of race. Dr. Leigh Wilton, an assistant professor of psychology at Skidmore College, believes that while parents often use well-intentioned strategies, the latter result in ineffectiveness as they ignore the reality we live in. One of those strategies being the Colorblind Approach, where parents tend to imply that "skin color doesn't matter," or "we're all the same on the inside", or maybe even avoid talking about it altogether because it is not polite to discuss it. In a Harvard Business Review, Michael I. Norton and Evan Apfelbaum talk about a series of experiments conducted to touch base with the drawbacks of the Colorblind Approach. One of the experiments went like this: gathering 30 participants (all white) to be the questioners in a version of the child’s game Guess Who? Each paired with a different partner (some white, some black), participants, with a sheet containing pictures of both black and white people, had to ask their partners yes or no questions, for the latter to identify the face of the targeted picture. Most of the questioners shied away from asking questions about race. Afterward, outside observers were asked to evaluate the questioners’ performance, and the results indicated that they found the ones who avoided asking race-related questions to be more biased than the ones who had asked about it. Although well-meant, avoiding the subject of race creates situations of awkwardness for all parties included, whereas openly acknowledging it brings about a welcoming embrace for diversity.
By those ages, the kid has a range of vocabulary wide enough to word their observations and say something like “this kid has dark skin” or “this kid looks weird”. At that point, the nicest way to respond is by making the prospect of difference seem like an occasion to celebrate by saying things like “ISN’T IT AMAZING THAT WE’RE ALL SO DIFFERENT?”
Not only would it sound so normal, but it would also entice a new set of positive emotions to drive the kid more and more into accepting people of different ethnicities and races, among other things.
Ages 7 to 8
Racial attitudes, if driven by earlier positive influences, tend to improve even more by that age. As children blend in at school with other kids from different racial backgrounds, they become more receptive to differences. However, they are still prone to notice nuances in things such as hair texture. It is paramount that parents respond to questions about differences, at that stage, by pointing out similarities and emphasizing on what binds their kid to his classmates rather than what separates them. “His hair is different but you both like Peppa Pig, right?” is a manner of responding through which the kid would immediately jump in his/her head to the exciting idea of having fun with his friend with whom he has a certain liking in common.
Ages 9 to 10
Here’s the age where kids start discovering the dark side of technology. Some of them might even have tablets and phones, on which they are (despite safety measures being taken) exposed to aberrant news, views, and ads. This is the bit where parents should start conversing with their kids about the possibility of them stumbling into such ideas on the internet, or even hearing about them from their friends and their loved ones, and should set certain distinguishing guidelines that separate right from wrong so that their kids don’t fall into the pit of embitterment inflicted by others. Moreso, at that age children acquire a better understanding of history. Teaching kids about the history of African-Americans in a simplified way, or even suggesting they read African-American literature will do them a shedload of good.
Talk To Your Kids About Race And Racism
Talk to your kids about racism. Let your kids talk to you about racism. If we refuse to face reality, how are we supposed to combat it? Change it? Make it better? I stumbled upon an Instagram caption worthy of sharing by someone you all probably know and love from behind a screen. Reese Witherspoon shared her experience with her own kid on May 28, only 3 days after George Floyd was brutally murdered, and said:
Last night at dinner, my 7-year-old asked why all the grown ups were so upset. We spoke to him about what happened to George Floyd. Being a white mother trying to explain racism and bigotry to her white son, who did not understand why anyone would treat another human being that way, was heartbreaking. But not nearly as heartbreaking as being a victim of one of these senseless, violent, unconscionable crimes. Not nearly as heartbreaking as being one of the families who have experienced loss and harassment and discrimination daily. Not nearly as heartbreaking as being a mother who lives in fear of what will happen to her children in this world. I grew up going to church. We were taught that we were all the same in the eyes of God. We all breathe the same air. We all bleed the same blood. But that is not what I grew up seeing. It was as hard for me to reconcile the difference between what I was taught in church and what I see in the world. I don’t want that for my kids. Or for yours. We have to be held accountable for what is happening in this country. What happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery - and countless others - can not go without justice. Please talk to your children about racism, privilege, bigotry and hate. If you aren’t talking to them, someone else is.
Hesitating to mention the subject of race and regarding it as insensitive does not have to become an archetype, knowing that the basic scaffold of an archetype exists in the unconscious mind. The sooner the fight against racism begins at home, the better chances children have at postulating life-long mental modules of racial-conception, and the more unlikely they are to be affected by sociocultural influences upon encountering negative mindsets, symbols, and situations in the future. Parents’ everyday comments and actions should serve as ideal footmarks in a child’s moral compass, and backed up by having a wide, culturally diverse social network, exposing the child to diverse communities, and getting the child to advocate for fair treatment of racially marginalized groups at school, as well as places of worship and politics, should suffice to ensure the world is on its way to become a better and safer place for many generations to come.
Q. Wouldn’t our children’s innocence be an unfair trade for the real world when we expose them to racial prejudice?
Many colloquialisms such as “let kids be kids”, or “you don’t get to relive your childhood”, or “we should protect kids from notions of injustice” ring a bell when contemplating whether or not to talk to a child about the racial prejudice that is pervading our world. Truth is, there is no better way to fight notions of injustice than instilling opposing notions of love. As far as your worry for your child goes, rest assured their innocence will prevail as you answer their little curious questions about race, or anything else that falls under the context of injustice, with “the world could be a better place with a little help from us” instead of “yes, it’s so bad, but what can we do?”, for instance. When we think about childhood, we think about hopes, expectations, a boundless hankering for life that if nurtured by kind and affectionate thoughts, will surely manifest itself immaculately.
Q. A little girl in my daughter’s class called her racist. When she asked me what the word meant, I told her that it’s someone who doesn’t like someone else just because of the color of their skin, and that most racists only like people who look like them. I have never seen that child so offended. Every now and then, she brings it up all agitated. Doesn’t that make a parent wish their kid didn’t even get acquainted with a word of such horrible connotations?
It does, indeed. But isn’t that like wishing your child never went to the park because she would’ve never fell and hurt her leg? In no way you could have avoided your child being exposed to words with negative connotations. No matter how hard you try at home, your child was born to get out in the real world and experience different types of incidents and the emotions that result thereafter. You gave your daughter the textbook definition of the word “racist”, and she got offended because she could not identify with this definition on any level. This is not necessarily a bad thing given that it implies you did a pretty good job at home, teaching her to love people of all colors. However, to avoid the aforementioned agitation she’s feeling from reoccurring, it is best to sit and have a talk with her on how despite racist people existing out there, loving people exist too, and she is one of them. That way you would aid in the concept of love overshadowing the concept of racism in her mind, and therefore equipping her with the right moral guide to help her other friends overcome it too when encountered.
Q. Is it effective to explain to my child the issue from a religious point of view by telling him how God created us all equal?
Any religious perspective is of utmost validity. But when we use broad terms such as “equality”, the idea might not entirely sink in for a child. For example, your child might have a friend who tells him that his/her parents are unable to buy him/her certain things that your child does have, or he might stumble into homeless people on the streets, or might meet someone with special needs. At that moment the idea of equality will be hovering in his mind and it could become risky in the sense of planting the seeds of doubt in his head. It is important to face the fact that not everyone is born equal as circumstances will always differ, even if everyone deserves to. This will become clearer as your kid grows up. But to have him understand it from a religious perspective without risking confusion or doubt, something along the lines of “God embraces diversity” or “just like flowers, God created all things in different shapes and colors” would be more comprehensible.
Q. I don’t think my child should be exposed to injustice early on in life and I make sure that their innocence comes out intact after everything they do, watch, or play with. But she is starting school next year. How am I supposed to convey to her the idea of racial bias if she comes home asking?
We cannot protect our children from growing up, nor from noticing injustice. Think of how you would explain to your daughter the plethora of bad things that exist in our world. Her questions will drag on one after the other, and they will not be limited to the subject of race. In any respect, there are some things your child should possess prior to emerging into the real world. Just like you would give your daughter a bottle of water to school, giving her as much previous insight as possible could prevent her thirst for information and thus her curiosity to seek it from other sources, sometimes even the wrong ones. This could also mean that she wouldn’t come home asking as you’ve already made no room for questions by clarifying that racial differences are but normal. When it comes to maintaining your daughter innocence for as long as possible and not exposing her to injustice, telling her that “you might meet some friends who look different than you at school”, or that “you might see someone treating your black friends at school in a not-so-nice way” could sound very alarming. Avoid such warnings and don’t make it sound as if you’re preparing your child for a mental shock. Resort to saying things like “this is going to be so much fun, you’re going to meet a lot of friends” and “be nice to everybody and have loads of fun” or even say hello to all of her classmates upon dropping her off at school with a big exciting smile on your face. Briefly, be your kid’s role model and have her follow your lead by projecting innocence and love yourself.
The above FAQ section is intended to present and answer some of the worries addressed by the parents who took my survey.
Ashaunta Anderson & Jacqueline Dougé, Talking to Children About Racial Bias, healthychildren.org, 2020.
StrivingShannon, The Top 5 Reasons Well Meaning White Parents Do Not Discuss Race With Their White Children, strivingparent.com, 2020.
Jessica Sullivan, Leigh Wilton, & Evan P. Apfelbaum, Adults Delay Conversations About Race Because They Underestimate Children’s Processing of Race,Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2020.
Michael I. Norton & Evan Apfelbaum, The Costs of Racial “Color Blindness”, the Magazine, 2013.
 Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Anti-Racism for Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide to Fighting Hate, Parents Magazine, 2019.
Writer's Bio: A trilingual Translator & Interpreter who graduated from Notre Dame University in 2018, with a primary focus on various interdisciplinary practices. Stemming from my deep fondness for literature and psychology, my writing journey began 14 years ago and remains the beating heart at the very core of my career. Read more articles by this author