Posted in Blog, Family life, House and home, Life as a mom, Mother, Shawna

My toddler a racist??

Today, at the toy store, I did something really scary: I held up two baby dolls with different skin colors, and I explicitly pointed this difference out to my daughter. “One baby has black skin and one baby has white skin,” I said. “But they both seem like very nice babies. Should we take this one?”

Then I pushed the black baby doll into Quinn’s hands and we gave her a kiss and brought her to the clerk. And I succesfully fought the urge to tell that clerk why I am pointing out race to my 17-month-old. But I will tell you!

I’ve been reading this parenting book called NurtureShock— wait, don’t walk away! It’s actually a really interesting, evidence-based book that’s more like The Tipping Point for the parenting set than anything else. The book takes popular parenting adages like “telling your kids they’re smart is good for them,” “too much TV makes kids fat” and “kids are naturally color-blind” and shows that research and evidence actually show those things to be untrue. It’s really fascinating!

And more than a little sobering. It cites evidence showing that some of the “best ideas” of modern parenting have actually ended up doing a lot of damage to kids and society. Anyhoo, back to racism and the toy store.

One of the sacred cows tackled by the book is the idea that kids are naturally color-blind (like George Costanza). The book says a lot of modern white parents (like myself) don’t talk to their kids about race because they don’t want their kids to notice racial differences and they assume that they won’t if they’re not pointing them out.

But the book goes into a bunch of studies that show that young children do indeed notice race, and other simple identifiers like gender or hair color. The research shows that kids naturally have a bit of an in-group mentality where they assume that people who look most like them are most like them, and this can naturally make them assume they like those people better.

Luckily, other studies show that when parents do actually talk to these kids about racial differences, pointing out that they end beyond skin color, the kids are amazingly receptive to that information.

I’ve got to say, all of that research seems pretty intuitive to me. It makes sense that little kids notice racial differences, and it makes sense that talking to them explicitly about race might be a good idea, just like we talk to them about little boys and little girls and make a point of saying things like “little girls and little boys can do whatever they want. A girl could be a doctor or an astronaut and a little boy could too!” We don’t assume they will never notice gender if we don’t point it out.

I think talking to kids early and often about race also will equip them for instances where they might experience racism, just like talking to them about gender arms them against sexism.

But I’ve got to admit that it felt really scary and unnatural to do, especially in public. I’ve always hated when someone unnecessarily points out a racial difference, and seen that as one type of racism. But I get that young children sometimes need to have things said more explicitly. The parenting adventure continues!

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  1. I had read something similar. When I talk about race to my four year old it feels like I am doing something wrong even though I know I am not. The first family has been a convenient way to discuss racial differences. My mom remembers the civil rights movement and did not think she would live to see the day that there was a black president. Hopefully it will not take us forty years after the gay rights movement to have a gay president.

  2. Yes, I completely agree!

  3. I’m with you on that. My two year old daughter gets very shy and nervous whenever she sees a black person. The funny thing is — when we go to costco, the old WHITE ladies at the sample counters are MEAN as heck — but she’s just fine with them… and every black person we’ve met (for some reason, there are not a lot of black people living in our area) have made her very nervous — she was even too scared to pet the man we met yesterday’s dog. I thought she was scared of the dog. He said, “no, it’s probably just me” (though he attributed it to his dreadlocks). Every time this happens, i try and talk to her about how, despite how strikingly different he may look, he’s just as nice as anyone else, and black people are just as nice, or just as mean, as white people – or anyone else for that matter. My wife thinks it’s strange, and i think she still labors under the idea that Stevie won’t see race if we don’t point it out to her — but it’s become pretty obvious to me that despite it NEVER coming up in our home, she sees it. Honestly, i don’t feel like i’m doing anything wrong. Black people (or asian, or middle eastern, etc. (i’m skipping hispanic as a large portion of our family is mexican)) LOOK DIFFERENT — they do, it’s simple aesthetics. But it ends there — and she needs to LEARN that it ends there. It’s developmental for humans to have natural preferences to people who look like them, esepcially at a young age. Imagine back in old nomadic/tribal society — it would be important for a child to differentiate their own tribe from another. it’s an INSTINCT, and in todays society, they need to learn that it’s an instinct we can ignore.

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