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How to raise kids to appreciate diversity

Categories: Kid Matters


Kristen is the mom of four kids in four years through birth and adoption, and started blogging at Rage Against the Minivan as a coping skill in 2006. She is also the managing editor at ShePosts. Kristen lost her long battle against the minivan last year . . . it now sits in her driveway covered in crushed cheerios and remnants of her self-esteem.

I used to subscribe to the idea that children are colorblind in regards to racial differences. I love the vision of American being this great melting pot where kids of every race play together in perfect harmony, and I made the assumption that prejudice only happened based on adult racial baggage. But as my kids are getting older, I’ve begun to realize that children do, in fact, notice race  We are a transracial family and my children, even as young as two, frequently describe family and friends in terms of skin color. I’ve even had the sinking feeling as I’ve observed playground interactions that my African American children are sometimes excluded because they look different.  And then, we had a couple incidents where my kids were blatantly excluded for their skin color.  My colorblind theory was beginning to crack.

I thought I was just being paranoid until I started doing some research on it. As it turns out, infants as young as 6 months old recognize racial difference. A simple google search on race and exclusion brings up dozens of studies on the impact of race in preschool and elementary school. The findings are scary: race is one of the biggest factors in children being left out by their peers. It’s as impactful as gender, physical differences, and even cognitive ability. Research indicates that by the age of 3, children develop a sense of “outsiders”-people who are different from themselves-and because of societal influence, may target those outsiders for prejudicial behaviors.

At the age that most children begin to notice gender differences, they also begin to notice race. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing – but it can be if we aren’t proactive. I think many of us are unaware of children’s racial bias, because it can be subject we inadvertently avoid. We want our kids to be “colorblind” in the way they treat others, so we pretend not to notice differences and encourage them do to the same. But in doing so, we might miss some important conversations and inadvertently communicate to our children that racial differences are a taboo subject. Research from McGill University suggests that young children’s racial attitudes are not necessarily a reflection of their parents’ views, and that remaining silent on racial issues suggests to children that talking about race is off limits.

I have a few friends who decided to broach the subject of race with their school-aged children, and they were shocked at what they found. One child expressed how glad she was that her skin was light because lighter was prettier. Another child said, point-blank, that he didn’t like kids with brown skin. Another parent decided to just observe her son at their next park outing. She watched her child allow a white child into the circle to share sand toys, but tell a Mexican child he had to play elsewhere.

Now, let me point out that these are not bad, abnormal, or cruel kids. These are sweet kids from amazing families, just expressing a typical (albeit flawed) developmental preference for similarity. A child who is wary of children who look different is not a racist in the making, any more than a child who wants to play with kids of their own gender is a budding sexist. These are normal developmental stages. However, like many “normal” childhood traits (impulsivity, selfishness, etc), this brand of xenophobia may need some gentle guidance and education from parents.

Children are social beings, and one of the first social lessons they learn is to sort and group. Boys hang out with boys. Girls hang out with girls. If your child shows these gender preferences, chances are they have racial preferences, too. This doesn’t make them little racists. It doesn’t mean they have a future in the KKK. It just means that they need some gentle guidance from you to overcome this natural tendency to seek out “sameness”.

So how do we encourage tolerance with our children? First of all, it’s important to talk openly about racial differences. If we teach our kids to be “colorblind” we are essentially silencing their observations on difference. This may send a message that diversity is scary, and can contribute to development of negative attitudes or a feeling of unease around people who are racially different. We should allow our children to talk openly about their observations, and assume that they may even have biases that we need to gently correct.

We should also provide our children with experiences in diversity, being intentional to get out of our own comfort zone. If children rarely see their parents interact with people of other races, it is likely that they will be uncomfortable as well. The most impactful way we can teach our children to value diversity is to model it in our own lives.

How are you raising your kids t appreciate diversity?

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2 comments so far...

  • We’re in kind of a strange situation in that our white (European mutt) son goes to a Japanese immersion daycare that, for obvious reasons, is full of kids who look Japanese. We worried at first about whether he’d be excluded because he was different, but we went ahead with it anyway, figuring the kids (babies through age 5) wouldn’t be at the age yet when they’d start discriminating.

    A year and a half later, what’s happened? He has friends of all types at daycare because, contrary to what our shallow view had been at the start, just because most of the kids looked Asian didn’t mean they were all full-Japanese. The kids are Japanese-Chinese, Japanese-Indian, Filipino-white, black-white, white-white…All the kids are different from each other, so no one is a true majority.

    I wish I could pat myself on the back for selecting this environment for the purpose of making my son tolerant of all types of people, but it really was just a side-effect. Yet would I do it again and encourage other parents to seek out daycares or playgroups made up of kids from all races? You betcha. (Easier said than done in some areas, obviously; I grew up in Utah and knew a total of two black kids all through school, and they had been adopted into a white family…)

    Leah K  |  September 21st, 2011 at 5:32 pm

  • What do you do when the schools do it? So my child was in one classroom (that I’m fighting to return her to still, another long story) and then was placed in another.

    A look at the classrooms and you’ll ponder why EVERY African-American girl in that grade (and most of the boys) was placed in one class (the new one). It makes me say, do you REALLY NOT SEE IT? REALLY?

    Mich  |  September 21st, 2011 at 9:04 pm