More than 50 years have passed since the Civil Rights Act was first enacted in 1964, and yet race seems to be as hot a topic today as it was in the 1960s. In honor Martin Luther King Day and his leadership in the advancement of Civil Rights, Big M and I spent the last few days talking about racial diversity.
Why talk to a preschooler about race?
As a white mother, it never occurred to me to talk to my toddler about race. And then, my old boss gave me this amazing book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. If you haven’t read it, put it on your Amazon Wish List now. Every chapter covers a common, modern day parenting practice or dilemma – from sleep and the power of praise, to language acquisition and sibling rivalry.
What makes it very different from your typical parenting book is that it outlines what the commonly held parenting views are in these areas, and then demonstrates through documented research evidence why these practices are completely misconceived, at best, or at worst, have the complete opposite end result than intended. As an example, praising children for being ‘so smart’ in later years results in them readily giving up when they encounter tasks of any difficulty, out of fear of failing to maintain their ‘smart title.’ Instead, it is better to praise and encourage their efforts.
One of the chapters focuses on race and discussions of race (or the total lack there of) within white families. A 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found nonwhite families were three times more likely to talk about race with their children than white parents, while 75% of white parents never, or almost never, talk about race. As this recent NY Times article points out, “…not talking about “racial differences doesn’t tell children that we don’t notice that people have different colored skin and differently textured hair. It tells them that we don’t talk about things like that.” Similarly, telling a toddler, “We are all equal” doesn’t tell them much when they don’t understand the concept of equality.
As I was reading this very chapter, Big M had recently celebrated her second birthday and her favorite gift was her Fisher-Price Little People Disney Princess Songs Palace. She also received a set of Disney Princesses to go with it, and as was typical of her slightly-OCD personality, every day during clean-up time, she would put all the princesses in the same spot in the palace. And Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, she would always put away in the third floor room by herself. I started stressing over my two year old segregating her princesses, so I finally asked her one day why she put Tiana up there – “Because she’s special, Mama.” I didn’t know quite what to say in response!
Turns out, children’s brains are hard-wired to discern differences, including racial ones, from as young as 6 months old. Nearly from birth, they are not color-blind, and not talking about race, doesn’t change that. Instead, it allows their young minds to make their own inferences; not talking about it teaches them “My parents don’t like us to talk about skin color.”
How to teach your preschooler about race
So now that it is evident that we should be having these conversations with our children, regardless of our race, and having them early, how do you start? I headed to my favorite source for kids activities, Pinterest, and found a few good ones to help broach the subject:
But I wanted to do something that was a) a little more involved to allow for a longer discussion and b) was an activity we were already both comfortable with to serve as the backdrop for a conversation that was admittedly a little out of my comfort zone. I settled on baking cookies.
Big M is always more than eager to help in the kitchen, so when I told her we were making cookies, she was beyond ecstatic. We made two different recipes: Whipping Cream Sugar Cookies and Gingerbread. These are my family’s favorite Christmas cookie recipes! You can find the recipes here. We talked about how the dough was different colors. She’s big into making comparisons these days, and can often be heard saying, “Mama, it’s kinda like…” so I seized on her own vernacular. “The dough is different colors, kinda like people can be.”
“Can people be purple?!?” she eagerly asked, her favorite color of the moment. When I laughed and said no, she got quiet for a minute, and then she softly said, “You mean like Teacher Harriet and Miss Elaina?” (Thank you, thank you Daniel Tiger!!!) With a huge sigh or relief, I replied “Yes, exactly! Just like on Daniel Tiger – Teacher Harriet and Miss Elaina both have darker skin, while Prince Wednesday has lighter, pink skin, like you. What are some other ways people may look different?”
We talked about how Daniel Tiger and Katerina Kitty Cat both have tails, but she doesn’t. We talked about gender. We talked about eye color – how Daddy’s eyes are brown, while ours are blue, and Grandma and MerMer’s are green. We used mini-M&Ms to give our cookie men different color eyes. We talked about hair length, facial hair (Daddy’s sporting his winter beard) and hair color… This digressed a bit into how Rapunzel’s hair has to be protected because when you cut it, it turns brown, but nonetheless, we were having an active, and detailed, conversation.
Then, I asked her if she remembered the song from Daniel Tiger about people being different. We sang it together – “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways, we are the same!” I told her while everyone looks different on the outside, on the inside, we are all the same. We gave all our cookie men hearts, by cutting out a heart in their center, and putting a red Jolly Rancher in it that melted and filled it when they baked. And, since we have been working on being kind to Lil’ M and earning pom poms to fill up our Kindness Jar, I stressed that whether someone looks like you or different from you, it is important to treat everyone with kindness.
The Colors of Us – Story and Printable
To reinforce our first discussion of racial differences, because both my girls LOVE books, the next day we read The Colors of Us, by Karen Katz. While there are many books out there for kids on this subject, we love Karen Katz books ( so much so that I’m pretty sure A Potty for Me! was Big M’s sole inspiration to use the potty), so when I saw she had a book on racial differences, I knew that was the one we would get!
It is wonderful and beautifully illustrated. The inside covers are full of hands of all different sizes and colors, and as soon as we opened the book, Big M put her hands into the mix. The story is about a Mom who takes her young daughter on a walk through her neighborhood. Along the way, her Mom points out all their friends and neighbors and how they are all different colors. At the end of the story, the girl paints all their pictures and tells her Mom she made “The colors of us!”
I asked Big M if she would like to make pictures with all ‘the colors of us.’ Following her lead from the day before, I had made a printable to color with outlines of our cookie men, complete with their center hearts, and the song from Daniel Tiger across the page.
We used Crayola Multicultural Colors Markers to color our printable. I told her she should make one like her, and one like someone who looks different than her. I showed her all the different markers, and asked her which one she thought looked like her. She wanted me to color one too, so I set Lil’ M up with one as well. When I showed her mine, she asked what their names were, and I told her she could name them. She named one “Mommy” and the other one Jenny. She told me my Mommy needed a tiara. And since I had given Jenny a bun, she asked for a new sheet and said she wanted to make one a ballerina and could I draw her a tutu… It always comes back to tutus and tiaras!
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So while I did not delve into the history of the Civil Rights movement, racial inequality or racial tensions with Big M yet, I feel good about having at least introduced the concept of racial differences, and we will continue to build on it from here. Have you talked to your children about racial differences? How did you go about it?
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