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How to talk with little kids about race: Start with similarities and differences 

How to talk with kids about race

It's never too soon to talk about race with your child. In fact, physical differences related to race are one of the first things kids notice about other people, so, it's important to help them learn how to understand and talk respectfully about differences.  
One thing we’ve learned from the science of child development is that children need to be rooted in their own identity before they can begin understanding the identities of others. Identity, in this context, is about the essential things that make them them—like “I have brown hair” or “my family speaks Spanish at home.” Helping children develop a strong sense of self then allows them, in time, to extend that understanding to others. So, helping children appreciate the similarities and the differences between themselves and others is a great place to begin helping kids understand race. 
We love the tips for parents and educators found in the book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, with Catherine M. Goins. It all starts by creating opportunities to listen to your child’s ideas and assumptions, so you know how to approach your anti-bias teaching. 

Here’s a few tips for getting the conversation started with children under five:

  • Talk with your child about your family. Who are the people in your family? Where did they come from? What special things do you do together? What foods do you enjoy together? What holidays do you celebrate, and what are some of your traditions around those holidays? What similarities do the people in your family share, and what are some differences that make each of you unique? 
  • Talk to your child about people in your community. Who are they? What role do they play in your lives? What do they look like? This can include people you see on TV, or even characters you read about in books. Talk with your child about the similarities and differences they notice between these people or characters and themselves. 
  • Listen to your child’s ideas about people. Encourage them to ask questions about things they are curious about or don’t understand. You may not have all the answers—none of us do!—but this is a great opportunity for you to model curiosity and empathy for others, and you can involve your child in researching the answers to their questions. This is also an important opportunity to correct any stereotypes your child may have developed about individuals or groups of people by replacing misconceptions with accurate information. You may even find yourself challenging some of your own assumptions, which is great! 
  • Seek out cultures and experiences other than your own. Friendships, community celebrations, books movies, and music are all great ways to help your child learn about the different ways people live and experience the world. When children learn from an early age that diversity is the norm, and that everyone has different ways of doing things, they grow up with a healthy appreciation of diversity and are better able to celebrate both similarities and differences.  
With the information you learn by listening to your child’s ideas and questions, you can plan ways to teach them about racial differences and provide accurate information to replace any mistaken ideas. Not sure the information you have is accurate? These resources can help: 

Got kids older than five? Extend the differences and similarities conversation beyond the obvious. 

The science of racial differences 
School-age kids are ready to learn basic scientific explanations around the racial differences in physical features like hair texture, skin color, and eye shape. Explaining the advantages that physical attributes give people in certain geographical locations is a good place to start:  
  • Darker skin provides more protection from the sun than lighter skin. 
  • The epicanthic fold, which determines the eye shape of people with Asian origins, provides protection against the glare of snow or from flying dust.  
  • Blue eyes and “white” skin are common among people who originated in Northern Europe where the sun is less strong.  
Remember to explain to your children that physical characteristics based on geographical origin took thousands of years to develop, and often for reasons that help them stay safer, live longer, or be more comfortable. And, if your child travels to another part of the world, it won’t change their characteristics!  

The connection between race and culture  
You can also explain that just as people’s bodies developed to best meet the requirements of their physical environment, so did their cultures. Talk with your child about your own culture including:  

  • your ancestry 
  • your traditions 
  • the foods you eat 
  • the religion you practice 
  • your values 
  • and more 
These are all parts of your identity that developed through your family’s history and experiences to shape your cultural identity. Reflect with your child on people they’re familiar with whose cultural backgrounds are different from your own and help them appreciate the differences as well as the similarities you might find. 
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