Despite what many of us have been taught, there's nothing wrong with talking about the color of people's skin. In fact, the opposite is true: Teaching kids not to talk about race can contribute to the problem of racism. It's never too early to begin cultivating a healthy awareness of diversity in your child.
Preschoolers are too young to understand the social meaning of race the way adults do. But they are not colorblind and they do notice physical differences. Don't be surprised when you hear your child comparing his skin color to others' – it's a source of fascination. Most comments preschoolers make about appearance are innocent – they're simply describing what they see.
At this age, although kids clearly identify themselves and others by gender, they don't yet do it by race. They're simply not developmentally able to categorize in this way. A 2- to 4-year-old who notes a difference in color doesn't understand that difference as race. Kids don't understand that their own skin color is permanent until they're about 4 1/ 2, according to Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? author Donna Jackson Nakazawa.
As with other tough topics, it helps to talk to your child early and often about racial diversity. How you respond to his curiosity will lay the groundwork for more sophisticated conversations as he gets older. Embarrassment or silence gives your child the impression that the topic is off-limits or that a bigoted remark is accurate and acceptable to you. Children look to their parents for moral cues, and they'll learn from your actions as well as your words.
Expose your child to people of all shades. Before your preschooler even utters the words "black" or "white" in reference to skin color, be sure he sees plenty of people of different ethnicities. If you don't live in a racially diverse area, surround him with children's books and artwork featuring people of various races. All of this will help your child understand that a normal environment includes people of different races, says Marguerite Wright, author of I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children.
Talk about differences. Hair, skin, eyes – preschoolers are noticing all these distinctions and beginning to describe them. It's normal. If your child points out that someone has curly hair, you can say, "Some people have curly hair, some people have straight hair – isn't that great?"
Don't overreact to comments on race. If your child comments on someone's color, first find out what he's really saying and why. When one BabyCenter mom's 3-year-old son noted in public, "That's a black man," she momentarily panicked. Then he said, "That's not a blue man," making her realize he was talking about the man's uniform, not his skin. (If your child inadvertently offends an adult, Wright suggests explaining to the person that your child is learning his colors.)
And when your child makes an observation that is clearly about skin color ("Eve's mom is white"), don't freak out. Just say, "That's right. What made you think about that?" Whatever the context, don't read too much into it. "A preschooler hasn't attached emotional or social meaning or value to skin color yet," says Wright. "It's just what he's seeing."
Case in point: Marcela Gomez's 4-year-old daughter, Paula, described her classmate Diego as the "cute boy with the round cheeks, skin just like mine, but chocolate." As far as little Paula was concerned, there was a difference in skin shades, but it was trivial.
Stick to the facts. When preschoolers ask questions about differences in skin color, keep your answers to the point. ("Addison's skin is brown, and yours is lighter. But you both wear ponytails, don't you?")
Don't overdo it. Though it's good to talk openly about differences, avoid placing too much emphasis on race. Preschoolers are too young to process the complexities of racial issues. Let the topic come up naturally and keep the conversation at your child's level.
Watch your words. Do you or other adults in your child's life tend to refer to people in terms of their race – "that black lady" or "that white man"? If so, your child will pick up on the habit. In the rare instance that a preschooler makes a negative racial comment, it usually reflects something he's heard at home or in school. "To reduce people to their race diminishes them," says Wright. Instead, call people by their names, not their skin color, and teach your child to do likewise.
Aim for "color fairness," not "color blindness." If you don't acknowledge differences, you fail to prepare your child to live in a multiethnic society. The message should be that "your ethnicity is part of who you are," says Wright, "and you treat everybody fairly, equally." We're all different, but no color is better than another.
"What color am I?" Use a nice big crayon box to explore colors and find the shade that most closely matches your preschooler's skin tone. Since your child isn't asking about race, it's okay to give an answer like "tan," "brown," or even "cornflower" or "mahogany." Some parents use ice cream flavors to talk about skin color with their child. Expect that your preschooler might wrongly identify his own skin shade and that of others, or that the shade he picks might change over time.
"Mommy, are you white?" Find out why he's asking (possibly he heard someone else referring to you by your color) before responding with a simple yes or no. Remind your child that people have different skin, eye, and hair colors, and that's just great.
"Why is that girl brown?" A good general answer for this age group, says Jackson Nakazawa, is simply "Everyone's skin is different." When one BabyCenter mom's 4-year-old asked, "Why is everyone brown?" while visiting a city with a large African American population, she simply responded, "Because a lot of brown people live here." Whatever the context, the key is to embrace diversity with your tone and words. One BabyCenter mom says her daughter's teacher, who is Asian American, tells her daughter that she is "cream" and her own daughter is "coffee" – mix them together and they make great friends.
"Why is his mommy white and he's not?" Tell your child that not all moms and kids "match" but that they're still a family. Point out any examples in your family or neighborhood – Uncle Jamie has red hair and his kids don't, Matthew has blue eyes and his mom doesn't.
Filter the media. If a TV show or movie depicts people in a disturbing or stereotypical way, turn it off. Choose shows (Sesame Street, Dragon Tales, Dora, Dinosaur Train) and DVDs that deal with race in a balanced way. And bear in mind that old movies, including such classics as Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan, often portray harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Make your child's toy box a melting pot. Buy toys and books that represent people of different ethnicities.
Broaden your child's social circle. Arrange playdates with kids from all kinds of families.