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Parents wonder how to raise children who will stand up against racism. We begin that conversation here.
There’s a lot to learn as a new parent. What size diapers are right? How will they learn to sleep through the night? When will they learn to share? And the most important thing of all—how do you raise a child who understands right and wrong, justice and injustice?
When you think of your baby or toddler, it may seem like they’re too young for issues like antiracism, justice, and equity. But race is part of a child’s life from day one. Here is a place to start—five facts about how children come to understand differences, starting from birth:
1. All children notice differences.
This ability starts from a very young age—as young as 3 months old.i As children grow, they notice a wide range of differences, including skin color, facial features, voice, hair color/texture/length, use of assistive equipment like a wheelchair, etc. Children notice and name these differences as a necessary and expected part of development.
2. It’s not okay to use differences as an excuse to stereotype others.
Our race and ethnicity are part of who we are and give us a sense of pride and belonging.
But it’s important to know that race is more of an idea than an actual thing. This idea of race has been used, across history, to grant unfair privilege to some groups and cause harm to others.
3. Racism is learned.
Our kids are learning from us all the time, even when we think they aren’t watching. We all have biases (ideas about other groups) and these ideas are passed along to our children through everyday interactions. Parents’ attitudes about race are reflected in children’s attitudes about race, beginning in early childhood.ii
4. Racial bias starts early, between ages 2 and 4.iii
Soon after, preschoolers between 3 and 5 may use race as a reason to include or exclude children from play and other activities.iv Watch here for research on school-age children that explores how children can develop bias based on skin color.)
5. Diversity makes a difference.
Attending a diverse preschool and building cross-race friendships increases the chance that children will enjoy cross-race friendships and show less racial bias when they enter school—all the way through third grade.v On the other hand, research has found that white children in mostly white preschools show more stereotypes of other racial groups.vi
Talking to our children about antiracism is part of our responsibility as parents. But this path forward isn’t always easy. It can be hard to recognize our own biases toward other groups. Re-thinking our own views on race may mean that relationships with family or friends change in big or painful ways. Reaching out for support can help us do this hard and necessary work.
To get started talking to young children about antiracism, check out the materials created by Sesame Workshop and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This article is part of a series on Parenting for Social Justice. For more, visit zerotothree.org/parentingforsocialjustice.
i Kelly et al., 2005. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2566511/)
ii Degner & Dalege, 2013. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23379964/)
iii Anderson & Douge, 2020. (https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Talking-to-Children-About-Racial-Bias.aspx)
iv Van Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. R., 2001. (https://books.google.com/books/about/The_First_R.html?id=uLKfzKtl0lEC)
v Gaias, Taylor, Gal and Abry, 2018. (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323385915_Diversity_exposure_in_preschool_Longitudinal_implications_for_cross-race_friendships_and_racial_bias)
vi Rutland, Cameron, Bennett, & Ferrell, 2005. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0193397305000778)