Talking Race With Young Children : Life Kit: Parenting Even babies notice differences like skin color, eye shape and hair texture. Here's how to handle conversations about race, racism, diversity and inclusion, even with very young children.

A few things to remember:
- Don't shush or shut them down if they mention race.
- Don't wait for kids to bring it up.
- Be proactive: Help them build a positive awareness of diversity.
- When a child experiences prejudice, grown-ups need to both address the feelings and fight the prejudices.
- You don't have to avoid topics like slavery or the Holocaust. Instead, give the facts and focus on resistance and allies.
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Talking Race With Young Children

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Talking Race With Young Children

Talking Race With Young Children

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CORY TURNER, HOST:

One day, a little boy named Jonathan (ph) came home from preschool and told his mother that a friend of his had said this.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Your skin is brown because you drink chocolate milk.

ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

Too much chocolate milk, he said.

TATUM: Though it wasn't a bad theory on the part of his friend, right? A 3-year-old had observed him drinking chocolate milk and so thought, that must be it. But I wondered, was anybody explaining to him that his chocolate milk theory was not accurate? It did also clue me to the fact that teachers and parents are often very uncomfortable with these conversations. And sometimes, when we're uncomfortable with something, we don't really want to deal with it. We kind of tune it out.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz, an NPR reporter and the mother of two girls.

TURNER: I'm Cory Turner, an NPR reporter and the father of two boys.

KAMENETZ: And you're listening to LIFE KIT for parents with Sesame Workshop.

TURNER: We're here to help you through the tough conversations that kids throw at us about death, divorce.

KAMENETZ: And we do it with help from the child development experts at Sesame.

TURNER: In this episode, we're going to explore a topic that families told us they really struggle with.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. How to talk about race.

TURNER: In addition to Sesame, we're also going to get some help from the voice we just heard - Beverly Daniel Tatum. She's not just a mom who found herself in one of these tough conversations.

KAMENETZ: No. She happens to be an expert in the psychology of racism.

TURNER: And the author of the classic bestseller "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?"

KAMENETZ: When we come back, what she told her son about the chocolate milk, along with five strategies to help you talk to your kid about race.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Hey, LIFE KIT listeners. We have a favor to ask.

TURNER: Since LIFE KIT is still pretty new, we're especially interested in hearing from you.

KAMENETZ: So we can make our future episodes even more useful.

TURNER: Please take a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/lifekitsurvey - all one word.

KAMENETZ: It'll take less than 10 minutes. And you'll be doing us a huge favor by telling us what you think.

TURNER: That's npr.org/lifekitsurvey.

KAMENETZ: And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So, Corey...

TURNER: Yeah?

KAMENETZ: ...Talking about race - this is a really tough one.

TURNER: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: I feel like there's so many ways that I, as a white parent, might be getting this wrong. And what I've learned in the process of reporting this episode is that it's really kind of a sign of white privilege. You know, the fact that some families think they don't have to talk about this stuff, while other families, obviously, are dealing with race and racism and prejudice every single day from the time their kids are born and before that.

TURNER: And so one thing we tried to do with this episode is really capture a wide range of experiences.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. We did a call-out to ask, what was the first time that you talked about race with your kids or a memorable time?

TURNER: And we want to thank all the people that we heard from 'cause we got lots of great stories. And as a result, some of our takeaways are going to speak more clearly to families of color and some more to white parents.

KAMENETZ: So that said, let's go to our first takeaway. Kids are not colorblind, so don't be color silent.

TURNER: Research shows that children take note of racial differences as early as 6 months old.

KAMENETZ: But as kids get older, many learn not to talk about these differences.

TURNER: And confusion and stereotypes can fester in that silence.

KAMENETZ: Marie-Louise Catsalis (ph), originally from Australia, has two boys. She remembers once when the younger one, Tobin (ph), was 6 years old, and he was telling a story.

MARIE-LOUISE CATSALIS: Then he said, I was pushing that boy on the swing. You know, I can't remember his name. He has dimples and brown skin. And then the older one, who was about 9, said, Tobin, that's racist. And then the young boy said, oh, oh, I'm sorry. So racist was pushing me on the swing.

KAMENETZ: Face palm moment there.

TURNER: (Laughter) Right. So, I mean, the 6-year-old thinks nothing of mentioning his friend's skin color and doesn't even know what racist means. But the 9-year-old, just three years older - he's horrified by the whole thing.

KAMENETZ: Right. So, clearly, somewhere along the way, this kid - and, I think, a lot of kids are picking up the message that they're not supposed to talk about race in any way, shape or form.

TURNER: Right. So to this, Beverly says...

TATUM: There is nothing wrong with observing that somebody's skin is brown any more than it would be to say so-and-so has blonde hair. It's a physical characteristic. The question is, what value is being attached to it? Or is it being devalued?

TURNER: Our other big expert for this episode is Jeanette Betancourt. She's senior vice president for social impact at Sesame Workshop.

KAMENETZ: And she says the antidote to color silence is talking clearly about physical differences and the reasons behind them.

TURNER: And that's exactly what Beverly did for her son Jonathan when he was in preschool.

TATUM: No, your skin is not brown because you drink chocolate milk. Your skin is brown because you have something in your skin called melanin. Everybody has some. Some - even Tommy, the kid who asked you the question, has some. But some people have more than others. And the more you have, the browner your skin is. And then I said, and at your school, you are the kid with the most. And my son thought that was pretty cool to be the kid with the most of something.

KAMENETZ: So if your kids have questions or if they mention a physical difference about someone, don't shut them down.

TURNER: Instead, break it down. And Beverly didn't stop there.

KAMENETZ: No. She also went to Jonathan's preschool teacher to gently suggest that the whole class spend a little more time talking about people's differences.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Now takeaway number two - get out in front of the issue. Build positive awareness of diversity and identity.

TURNER: We heard from a dad of triplets in Reno, Nev. His name is Jason Gist (ph). His wife is Filipina, while he says he looks racially ambiguous.

KAMENETZ: And this is about the moment he realized he needed to do some explaining with one of his sons.

JASON GIST: I was helping him do his homework. And it was Black History Month. And he said during the '50s, you know, doing the Rosa Parks era, me, my brothers and Mom - we'd had to sit in the back of the bus, while you sit in the front. And I was like, what? No, no, no. And I said, why would I be sitting in the front? He said, well, because you can because you're white. You can sit in front of the bus. I said, I'm actually black (laughter). And then he looked at me. He gave me a double take. Like, what do you mean? You know, he just kind of gave me that look. Like, it was just odd. And then he tried to - I remember he, like, took his finger and started rubbing my jaw, like as if to rub the white off (laughter).

KAMENETZ: So Jeanette of Sesame says it's really important to start that race conversation at home, talking about identity in a really positive, affirming way.

TURNER: Yeah. And it's that much more complicated when your family doesn't fit society's neat, little categories. We know that at least 1 in 10 kids is multiracial. That's according to Pew Research.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And the older that kids get, the more that these categories are going to kind of reach into their lives.

MELISSA ASBUN: She got in the car that afternoon with tears in her eyes. And then she goes, why didn't you tell me?

TURNER: Melissa Asbun (ph) is a mother in North Carolina. She's white. Her husband is Mexican and Palestinian.

KAMENETZ: And she said the trouble started when her daughter Alyssia (ph) took a standardized test in fourth grade. And she had to tick a box to describe herself.

ASBUN: And she goes, well, I didn't know what I was. I didn't know if I was white or if I was black or African-American or all these other things. And she goes, I thought I was an American. And I realized that, you know, in my idealistic world - that I had really taught her that no one was different, that we were all American.

KAMENETZ: This whole experience left Melissa and her daughter, she said, feeling really defeated.

ASBUN: And she goes, well, I put Latina since my dad was from Mexico. And she goes, but, you know, he's not full Mexican. And she was like, Siti Hannah (ph) is from Palestine. But there's no room for Mexican-Arab-American.

TURNER: Jeanette from Sesame says she and her own daughter experienced something really similar.

JEANETTE BETANCOURT: I am Colombian, Hispanic, Latina. My husband is Irish, German, white. And one of the things that, from the very beginning - we've always explored this immense diversity in terms of language and identified ourselves as this holistic, biracial family. And my daughter also, when she came to a situation in filling out a form - and it was around the same time, fourth grade - she became also very upset because she said, I checked off several boxes, but I wasn't allowed to. I had to put one. And I sort of reacted adversely. I shouldn't have (laughter) as a parent. And so here I am sort of advising, but I didn't take the proper protocol (laughter).

TURNER: How did you react? What did you say?

BENTANCOURT: I was actually so angry that that happened. I go, you're allowed. That's who you are. That's your identity. Then she very wisely said - she goes, Mommy, those are the rules.

KAMENETZ: And this, Jeanette says, led to a really open and important conversation with her daughter about how she should respond when the rules of the world conflict with how she feels.

TURNER: One last thing that Jeanette's story and Beverly's have in common is that after empathizing with her daughter and hearing her out, Jeanette also took action.

BENTANCOURT: Needless to say, I did go to the school and bring this up, though.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: We've heard a lot now about how young kids perceive physical difference and identity.

KAMENETZ: Our takeaway number three is about how to respond when the issue is not simply race but racism.

TURNER: Eze (ph) is originally from Nigeria. Christina (ph) is white. And their daughter's name is Amaka (ph).

KAMENETZ: From the time she was really young, they heard her sometimes expressing negative feelings about her hair.

CHRISTINA: She started to sometimes talk about wanting to have straight hair.

EZE: She came home and said something about wanting her hair to be like her mom's hair.

KAMENETZ: Christina and Eze say they were trying really hard to make sure Amaka feels good about herself, her appearance, her heritage. But they realized that negative messages were coming from a lot of directions.

CHRISTINA: But she had a friend, another biracial, black child, who was a year above her. So she would've been three. She had been kind of excluded from play with her best white friends and told that her hair was not right for - to be a princess. So realizing, I think, as young parents, we don't have a lot of time (laughter) before that starts, you know? Like, that's starting within the year. The era of innocence is very short, if it ever existed for our daughter.

TURNER: Beverly and Jeanette both say to respond in two clear ways.

KAMENETZ: First, you must deal with the feelings. That means take care of the child who's wronged. And it's also time, says Jeanette, that the other kid got a lesson about friendship.

BENTANCOURT: How we come together and become friends and understand each other despite some differences - and that requires a lot of adults to kind of intervene and facilitate.

TURNER: But this is important. Don't stop there, Beverly says. You have a second job. Buck the stereotypes.

TATUM: You know, if I were that preschool teacher, I might want to say, well, folks, let's sit down and talk about - there are princesses everywhere. They don't all have long, straight hair like the princess we just read about yesterday. Let's read another book about princesses. And then there's the book "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters," which is about an African king and his two princess daughters who look African and have short hair in cornrows. And so there's just a way to expand those children's understanding of the world.

KAMENETZ: You know, I really like that idea. I think I might check that book out, Cory.

TURNER: I'm right there with you.

KAMENETZ: So we talked about what to do when racism rears its head in the playground.

TURNER: Need to take care of kids' feelings - but also use it as an opportunity to teach against stereotypes.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely. So now we're going to get into takeaway number four. And this is about how to talk about not just skin color, not just identity but those really scary realities of historical and institutional racism.

TURNER: I mean, every parent knows tough questions can come out of nowhere when you are least prepared. So we have a really great example here from the grocery store.

KAMENETZ: Right.

TURNER: So one day, Beverly was shopping with her son Jonathan, who was 4 years old at the time. And they were talking about their family's origins, reinforcing, like Jeanette said, positive identity.

TATUM: He said to me, if Africa is so great, what are we doing here?

TURNER: Oh.

TATUM: And so what's a mom to do?

TURNER: What do you do in the grocery store?

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Here, let me just get the cereal, honey. And then...

TATUM: (Laughter).

TURNER: We'll talk about the slave trade.

TATUM: So - well, that was just it. I felt like I can't answer this question with any authenticity without talking about slavery. And so I said, well, that's a great question - you know, famous pause line.

(LAUGHTER)

TATUM: That's a great question. I reminded him of the colonial days way back when before there were grocery stores and roads and houses. And, you know, when the European settlers came, there was a lot of work to do. And they needed the best, smartest, workers they could find. And so they went to Africa to find them. Unfortunately, they didn't want to pay them. And so they kidnapped them and brought them here and made them work without pay. And that was very unfair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So check out what Beverly did here. She gave him the basic facts in a totally age-appropriate way.

TURNER: Yeah. We should remind people he's 4.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, exactly. But masterclass - she's not done yet. She made sure to reassure him.

TATUM: I emphasized this was, really, a long time ago. You were never a slave. I was never a slave. Grandmommy and granddaddy were never slaves and emphasized that this was in the past.

TURNER: And Beverly even went a little further. She wanted to make sure her son Jonathan understood first that black people stood up for themselves when they had been enslaved and also, that some white people stood up along with them.

TATUM: I really wanted to emphasize agency - the agency of the enslaved people. And I talked about the fact that some of them rebelled and were able to escape. And unfortunately, some weren't able to get away. But I also wanted him to understand that there were allies and that there were white people who were - also recognized the unfairness and who helped bring an end to slavery.

KAMENETZ: This gives kids hope. It invites them to look for the good in others and to see that good in themselves.

TURNER: Jeanette Betancourt has a suggestion for parents who may not feel as prepared for this moment as Beverly clearly was.

BENTANCOURT: We can also say, I want to explore that question with you together. Let's go to the library. And let's look at some books or let's look at and search for maybe some films or movies or get recommendations from our teachers or librarians because not everything has to be in the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: So we've got one last takeaway now. Here it is.

BENTANCOURT: Kids model what they see.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway number five - as parents, we can only talk so much about undoing racism. Beverly Daniel Tatum says we also have to walk the walk. And Beverly says this is especially true for white parents.

TATUM: Seventy-five percent of white adults live in communities that are almost if not entirely white. And so the immediate surroundings offer little opportunity for direct engagement with other children of color, adults of color. And so much of the culture conveys messages that reinforce that separation.

TURNER: And Beverly also has some advice for parents of all backgrounds. She says they have to expose their kids to a wider range of media.

TATUM: We do have to be intentional in terms of looking at ways - whether it's through television, like watching "Sesame Street," or the other media that come into the household - books and even the language people use. You know, all of that requires some intentionality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So, Cory, this whole conversation has given me so much to think about.

TURNER: Oh, my gosh, Anya, I need a recap at this point.

KAMENETZ: Let's do it.

TURNER: All right. So first, kids, even very young kids, they aren't colorblind.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, so don't push them to be color silent by shutting them down when they do talk about difference.

TURNER: Yeah. Explain what they're seeing and why.

KAMENETZ: Second - be proactive.

TURNER: Yeah. Help kids build a positive awareness of diversity. Celebrate your family's identity or identities.

KAMENETZ: Emphasize the importance of our differences as well as our similarities.

TURNER: Third - when a child experiences prejudice - either end - grown-ups should focus on feelings and unfairness of being excluded while also pushing back against the stereotypes that underlie that prejudice.

KAMENETZ: You don't think princesses can be black or that superheroes can speak Spanish. Of course they can. And here's three examples.

TURNER: Takeaway number four is that you can talk with kids about racism and white supremacy and the really hard things.

KAMENETZ: That's right. Just be concrete. Focus on the unfairness. Don't give them more information than they can handle. And highlight examples of resistance and of allies.

TURNER: And finally, as parents and caregivers, we have to walk the walk. If we choose to lead segregated lives, our kids will likely do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Now, we'd like to go out with one last quick story from Beverly about something that happened with her son...

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: ...Jonathan. We got to call him up and see how all this worked out.

TURNER: Yes, we do.

KAMENETZ: He's all grown up now - about something that happened with her son Jonathan not long after the chocolate milk conversation. And you can try this one at home.

TATUM: We were cooking together in the kitchen on a Saturday morning. I was making pancakes. I needed two eggs. And one of the eggs I took out of the refrigerator was from a carton of white eggs - the last egg in the carton. And then I took out another egg from a new carton. It was a brown egg. And my son observed that they were different. And I said, yes, just like people. But watch this. And then I broke both eggs open. And I said, see. They look different on the outside. But they're the same on the inside, just like people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: And that's it for this episode. You've been listening to LIFE KIT for parents with Sesame Workshop.

KAMENETZ: And we'd love to give our thanks to Beverly Daniel Tatum and the other folks we talked to for this episode - Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Jinnie Spiegler of the Anti-Defamation League.

TURNER: Derrick Gay and the folks at Code Switch, NPR's podcast about race and identity - we'd also like to thank Jeanette Betancourt and all of our friends at Sesame Workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes in this guide. There's one about how to talk to your kids about Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny. But don't listen with your kids.

TURNER: Please do not listen with your kids. If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics.

KAMENETZ: And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from NPR's Clinton Walker.

CLINTON WALKER, BYLINE: My tip is to use the broil option to heat up your oven faster. Usually, I'll turn that on for about 15 minutes and then switch it over to bake and set my desired temperature. And it usually heats up about 10 minutes faster than usual.

TURNER: If you've got a good tip or a parenting challenge you want us to explore, please let us know. Send us a note. Email us at lifekit@npr.org. I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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