RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How do you talk to your kids about race, about ethnicity, gender, religion or class? Those conversations can be hard. For the past year, NPR and the team behind "Sesame Street" have been collaborating on a podcast for parents. It's part of NPR's Life Kit. And today Sesame Workshop is releasing the results of a new survey of parents about how they talk about social identity. Here's NPR's Cory Turner.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The short answer is, a majority of parents hardly ever talk about social identity with their kids, according to this nationally representative survey of some 6,000 parents done in collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago. And the folks at Sesame Workshop say that's a problem because children do notice differences, and they ask about them.
TANYA HAIDER: Why is this person darker than me? Why is this person wearing that hat on their head?
TURNER: Tanya Haider is executive vice president for research at Sesame Workshop, and she says parents too often respond to these questions with embarrassment and a shush.
HAIDER: We sometimes are scared to talk about these things. If the adults stiffen up and say, oh, you shouldn't say that loudly, that's sending them a cue that there's something wrong. And there's nothing wrong.
TURNER: The vast majority of parents surveyed said they do feel comfortable talking about social identity; they just don't do it. That doesn't surprise Beverly Daniel Tatum. She's a psychologist and author of the classic, "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?".
BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: My guess is that some parents, certain majority parents, might think, what's to talk about? (Laughter) You know, maybe there's a sense of, it doesn't really need to be talked about.
TURNER: With many communities still segregated in so many ways, parents often see only families that share their social categories. There is another explanation, though. According to the survey, when parents do talk about social identity, they often wait till their kids are 10, 11, 12 years old. Jennifer Kotler Clarke, who oversaw the Sesame survey, says parents seem to think younger kids don't notice these differences.
JENNIFER KOTLER CLARKE: There's all sorts of research that suggests that children very early on notice definitely physical differences, and there's discrimination very early on.
TURNER: How early do kids notice differences? Try 6 months old. That's why Kotler Clarke says grown-ups need to be proactive. Kids need help making sense of the differences they see, and if they don't get it from parents...
KOTLER CLARKE: They may come up with all sorts of weird and strange reasons that people are somewhat different.
TURNER: Exhibit A - Beverly Daniel Tatum still remembers the day her 3-year-old son was told by a white preschool classmate...
TATUM: Your skin is brown because you drink chocolate milk. And then my son came home and asked me if that was true.
TURNER: And this highlights a big warning sign in Sesame's new survey - many of the parents who are talking about race, ethnicity, gender, class or religion with their kids are doing so because they feel they have to, because their kids are hearing negative comments about their own identities. And that, says Sesame's Tanya Haider, is a problem.
HAIDER: It's not the role or responsibility of a group of parents to be having those conversations; it really is the responsibility of everyone.
TURNER: Conversation is key, Sesame says, to building your child's own positive sense of identity, along with a healthy respect for everyone else's.
Cory Turner, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DORENA'S "A LATE FAREWELL")
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