From your baby’s birth onward, you’re the most important influence on their belief systems. With the right approach, you can make a huge impact.
This story is part of From The Start: A Parent’s Guide to Talking About Racial Bias, a series created in partnership with Johnson’s®, Aveeno® Baby, and Desitin®. We’re here to help parents tackle the difficult task of talking to their kids about race. With a topic this big, it can be hard to know where to even start — so we’ve teamed up with experts who have real answers to parents’ questions.
For better or worse, all kids inherit traits from their parents. But it’s not just your eye color and sense of humor that’ll get passed down the family line. Your beliefs and behaviors — including how you approach important topics like race and diversity — also directly impact how your kids see and interact with the world. From your baby’s birth onward, you’re the most important influence on their belief systems.
In a lot of ways, you can consider your kid a blank slate. Child psychologist Donna Housman, founder of the Housman Institute, says kids are born ready to learn. Parents are their kids’ first teachers — and your relationship is the classroom. Your attitudes, emotions, and behaviors all impact how your child will learn and develop.
“From parents’ modeling and guidance, and how children’s actions are responded to, children learn to navigate the world,” Housman says.
It can certainly be intimidating to know just how much of an effect you have on your child’s view of the world. But it’s also quite empowering: This means you have the ability to shape and encourage their views on race and identity from a young age. With the right approach, you can make a huge impact. Here’s what to know:
1. Introduce the Concept of Diversity Early and Often
For toddler-aged kids and older, Housman suggests introducing the concept of diversity by explaining that each person is unique and special, and using your own family as an example. Where did your ancestors immigrate from? What’s special about your culture?
From there, start introducing differences that might be present in other individuals or cultures. Housman recommends comparing what’s the same and what’s different — emphasizing that even though two people might look different, they both feel the same feelings. For example, you could say, “Tommy, you have light skin, and Ryan has darker skin, but how do you each feel when you get to play with your favorite toy or when your pet gets sick?”
2. Identify, Then Correct Your Kid’s Biases
As you introduce the concept of diversity to your young child, you might notice they hold certain biases or may have bought into stereotypes about people who are different from them. This isn’t peculiar, even preschoolers can make judgments about other people based on race.) However shocking it might be to hear your 3-year-old blurt out an inappropriate comment about another race, you must be ready to pivot; seizing the opportunity to make this a teachable moment. Allow your kids to share their thinking and then correct their biases by explaining the importance of acceptance and tolerance. “After a child understands what diversity is,” says Housman, “it’s the parent’s role to help them be accepting of all diversity.”
3. Expose Your Kid to Other Cultures
Dr. Housman says it’s important to celebrate diversity from a young age — show your kids how to appreciate differences they might notice in other people. This could mean exposing them to other cultures through books, toys, and TV shows or participating in different cultural celebrations, especially those that differ from your own family traditions.
Also, be mindful about what kinds of people your child sees and interacts with on a regular basis. Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist in Connecticut, notes that it’s crucial to actively associate with diverse people and experience diverse environments. Then, you can organically respond when your kids ask questions about why their friend’s skin color is darker, or why houses in another neighborhood look different.
4. Pay Attention to Your Nonverbal Cues
Whenever you’re addressing topics of race and identity, whether in conversation or otherwise, don’t neglect your nonverbal cues. Housman says even young kids can pick up on caretakers’ body language and facial expressions, so it’s important to be mindful of how you’re coming across when you’re talking about diversity and modeling anti-racist behavior.
This includes how you act when you’re around people who are different. “Actions speak louder than words,” says Fox. “If you tell your kids everyone is equal but move away when you stand next to a person of color, your kids will pick up on it and think, ‘Why does my mom pull away from people with darker skin?’”
5. Be Prepared to Learn Alongside Your Kids
Not sure how to answer a question about race? Be prepared to tell your kid that you’re both learning, and work through it together. It might feel awkward to address such a major topic like racism and identity with little kids, and it will likely bring to light some of your own biases or questions. Self-interrogation is crucial. Sit in these moments, reflect, and continue to do your own work. By continually engaging in self-reflection and becoming aware of their own biases, Housman says that parents can help their kids value and appreciate diversity through everyday experiences that are a natural and normal part of life.
“But parents do need to ask themselves: Do I have what I need for this moment?” says Dr. Y Joy Harris Smith, co-author of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences. “And a parent might already have what they need for that moment when talking to a 4-year-old. But if a child is a little older, they may have a tougher question for you, and you may be unsure of how to answer. That’s when you say something like, ‘Hey that’s a really great question, I’m glad you asked that. But Mommy and Daddy don’t know everything, and I think I might need to check up on that.’”
As a parent, it’s easy to shush a child or silence a question about diversity before it starts. It’s much harder, but much more necessary, to engage and start a healthy dialogue. As Mary Garvey, director of Innovation and Inclusion at the Institute for Child Success, says, one of the most harmful things parents can do is ignore race altogether. “When people don’t speak about race, it’s much easier to see others as bad just because they’re different,” she says. “Everyone sees color, so we need to help our kids understand how to react to the differences when they notice them.”
For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, click here.