Is Discussing Race With a 3-Year-Old Too Young?

There’s a growing body of science which argues that parents need to talk openly and explicitly about race with their children. When I read this research, and then interviewed the scholars, I was convinced I should be applying it at home with my 6-year-old son, and did so. But I wasn’t so sure I could do it─or should do it─with my daughter Thia, who was then just 3 years old.

In her case, I wasn’t convinced it was necessary. If anything, she seemed to demonstrate a preference for black people. Her three best friends were black, and her favorite baby doll was black. At the same time, there were so many mixed-race children in her preschool that any sort of categorization by race or ethnicity simply wasn't her experience: a majority of the African-American and Asian children had one white parent.

I’ll admit, though: I was curious. Did she even notice that her friends and baby doll had different color skin than she did? She’d never mentioned it, and neither my wife nor I had ever talked to her about it.

Unsure whether a 3-year-old is too young for a conversation about race, I called Dr. Rebecca Bigler. Bigler's one of the leading scholars whose work shows the positive benefits of talking openly about race.

“Should I be talking about skin color with her?” I asked.

“If not now, very soon,” she answered.

“Really? Even a 3-year-old?”

“Yes.” She had done so with her own daughter.


“Just start lightly, like saying it’s good she likes dolls and friends with both light and dark skin.”

I thought about that. “Honestly, despite everything I’ve read on this issue, it just seems so taboo─almost cruel─to call her attention to it. Isn’t it sort of confusing to a child to mention race, and then say race doesn’t matter? If it doesn’t matter, then why am I mentioning it?”

“She probably wants to talk about it.” Bigler’s point was that my daughter is seeing skin-color differences, already, and processing it on her own. Shouldn’t I help her?

So I started with her baby dolls, as Bigler recommended. That night, as Thia played with her babies, I remarked that it was good she liked baby dolls with all kinds of skin color. I couldn’t get myself to say “brown skin,” but Thia practically leapt at the overture. She grabbed her brown-skinned baby doll and started talking about its brown skin, and how her doll's brown skin was like her friends' at school. Bigler was absolutely right. My daughter did want to talk about it. I felt something akin to relief in her─that her father had finally let her openly talk about skin color.

By the time our book, NurtureShock, hit the stands last week, I had grown more comfortable about talking to young children about race. But my friends started asking me the same sorts of question I had asked Bigler: "When should I start talking about race with my kids?"

The question still gnawed at my gut. My own experience wasn't enough for me to say that parents should adopt 3 years old as the standard.

But the research suggests that minority parents talk to kids about race much earlier than white parents do. So Ash and I wondered─was there data on when minority parents begin this conversation? We weren't aware of any, which is when Ashley picked up the phone to call UNC's Dr. April Harris-Britt.

Harris-Britt has studied how even very subtle differences in minority families' conversation about race can result in beneficial or deleterious results. But she's not just a researcher─she's a practicing clinical psychologist.

When Ash asked her when we should begin introducing children to the concept of people's color, Harris-Britt had a stunning reply: "When do you start reading a child picture books? Maybe 6 months─1 or 2 years? When the child is really responding to you."

Ash admits to having gasped at the response.

But Harris-Britt explained that if you're reading a picture book to a child, if you are pointing out the red of a balloon, or the yellow of a lion's fur, you can also point out the brown of a person's skin.

Ignoring the color of skin, yet dutifully pointing out the color of every inanimate object and animal, only sends a message to children that talking skin color is taboo.

According to Harris-Britt, teaching a child about race shouldn't consist of acute exposure to race; comfort in racial differences comes through a calm, continuous process of exposure. And that should begin at the very beginning.

For those parents who find themselves in a situation where an unprepared child suddenly meets someone of another race, and he does comment about it, Harris-Britt had suggestions for them, as well.

Even if the kid does or says something embarrassing (e.g., "Why is that man brown?"), parents should not shush a kid, and they should not act embarrassed. Because that just underscores to the child that this is a momentous occurrence: "That highlights the child's 'Oh, my God, I just saw a unicorn' reaction."

Instead, Harris-Britt suggests that the better response is to tell the child that it was all right to ask the question; the problem was in a lack of politeness and timing. It's better to ask Mommy some questions in the car later, than in front of everyone.

Says Britt: "Don't make it that the kid has done something wrong because it's about race. It's about courtesy and manners. The question isn't what was wrong. It was the context and how they asked. There's nothing wrong with the question. People are of different colors and heights─it is OK to ask why people are different."

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