Children begin to understand similarities and differences from a very young age. Studies have shown that at birth, babies are unable to recognise racial differences, yet by three months old, respond more to faces which match the race of their caregiver. By just age five, children have been seen to show signs of racial bias.
Although conversations about race and discrimination will look different for each family, the science is clear: The earlier parents start the conversation with their children the better. If we fail to talk to young children about racial inequality ourselves, other influences such as the media, their peers and society are likely to shape their ideas about race instead. How can parents and caregivers initiate these discussions in the way which is best for young children?
Take note of your own biases
Our children get their first cues on how to organise and respond to their world from the adults around them, so first and foremost, parents and caregivers need to check their own biases. Feeling knowledgeable and comfortable to talk about the topic of racism will help you to broach it with children, so firstly, take time to educate yourself. Be mindful of how you act in the face of racial bias in front of your children – if you see or hear something which lacks tolerance, whether it’s on the news, social media, or something a relative has said, make sure to speak up, even if it’s awkward or challenging. Children observe and learn so much from adult interactions, so speaking out in the face of racism will have a trickle-down effect, teaching the next generation how to appropriately respond.
Meet them where they are
Conversations about race and culture may not be typical in every household. To start off, you need to understand what your child’s knowledge of these concepts is – once you understand what they know, you can lean into and build upon the conversation. For very young children, the best way to enter a dialogue is to simply discuss differences amongst human beings such as hair, eye and skin colour, amongst other attributes. Focus on acknowledging and celebrating differences and appreciating the wonder of it all!
Watch for statements which link race with value judgements
It’s not racist for a child to notice somebody’s race, but what parents do need to listen out for are any value judgments children may unknowingly place on those differences, and then gently correct them. You can ask simple questions such as: “What makes you think that?” to get the conversation started, this allowing you to explain what stereotypes are and then to explain how these aren’t actually true.
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Help them understand why racial bias is harmful
Children who encounter racism can be left feeling extremely lost whilst trying to understand why they are being treated a certain way, this seriously impacting their development and wellbeing. To prevent this from happening, children must be made aware of the damage which racist comments can cause to their peers. Although this is a difficult conversation to have, the earlier children understand how harmful racism can be, the better. For younger children, you could try and centre the conversation around why racist words are hurtful and how they might make someone feel.
Curate your learning environment carefully
In our nurseries at Storal Learning, we always ensure we use resources which reflect all skin tones and cultures, whether that’s through toys, books, educational films or animations. We also use materials which bring awareness to different cultures, such as traditional decorations and materials and musical instruments from around the world. The same should be done in the family home wherever possible, even if it’s on a much smaller scale.
Be sure to talk about religious and cultural festivals and dates of interests whenever they occur – this is a fun and easy way to make children aware of the world’s rich cultures. Engage in activities which expose your children to different perspectives. Showcase diverse role models, rituals and history to help children develop understanding of multiculturalism and cultural heritage. Try attending events at your local library, visiting museum exhibits that touch on race, or stopping in at cultural events at local community centres.
Don’t make talking about race a one-time event
You don’t need to set up a specific time to talk about race, instead, conversations should be fluid, naturally occurring whenever the opportunity arises. Pay close attention to what your child is saying and stay aware of ways that unconscious biases might slip in.
Remember that there’s no one “right” way to have these conversations. Just like other things, you might find yourself wishing you’d answered a question or responded to a situation differently in retrospect. This is normal – it all takes practise and discussing race is a learning curve for many families. Be assured that by making a continuous, conscious effort to show your child how to respect and tolerate differences, you are taking a huge step in the right direction.
Article was written by Hannah Tranah, Childcare Development Manager at Storal Learning which provides high quality childcare in 20 nurseries across the UK.
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