Over the past two weeks, as I’ve watched the biggest civil rights movement in decades take hold of America, I’ve wanted to bring my 4-year-old daughter into the conversation about racial justice. The problem is, every time I try to talk to her about it I stumble. Recently, she’s been asking questions about the protesters who gather in our neighborhood with hand-drawn Black Lives Matter signs. But I don’t know how to start talking about the fight for racial justice without addressing police brutality or slavery.
Like parents across the country, I’ve turned to storybooks and toys that will help me talk to her about race and racism. Since Memorial Day, when George Floyd was killed by the police, there’s been a spike in sales of products that help educate children about racial issues. Subscriptions to kids’ book clubs from Conscious Kid, an organization devoted to reducing bias, and Little Feminist, which focuses on race and gender, have seen an increase. Something Happened in Our Town, a book that helps preschoolers learn about police killings, has been out of stock for weeks. And many Black dolls at brands like Harper Iman and Manhattan Toy Company have also sold out.
But as I watch Ella snuggle with her dark-skinned babydoll and use her new multicultural crayons to represent the range of skin tones in our family, I’ve wondered whether these products are actually helping her process race and racism. I talked to three experts who have studied this question over the course of their careers. They said that while diverse books and toys can be crucial tools for helping raise anti-racist kids, parents need to be on hand to answer their questions and provide important context. Here’s how.
Parents have a window to shape kids’ views on race
To start with, all of the experts I spoke with said that it’s important to recognize that children are not colorblind. They are acutely aware of racial difference. Children as young as three months old can identify differences in skin color and hair texture, and as they get older they are very curious about these differences. By the time they are seven, children’s ideas about race tend to be fixed. In the famous Clark Doll Test, children of all races between the ages of three and seven consistently prefer white dolls and assign more positive characteristics to them than to black dolls. “They are already able to reflect what they’ve seen in society, which is our hierarchy of racial categories,” says Dr. Lucretia Berry, an education specialist and founder of the advocacy organization Brownicity, which offers webinars about how to become anti-racist.
If parents don’t intervene to give their children a narrative about why racial difference exists through books, toys, and regular conversations, they will come to their own conclusions based on ideas they take in from culture. In Ella’s case, for instance, seeing so many white princesses might prompt her to believe that dark-skinned people don’t have the qualities associated with princesses, like beauty and power. “Children are actively making meaning based on what they’re seeing and they tell stories to explain what is going on,” Berry says. “If we don’t help them, they don’t have the language and words they need to ask the questions. You want to engage and normalize conversations about skin tone and race as early as possible.”
Part of the problem, according to Beverly Tatum, psychologist and former president of Spelman College, is that many adults shut down their children’s questions about race because they come off as insensitive or racist. A child might ask: “Is that boy so dark because he’s dirty?” Or Ella’s question to me when she was younger: “Are you brown because you eat so much chocolate?” Tatum says questions like this come out of their own experiences: A child may have observed his skin looking browner after playing in the dirt, or noticed that someone’s skin tone is the same color as a particular food. The problem is that by refusing to address uncomfortable questions, children get the idea that it’s inappropriate to talk about race. “Many children are taught that they can’t talk about race,” Tatum says. “So while parents think they are colorblind, they are, in fact, color silent.”
Berry says that filling your home with books and toys that reflect diverse skin tones can help start these conversations and also create the right narratives about race in your home. But parents also need to be prepared to answer kids’ questions when they come up. “It’s important to stay one step ahead of them, at least,” she says. “You want to give them an understanding of race and history long before they encounter it in school.”
In my home, for instance, having crayons that are designed to reflect a wide range of skin tones has been very helpful. Recently, my daughter has been struggling to identify her own skin tone. My husband is Caucasian, I’m half Chinese and half Indian with light brown skin, and she has an olive complexion. The old box had fewer skin color options, and she used brown to draw me and white to draw her father and herself, prompting her to ask if I’m a different race from the two of them. But with the new box, she’s able to pick different shades for each of us. This has allowed us to talk about how skin color is determined by melanin.
Berry says there is no formula for figuring out exactly what kind of conversation to have with your child and at what age: It all depends on the child’s maturity level and their social context. Families in white neighborhoods will have to work harder to give their children a more complex understanding of race and push back against mainstream narratives. “A child growing up in a homogenous neighborhood is going to have different questions from one that is raised in a multicultural one,” says Berry. “That’s why it’s important to listen to them and pay attention to what they are ready to hear.”
Kids can handle tough realities
For toddlers and preschoolers, questions will likely hinge on racial differences, like what makes someone have dark skin and another have light skin. Berry and Tatum say it’s helpful to talk about it in a simple way, focusing on how every person’s skin tone and hair texture is different and determined by genetics. But it doesn’t take long for kids to start realizing that people of different skin tones are treated differently. For young children, this might be evident in the fact that there are fewer dark-skinned superheroes or princesses, or that people of color are not represented in their storybooks or toys.
Experts say it’s important to go out of your way to diversify your children’s toy and book collection to disrupt these cultural narratives. There are many sources designed to help parents find multicultural books for children, including Social Justice Books, Conscious Kid, and Little Feminist. But it can be hard to create the right balance. Only 22% of children’s books are about people of color, and multicultural toys are also underrepresented on the toy aisles.
Despite your best efforts, you might find that the heroes of your child’s storybooks are still predominantly white. Berry says that this too can be a conversation starter, even with small kids. “You can say that, historically, people of the white category perceived themselves to be the ideal human, and projected those ideas into laws, policies, textbooks, and stories,” she says. “But it’s our job to know better.”
Tatum, who is Black, says it is possible to talk to even young children about issues like slavery and police violence, if it comes up and they ask questions about it. The key is to do so in a way that is truthful, but still makes them feel safe and empowered. In her own case, she had to discuss slavery with her 4-year-old son in a grocery store when he asked about why his people didn’t just stay in Africa. “I couldn’t give him an honest answer without talking about slavery,” she says. “So I told him about how people brought Africans to the United States to work on farms, but did not pay them, and this was very unfair. And I wanted to highlight that they weren’t victims, so I talked about how both Black and white people fought hard to make things right.”
Here again, books can be very helpful. Books like Something Happened in Our Town, which came out in 2018 and was written by three psychologists, addresses a police killing in a way that is gentle. A story called Henry’s Freedom Box tells the true story about a child who fought his way to freedom by taking the Underground Railroad. Both are appropriate for children as young as four. “Books are a great resource because they allow kids to process big ideas slowly, bit by bit, every time you read it,” says Ramón Stephens, cofounder of The Conscious Kid. “But over time, it gives them the framework to ask more difficult questions.”
We need to change ourselves
The experts point out that books and toys are not enough to raise empathetic, anti-racist children. In the end, children are watching how their parents behave, so it is important to model the right behavior for them when it comes to race. Stephens says that being introspective as you process these issues with your children can help illuminate your own blind spots. “Books and dolls are just the starting point,” he says. “You need to have a broader lifestyle switch, and be conscious about the friends you have in your own circle, the racial demographics of your school.”
Stephens also says that modeling protest and resistance is helpful, because it shows kids that the status quo isn’t fixed and is open to change. This might mean telling your child about a protest you attended, showing them a letter you wrote to a senator, or taking them to the polling booth when you vote. Stephens says he’s been showing his own 4-year-old son images of protesters and trying to break down the situation to him. “I told him, ‘There have been unfair rules that have shaped people’s perspectives so that they don’t like Black people, unfortunately. But if you look at these protests, there are all of these people who are saying that this is wrong and they want to do something to change it.'”
It’s a simple enough explanation. I think I’ll use it with Ella the next time we drive by the protest in our neighborhood. Maybe we’ll even get out of the car and join them.