This post is part of our “Big Talks” series—a guide to helping parents navigate the most important conversations they’ll have with their kids. Read more here.
Much like adults, kids are not colorblind to race, nor are they oblivious to other racial or ethnic differences. If we’re not talking to them about race from an early age, they’ll begin to develop their own thoughts, assumptions, and biases based on normal cognitive development, the society they’re growing up in, and other influences we may not be aware of. That’s why it’s important to begin talking to them about race when they’re little kids, and to build upon those conversations as they get older and can understand more nuance about racial differences, racism, systemic racism, and privilege.
Here’s how to talk to kids about race, starting at about age 3 and up through their teenage years.
Talking to kids ages 3-5 about race
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Starting around age 3, kids begin to notice race and develop their own labels for racial differences, says Dr. Erin Pahlke, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College whose research focuses on how children and adolescents form their views of race and gender. It’s around this age that kids may make spontaneous comments about certain aspects of racial or ethnic group differences.
“So they’ll say things like, ‘That man has weird hair,’ … or ‘Why is that person’s skin dirty,’ or something like that,” Pahlke says. “It’s important for parents to recognize that that’s developmentally appropriate, and it’s what kids do, and to be ready for it.”
In moments like that, parents should matter-of-factly acknowledge the difference and offer simple explanations. You might say, “Oh, his hair isn’t weird, it’s just different from ours, but I think that’s great.” You can also explain how people often have similar traits, like hair or skin color, as their own family members. What parents shouldn’t do in those moments is quickly shush their child out of embarrassment or tell them not to say something like that because it’s “rude,” which shuts the conversation down entirely. When parents do that, Pahlke says, you’re not giving them the information they need—and in lieu of correct information, they’re likely to come to their own conclusions.
As an example, Pahlke said she once conducted a study that included a 4-year-old boy, and one task in the study was to sort pictures based on different categories. He sorted pictures of people who appeared to be Black into one pile and pictures of people who appeared to be white in another pile. When Pahlke asked him how he’d label the people in each pile, he said the pile of pictures of Black people were “smoked,” and the white people were “not smoked.” When Pahlke asked him what he meant by that, he told her, “My parents told me that if you smoke, it turns your lungs black. So all of these people over here smoke, and none of these people over here smoke.”
“And not surprisingly, he had really negative racial attitudes because his parents had done a very good job of teaching him that smoking is bad,” Pahlke says. “And when I talked to his mom about it afterwards, she was horrified, and she said, ‘You know, I didn’t even realize that he had noticed skin color or racial differences.’”
Pahlke also adds that having a collection of books and toys that represent racial diversity is important (and you should do a personal audit from time to time to make sure these things do represent the diversity of the world)—but just having them is not a substitute for actually talking about race. (If you’re looking to start your child’s diverse book collection, she personally recommends The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.)
Check out these anti-racist books for kids:
Talking to kids ages 6-8 about race
By the time kids are in early elementary school, they are starting to associate positive traits with their own racial group and negative traits with other racial groups, Pahlke says.
“And there are some reasons why that is in terms of cognitive development, and there are also some reasons why that is in terms of the society that we live in,” she says. “So what ends up happening, for example, is that white children often select white dolls and white friends, and activities that include white children, and things like that. So parents want to pay close attention for behaviors that might indicate bias.”
Parents should model having their own diverse friend groups and seek out activities or other community involvement that include people from other racial or ethnic groups. It’s also important at this age to begin talking to kids about the history of race relations—particularly for white families, who lag behind in these discussions compared to families of color.
“One of the things that happens when you talk to, for example, Black kids versus white kids, is that Black kids at a younger age often have more developed understandings of racism, and part of that is because their parents report having talked to their kids about racism,” Pahlke says. “So Black families—and increasingly, research is suggesting, Latino and Asian families—from an early age, they’re talking to their kids about the history of race relations in the United States and in the world, and also beginning to prepare their kids for racism they may face. Similarly, white families need to be talking to their kids about that history.”
Talking to tweens about race
Although Pahlke says there does seem to be a shift away from the “colorblind” ideology in the U.S. (as we’ve said before, kids are not colorblind to other races), by the time kids are in late elementary school or early middle school, they’re starting to internalize the idea that race and ethnicity are taboo subjects.
“It might not be something that they are explicitly talking about,” she says, “but it is something that they’re thinking about, and their attitudes are continuing to develop.”
Pahlke says research indicates that by age 10, most kids can define racism and are developing ideas about the causes of racism. That’s why it’s key, at this age, to start talking not just about individual types of racism that one person may experience, but also about systemic factors that persist today. They might notice, for example, how we’ve never had a Latino president in the United States, or they might see a feature on the news about top executives at a large company—and recognize that the group is predominantly white men.
“Kids are trying to come up with explanations for why that might be the case,” Pahlke says. “And if you don’t explain to them the history of racism and sexism in this country, they sometimes assume that it’s just that those groups of folks either don’t want to do those jobs, or are too lazy, or don’t work hard, or aren’t able to.”
It’s around this age that parents can begin to explain and point out systemic factors that have created inequalities, and the ways in which white privilege still exists. (We’ve got a full guide for talking to white kids about their privilege here.) Those types of conversations can be motivational as you look for ways as a family to get involved in your own community to help change the system.
“There is now some research that suggests that folks who have an understanding of white privilege, if they believe in the construct of white privilege, are more likely to work toward social justice,” Pahlke says.
Talking to teenagers about race
By late middle school into high school, teenagers should have a fairly solid understanding of the history of race relations in the U.S. and the systemic problems that still exist—and they should be able to start identifying racial inequalities on their own. In some school districts, for example, they may notice inequalities in terms of things like access to honors classes—and you can talk to them about whether there’s anything that can be done about that or ways to further a positive change.
“Youth feel better when they feel like they have the ability to help make change,” Pahlke says. “If you have high schoolers who [recognize] issues with systemic or institutional racism, then say, ‘OK, what are the things you can do to help make change?’ It’s positive for them, and also positive for the community, because high schoolers can be can be a powerful bunch.”