Race may be second only to sex when it comes to topics parents would prefer to avoid. Parents are understandably reluctant to discuss race and racism with their children. They may think they don’t know enough. Others may find the topic emotional and uncomfortable and prefer to leave it to kids’ social studies classes.
There is another reason, too: many parents wrongly assume their children are too young to even notice race, let alone talk about it, so they postpone bringing race up, according to a recent study.
Many parents make this mistake. The researchers found most parents were off by almost four and a half years in their estimates of the age at which their children might be ready to talk about race.
A representative sample of U.S. adults was surveyed by researchers from Skidmore College and Boston University as to how children processed information on race and the sorts of concerns that influenced their own ability to discuss it. The adults were also queried on developmental milestones in childhood.
“Regardless of whether [study participants] were a parent, regardless of whether they were white or Black, they had similar misconceptions about when kids first process race, which was very unexpected and surprising,” researcher, Evan Apfelbaum, a social psychologist at Boston University, said in a statement.
“Parents are generally afraid that they don't have all the answers, and that has to go out the window,” said Judith Scott, a Boston University School of Social Work assistant professor, whose research focuses on how parents can prepare kids to deal with racial discrimination, but who was not part of the study.
“I've had young kids, at four years old, who I've worked with come up to me and ask, ‘Why are you brown and I'm white?’” said Scott, adding that when that happens, “parents freak out because parents automatically associate race with racism.”
By age five, kids begin to make connections between racial characteristics and ideas about traits, stereotypes and social status based on the messages about race and prejudice they pick up from people around them.
Unfairness can be a useful jumping-off point.
Kids understand unfairness. “That’s not fair!” is the often-heard complaint when young children aren’t allowed to do something an older sibling does or told they can’t do what they want to do. At around age 10 kids start to think more deeply about unfairness and how it relates to inequality in society, Apfelbaum explained.
Parents were more likely to discuss race after they’d had a quick lesson on childhood development and race was given as a follow-up to the study, most likely because they were more confident that kids could handle it.
Conversations with children about race and racism work best if they take place in the context of something that is going on. Every situation and child are different. The age of the child or teen will also be a factor. Conversations about race can come out of something on the news, what your kids are learning at school, or instances of racial discrimination they have witnessed or experienced themselves.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.