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.

Infants notice differences in skin color as early as six months old, research has shown, and toddlers and children under the age of five can recognize messages and ideas about race. 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 the people around them, even if their parents don’t always notice the cues.

“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.

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.

“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.”

The protests against police brutality and racial injustice that have happened across the country since George Floyd was killed make it likely that kids are trying to understand race and racism themselves, possibly talking and sharing information on social media with their peers. The increased awareness brought forth by Floyd's death may mean this could be a good time for parents to bring up the subject and encourage a conversation.

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 personal experience of racial discrimination may require an exception. A discussion of race is much more emotionally charged when one has been on the receiving end of racist attitudes. As Scott says, “For parents of color, people who have had bad experiences, it's important to — after those conversations — take care of yourself. Finding time to talk about these things when you're emotionally ready, and only if you're ready, is okay.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.