Teaching Young Children about Race
A Guide for Parents and Teachers
Recent events have led many parents and teachers to seek out resources to address issues of race and inequality with young children. We share with you here an excerpt from the book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. The book offers practical guidance to early childhood educators (including parents) for confronting barriers of prejudice, misinformation, and bias about specific aspects of personal and social identity; most importantly, it includes tips for adults and children to respect each other, themselves, and all people. Read more about anti-bias education here. Also, see the Movement for Black Lives platform and Teaching Black Lives Matter.
By Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards
Adults sometimes ask: Aren’t prejudice, discrimination, and anti-bias adult issues? Why bring children into it? In one sense, these are adult issues. Adults have the power to create, to teach, to maintain bias—and to eliminate it. In another sense, because the realities of prejudice and discrimination begin to affect children’s development early, it is developmentally appropriate to address them in our work with young children.
Young children need caring adults to help them construct a positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others. They need adults to help them begin to navigate and resist the harmful impact of prejudice and discrimination. A person’s early childhood years lay the foundation for a developmental and experiential journey that continues into adulthood. With appropriate adult guidance, this foundation will be a strong one, providing the base for the next stages of healthy development and the skills a person needs to thrive and succeed in a complex, diverse world.
Anti-bias education is an integral part of the “bricks and mortar” of emotional well-being and social competence, as well as an emotional foundation upon which children fully develop their cognitive capacities. A healthy sense of self requires that children know and like who they are without feeling superior to others. Understanding and liking one’s own personal and social identities open up the possibilities of building caring connections with others. Thinking critically about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination takes away barriers to comfortable and respectful interactions with a wide range of people and gives children a tool to resist negative messages about their identities. Strong cognitive development is also enhanced when children develop curiosity, openness to multiple perspectives, and critical-thinking skills.
[Below are some topics to explore with your children. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves has strategies, activities and ideas to spark discussion on each of these topics.]
Strategies for learning about physical differences and similarities
Creating a rich anti-bias learning environment sets the stage for discussion and activities about racial and other physical differences and similarities. The richer the environment, the more likely children will ask questions, even in classrooms where the staff and children come from similar racial backgrounds.
In all activities, highlight that physical diversity among people is desirable, and that all colors, shades, and shapes of people are beautiful. Talk about differences in a tone of delight and interest. Create a vocabulary that encourages children to look at themselves and others and admire their sameness and their uniqueness. Just as we do not wait until a child asks questions about how to read before planning how to provide a range of literacy learning opportunities, anti-bias education is the teacher’s responsibility, not the child’s, to initiate.
Caution—Never single out one specific child when you do activities about the physical characteristics linked to racial identity. Every activity should be about all of the children, as everyone has a racial identity. Moreover, doing activities about all children reinforces that differences and similarities can be found within each racial identity group as well as across groups.
- Exploring skin color, hair, and eyes
Children are active observers of physical characteristics. As they become familiar with some of their own features and those of their classmates, help them to have vocabulary and ideas to understand sameness and difference. There are many ways to involve children in discovering similarities and differences among themselves, their teachers, and their families.
- Focus on children’s confusion about their own skin color
If, when you invite the children to make self-portraits, a child chooses colors that do not correspond to his actual skin, eye, or hair coloring, consider gently encouraging the child to choose the color closest to his skin color.
- Expanding awareness of racial similarities and differences
After helping children become aware that the people within their family are alike and different, it is important to expand their knowledge and awareness to groups of people beyond those in the classroom and neighborhood. As children grow, they move into ever wider and more diverse settings, and we want them to be open to and respectful of all kinds of people they may encounter.
Fostering critical thinking and respectful relationships
Positive and accurate learning experiences about human differences and similarities help to give children a foundation for resisting incorrect and harmful messages about themselves and others. Preschoolers are ready to begin thinking critically about the accuracy and fairness of the information and images they encounter. They also have the capacity to use their developing empathy to understand that unfair behavior hurts people and can learn respectful ways of interacting with others. Teachers can use the following strategies to promote young children’s development of these understandings and competencies.
- Cultivate children’s empathy and ways to deal with the hurt of stereotyping. Read books that depict children experiencing unfair treatment based on their racial identity.
- Tell persona doll stories about a discriminatory incident between dolls, engaging children’s empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Intentionally plan activities to counter potential overgeneralizations or existing stereotypes in the children’s general environment.
- Support children as they demonstrate awareness of stereotyping.
- Engage children in group action. It is empowering when we help children take something that is “unfair” into something “fair.” Sometimes this involves addressing personal conflict, helping a child speak up for another child. But it is particularly powerful when children act together.
If we want children to thrive in a diverse world and choose to stand up for themselves and others, then we must choose to help young children make sense out of the confusing and often emotionally charged messages they receive about themselves and others. The commitment to support each child to develop pride and self-confidence and deep connections with others calls on us to foster all children’s healthy racial identity. When we give children language to discuss their identities in an atmosphere of interest and delight, and the tools for addressing the unfairness they will inevitably encounter, then we know we have helped children construct a strong foundation for the next phases of their lives.