Many thanks to our Guest Blogger, Ethan Weiss. Ethan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing at Herrera Psychology. He specializes in working with children, adolescents, and young adults. Ethan can be reached at 813-395-9049 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Human beings are hardwired to look for differences from day one. Babies are using all the sensory technology they have at their disposal to find food, so there are big evolutionary advantages to being quick on the draw when it comes to spotting mom at a dozen paces.
With all the innocent difference-noticing we do with our kids (“Are you my mother?”, “One of these things is not like the other”, “Duck, Duck, Goose…”) I’m always surprised when people assume that those same children aren’t noticing race. Research shows us that babies as young as three months old demonstrate a significant preference for faces from their own ethnic group (Kelly et al., 2005) and by three years old, children exhibit the capacity for behaving in ways that express racial bias (Aboud, 2008).
Noticing difference may be hardwired, but applying meaning to those differences is taught and learned. That means, for better or for worse, children learn what race means from the company they keep, which includes many more people (and influences) than just caregivers. And, as we know, kids are keyed-in to notice difference–even the smallest differences in attitudes or behavior. Any action or choice–from the clerk we choose to talk to at the help desk, to the characters on our bookshelves and in our movies, to which upset student is sent to the calm-down corner versus which is sent to the principal’s office– influences our children’s perception of race. While each small act may seem so innocent or benign on its own (like a single bee sting), when repeated and added to a million other micro-acts of aggression or invalidation, they become toxic and sometimes lethal (like getting stung by the whole hive.)
So the question isn’t whether messages have been communicated to our children about race, but what messages have they been receiving.
The hopeful news is that experts in the field agree that kids find honest, developmentally appropriate conversations about race to be beneficial. (Hughes et al., 2006). As always, if it’s mentionable, it’s (more) manageable. Experts also agree that by building up our own “racial cultural literacy” by reading books by people of color or thoughtfully engaging with people from other cultures, and increasing our awareness of our own implicit and explicit beliefs, biases, and judgments about race, we can take meaningful steps towards a style of parenting that is actively anti-racist.
As a white man, a practicing therapist, and a father of two, I strive to learn more about this every day. Finding myself in a continual process of reflection and adjustment, I am so grateful for the many amazing resources that are available to help me deepen my own self-awareness and inspire me to talk (and keep talking) to my own children about race and the real incalculable human cost of Silence.
If you’re feeling ready to take some action, here’s a good place to start:
Aboud, F. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental theory of prejudice. In S.M. Quintana
& C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 55–71). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Hirschfeld, L.A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions of race. In S.M. Quintana &
Kelly, D., Quinn, P., Slater, A., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., . . . Pascalis, O. (2005).
Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Developmental Science, 8, 31-36.