I'm not talking about discussions of how different cultures have different traditions, and holidays, etc.

I'm more interested in the idea of white, black or Asian people, which are obviously highly integrated concepts in most (American) adults, but which don't seem to come up much as a concept these days for young kids (probably a good sign).

I'm not so naive as to think we live in a "post racial" society, but I'm lucky enough to live somewhere with a highly diverse, very integrated population.

I want to ensure my kids get exposed to healthy perspectives on predudice, diversity, etc. And I've been told that even today, kids eventually all generally become aware of historically relevant distinctions, and it's a good idea to expose them in an environment where you have the chance ensure the focus is on the benefits of difference in background, etc.

On the other hand, I sort of feel like the idea of "white people," "Asain people," etc. is one it's silly to teach or emphasize before it comes up an issue. But I'm hesitant to wait until after it potentially comes up in a negative context outside of the home.

Are there any studies or best practices that are recent enough to be relevant in today's increasingly integrated world?

  • 2
    I think it's worth noting what should be obvious: the way to approach the discussion of culture with children is to talk about different cultures which spans a broader spectrum than the overly simplistic white/black/Asian characterization. Discussion of cultures: Italian, German, Japanese, African-American, Arab, etc. If you want to talk about race, then you could talk about how historically people tried to reduce cultural stereotypes into a few broad categories characterized predominantly by outward features such as skin color. You could also mention how this thinking lingers. Mar 25 '14 at 19:17
  • (By the way, Jaydles, I think your question demonstrates sufficient knowledge of this, but I thought it would be worth pointing out the distinction clearly for others reading the question.) Mar 25 '14 at 19:20

First, I will answer you direct question: No, there is no upside to talking to young children about racial or ethnic groups.

Now, why do I say such a thing? Because I believe the question is flawed by its very nature. Let me elaborate.

I have blue yes. You have brown. Should I talk to a young child about differences in eye color?

I have red hair. You have black. Should I talk to a young child about differences in hair color?

No. Addressing one-and-only one set of differences has the direct effect of emphasizing that characteristic. Addressing all differences, as opposed to any one set, though, is very important.

In some times and cultures, white people were thought to be heirs of gods. In other times, red haired people were thought to be heirs of gods. The list really does go on. And it has the converse... certain characteristics of people were used to marginalize or murder them.

In my view, our goal should be to educate our children on the wonderful differences we all have. Some of those differences are minor. Some of them are significant (think of the great leaders, artists, philosophers, thinkers throughout time.)

Should we discuss the wide variety of differences between people in different regions, religions, and cultures? Absolutely!

When we explore the wide variety of ways the people interact, think, and view the world with our children, we help them to see beyond the mini-universe in which they have been brought up and open the possibilities to endless opportunities.

I am fond of saying, "It is not what you do, but how you do it which defines your success." Broach the subject, yes, but only in the context of the full context of humanity so that you are providing your child with an open perspective on all the issues, not just one hot-button issue. When it is taken in its entirety (over the course of a few chats, I'm sure), not one thing will stand out -- just the overreaching principle: We are all free to be ourselves and should not ever be treated differently for anything beyond our control.

Are you different that me? Yes. Do I care? No. Can I learn from you? I most certainly hope so.

In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • The child will ask questions when they notice the differences.
    – Shawn C
    Apr 9 '14 at 1:50
  • @ShawnC I am not sure how I managed to do it, but people are asking questions on this post as if the 5th paragraph does not exist. Where do I state not to discuss this? The first paragraph addresses a very, very specific question and the 5th paragraph rephrases the question to be more complete. Apr 9 '14 at 13:18

I haven't seen any studies or research reports, but I can tell you that if you don't broach the subject fairly early and expose your child to different races and ethnicities from a young age, you may end up in a very embarrassing situation, as I did.

My sons were about 3 and 2 when I divorced, got a job, and hired a maid service. On the first day of the maid service, I arranged to be home so that I could let them in, see if I felt comfortable with them, and see if their work was acceptable. We live in an ethnically diverse part of town, but there were not (at that time) very many African-Americans in our neighbourhood. So my sons had never seen very dark-skinned people before. One of the ladies who came to clean had very dark skin — that beautiful deep black that almost looks blue. My sons had also never seen me allow strangers into our home. So my oldest was very nervous and kept following the ladies around. Eventually, he comes to me and says in a typically loud 3-year-old's "whisper" (you know, the kind that can be heard a mile away?), "Mommy! That blue lady went in your room! Mommy, what is she DOING in your bedroom?!"

I was MORTIFIED. It was at that moment that I realized that, while I have lots of friends of other races, my kids had never really met any of them because, hey, when I go out with the girls, I get a babysitter.

I apologized profusely to the lady, who was very gracious about it and actually seemed to find it funny. But it was at that point that I started talking with my boys about people — all kinds of people — and trying to expose them to a more diverse sampling of society. I also started teaching them that we don't make personal comments about other people's appearances. No point in teaching them about other races and cultures if we don't also teach them to be polite.

  • LOL, love the story. The kid if a friend of mine (then about 1.5 years old.) once did something slightly less embarrassing to a black.skinned lady during a train ride: she kept wanting to poke her! Good thing kids are cute and the lady just smiled and took it in good humour.
    – Layna
    Oct 2 '15 at 7:04

On the contrary to popular belief, our kids are more influenced by their surrounding companies as compared to their parents. Nevertheless, it depends on the parents to make them understand how much to take from what all they listen.

You are living in a neutral society/area, that's the best thing. The only thing you can do is teach your kids to treat everybody equal as humans and not by their nationality. I'm an Indian and have visited a foreign country. I've observed such things there. But I teach my daughter neutral thing and make her understand that she has to respect everyone as a human.

As far as how would others treat your kids, it's not in your control. Should every parent start thinking like you, the world would be a close family with no racism/ethnicity issues.

IMO, we should (and that's what I do) teach our kids about different cultures, their rituals and way of living than talking about the tone of the skin! To my daughter, I explain that it's just a matter of genes that someone is with fair skin and someone is not. No matter what skin color you have, until you keep yourself neutral, amiable, knowledgeable and trustworthy, there's no one in this world who'll ever point at you.


The very fact of making a point of discussing different racial or ethnic issues with young children can simply emphasise to the child that there is something of concern about people of different race or ethnicity.

I suggest the main thing you can do on these things is lead by example. Treat everyone as people, regardless of their race or ethnicity. Recognise that everyone has unique personality, and respond to them based on their behaviours and actions. If someone behaves badly, respond to the behaviour, not the person's race or ethnicity. Encourage your child to do the same.

If your child asks questions that touch on race or ethnicity, then give simple (you are talking with a child) but honest answers. If they ask questions about racist behaviours and attitudes exhibited by others, then obviously you need to respond honestly to those questions.

Do your best to ensure your behaviours are consistent with your explanations. If you slip up - which it easy for people to do, since racism is a multi-faceted concern - be honest about that too.

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