Despite what many of us have been taught, there's nothing wrong with talking about the color of people's skin. In fact, the opposite is true: Teaching kids not to talk about race can contribute to the problem of racism.
It's never too early to begin cultivating a healthy awareness of diversity in your child. Preschoolers are too young to understand the social meaning of race the way adults do. But they are not colorblind and they do notice physical differences. Don't be surprised when you hear your child comparing his skin color to others' – it's a source of fascination. Most comments preschoolers make about appearance are innocent – they're simply describing what they see. At this age, although kids clearly identify themselves and others by gender, they don't yet do it by race.
How you respond to his curiosity will lay the groundwork for more sophisticated conversations as he gets older. Embarrassment or silence gives your child the impression that the topic is off-limits or that a bigoted remark is accurate and acceptable to you. Children look to their parents for moral cues, and they'll learn from your actions as well as your words.
Here are some tips on how to talk about race with your children:
Expose your child to people of all shades. Be sure your child sees plenty of people of different ethnicities. If you don't live in a racially diverse area, surround him with children's books and artwork featuring people of various races.
Talk about differences. Hair, skin, eyes – Children are noticing all these distinctions and beginning to describe them. It's normal. If your child points out that someone has curly hair, you can say, "Some people have curly hair, some people have straight hair – isn't that great?" Don't overreact to comments on race. If your child comments on someone's color, first find out what he's really saying and why. And when your child makes an observation that is clearly about skin color ("Eve's mom is white"), don't freak out. Just say, "That's right. What made you think about that?" Stick to the facts. When your children ask questions about differences in skin color, keep your answers to the point. ("Addison's skin is brown, and yours is lighter. But you both wear ponytails, don't you?")
Don't overdo it. Though it's good to talk openly about differences, avoid placing too much emphasis on race. Preschoolers are too young to process the complexities of racial issues. Let the topic come up naturally and keep the conversation at your child's level.
"What color am I?" Use a nice big crayon box to explore colors and find the shade that most closely matches your preschooler's skin tone. Since your child isn't asking about race, it's okay to give an answer like "tan," "brown," or even "cornflower" or "mahogany." Some parents use ice cream flavors to talk about skin color with their child.
"Why is that girl brown?" A good general answer for this age group is simply "Everyone's skin is different." "Because her mom is "cream" and her daughter is "coffee" – mix them together and they make great friends.
"Why is his mommy white and he's not?" Tell your child that not all moms and kids "match" but that they're still a family. – Uncle Jamie has red hair and his kids don't, Matthew has blue eyes and his mom doesn't.
Hope these tips are practical to you and your children!