I’m by no means an expert on raising biracial children. I rely a lot on my husband, insights from other parents (hooray for on-line communities!), and whatever resources I manage to get my hands on, and then, with all of that as a guide, I follow my instincts.
The last few weeks I’ve been reading back over some book chapters on racial identity in preschoolers. When it comes to helping the 5-and-under crowd develop a healthy racial identity, I think our job as parents is really about laying a solid foundation for later on, when they start becoming aware of race. The general principle I’ve come up with, based on what I’ve been reading is:
Help children feel good about who they are.
- Support, nurturing, and encouragement are essential. Beyond everything else, we want our kids to feel good about themselves. We want them to have a rock solid sense of who they are so that later in life, when someone questions them, they have a strong foundation to stand on. As parents, we can need to build up our children’s sense of worth by encouraging and pointing out their strengths and making sure they have a warm, loving, structured family environment. As parents, we are our children’s mirror. If someone asks Zip to tell about himself, I hope he will think about those parts of himself that we are constantly trying to reflect back to himself and giving him opportunities to develop. I hope he would confidently say that he is smart, funny, creative, imaginative, and kind!
Expose children to diversity in positive ways.
- Provide books, toys, and television shows that represent a range of cultures and races.
- Seek out real-life diversity. Kids benefit early on from seeing that people of different races are all part of the same world. It can also benefit children to get to know people of different cultures or races before they become aware of racial stereotypes.
- Teach an appreciation of differences in general. Preschoolers don’t “get” race as a social construct, but they do notice physical differences, so if we ignore those differences or pretend they don’t exist, kids may start to see them as taboo or “unspeakable.” If a young child points out his skin is brown like Daddy’s, it’s a great opportunity to respond with something like, “Yes! Skin comes in all kinds of wonderful colors and you have beautiful brown skin just like Daddy!” In our home we look for “teachable moments” to talk about how people come in all colors, shapes, sizes, and bodies, and emphasize that all people should be treated with respect. This is a great time to lay the groundwork for respecting all people and appreciating differences. There are lots of great books along these lines. (Sesame Street’s “We’re Different, We’re The Same” is a great example.) Since parents are powerful models for our children, we should also be aware of how we talk about other people, trying our best to avoid perpetuating “–isms” (sexism, size-ism, etc.).
- Provide opportunities for children to see people of different cultures and races interacting in positive ways. For parents in an interracial relationship, the relationship we have with our spouses maybe the most powerful example for our children of what relationships between different races can be like. I really hope that by watching the relationship between my husband and me, my boys will believe that people of different races can relate to one another as individuals and with love, respect, and admiration. Along these same lines, how I get along with and talk about my in-laws, and how I treat people of different races and cultures in our community all send a powerful message to my children!
Be careful not to over-sensitize young children to race.
- Focusing heavily on race can send kids the message that color carries a lot of weight, rather than keeping race in proper perspective. Preschoolers notice physical traits, including skin color, but they don’t yet grasp the concept of race and really aren’t interested in (or capable of) grouping people racially. By age 4, most kids can consistently and accurately label their skin color, but it has little to do with their sense of identity. In general, when our kids make comments about color, we need to remember they are simply observing color. For instance, Zip refers to himself as “tan,” and although we’ve explained that he is also “mixed” and African-American, at almost-6 he is just beginning to grasp what that means. When kids talk about race or color, we need have age-appropriate conversations with them to explore what they are thinking, keeping in mind where they are developmentally.
- As I mentioned above, it’s great for kids to have books and toys that represent a wide range of cultures and races. I imagine that a lot of parents of biracial kids, myself included, make a point of ensuring our kids have diversity in their toys and media. I remember going out of my way last Christmas to find a brown baby doll for Bee, and it certainly does bother me that it is so challenging to find toys that reflect various races and cultures! At the same time, if we push our kids to choose toys based on racial variables, our intentions may backfire by over-sensitizing them to race. Keep in mind that young children will generally choose their preferred toys for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with race. There is a balance to be found between exposure to diversity and pushing kids to “see” race.
Protect young children from the realities of racism.
- Young children don’t need to hear about racism yet. Preschoolers don’t need to hear about slavery or to overhear a dinner conversation about the racist comment a coworker made. Hearing about racism this early can be confusing, because young children simply don’t have the cognitive or coping skills yet to make sense of it. These early years are a time to make sure our kids feel really great about themselves and introducing doubts (“Some people don’t like my brown skin”) can undermine that. I did talk with Zip about racism before he started kindergarten, which I’m sure had pros and cons. I tried very hard to make sure he understood skin color to be just one “difference” that others might judge someone for, to emphasize that there are people of all colors who know this is wrong (i.e., it is not “us against them”), and to point out he is one of many mixed kids among his friends, so that he didn’t come away from that conversation feeling scared or “bad” or different. I also waited until he was almost 6 to have this conversation.I felt there was a benefit in protecting him from this reality as long as I could.
- Protect kids from discussions about their appearance that involve comparisons or judgment. Just as an example, on at least one occasion a family member commented, “The girls are going to love Zip. He’s got that light skin.” This comment is problematic not only for the message it sent to Zip (light skin gives him value) but also the message it sent to the several darker kids sitting in the room (light skin is more attractive/loveable). Marguerite Wright makes a great point about how kids can learn “positive or negative connotations” associated with skin color and racial features, based on what they hear and when/how certain features are brought up. When and how do we talk about our children’s appearance? For instance, while combing hair a parent can groan about how tangled it is or comment on how gorgeous the curls are.
Lastly, it is important to be aware of the other environments our children are part of. We want to make sure our kids are getting healthy messages at daycare, church, relatives’ homes – anywhere else they might spend time. If not, we need to intervene or remove them from that situation.
I’m still learning! Do you agree with these ideas? Why or why not? What other things do you think parents should or shouldn’t do, to lay the groundwork for a healthy racial identity in young children?
The following are affiliate links. The books I referred to when writing this post are:
- I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black & Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World by
Marguerite A. Wright
- Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children by Donna Jackson
- NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman
All are fabulous resources for parents!