Recent tragic events have had us re-evaluating our thought processes as parents and our own racial biases. History has shown us that not talking about racial biases is not how our future generations improve and learn.
So how early do our children learn racial bias?
Children learn about racial differences and racial bias from an early age and learn from their first teachers—their parents—how to deal with and react to these differences.
The process of learning racial bias is a lot like learning a new language (e.g., a child raised bilingual vs. a child who starts learning Spanish in junior high). Biology determines a critical early learning period as well as a later window where learning is much harder.
- As early as 6 months, a baby's brain can notice race-based differences.
- By ages 2 to 4 years of age, children can internalize racial bias.
- By the age of 12 years, many children become set in their beliefs..
What we also know is that even if parents do nothing to teach children about racism, children still pick up on biases within society. So how do we remain proactive as parents to overcome this?
Parents must first confront their own biases, so that their example is consistent with messages of racial and ethnic tolerance.
- Be a role model. Identify and correct your own racially biased thoughts, feelings, and actions. If you want your children to believe what you preach, you have to show those behaviors as well. Your daily comments and actions will say more than anything else.
- Have a wide, culturally diverse social network. Encourage your children to have diverse circles of friends too. This lends itself to engagement in multicultural activities and experiences.
- Travel and expose your children to other cultures. This can help them understand that there is diversity in the world that might not be represented in the community that you live in.
- Do not reverse stereotype police officers and other groups or talk about law enforcement in a negative way. That can send across the wrong message and continue to create “factions.”
- Get involved in the community-your child’s school, your place of worship, and politics. Parents who are involved in this way are better able to advocate. They also are more aware of race issues in other groups and speak up for fair treatment of those racially marginalized.
Three strategies that parents can use to help their children deal with racial bias:
- Talk to your children. Acknowledge that racial differences and bias exist.
- Confront your own bias and show how you want your children to respond to others who may be different than them.
- Encourage your children to challenge racial stereotypes and racial bias by being kind and compassionate when interacting with people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.
Tips for Talking About Racial Differences & Racism
It’s important to understand that talking about race is not racist. From a young age, children may have questions about racial differences, and as parents, we must be prepared to answer them. However, keep your child's developmental readiness in mind.
- For preschoolers: At this age, your child may begin to notice and point out differences in the people around you, for example while you are running errands or in the store. If your child makes a comment about someone’s skin color, you can acknowledge it and state how we are all so different yet share so many similarities still.
- For grade schoolers: This is the age that is important to have open talks with your child about race, diversity, and racism. Discussing these topics will help your child see you as a trusted source of information on the topic, and your child can come to you with any questions. Point out stereotypes and racial bias in media and in books such as villains or "bad guys" in movies.
- If your child makes comments or asks you questions about race based on school incidents or something they read or watched: Further the discussion with questions such as, "How do you feel about that?" and "Why do you think that?" This is also helpful if your child heard something insensitive or if your child experienced racial bias themselves. Before responding to his or her statement or question, figure out where it came from and what it means from his or her perspective.
These conversations begin to lay the groundwork for your child to accept and respect everyone's differences and similarities. As children mature, the answers to questions will become more complex. These are moments to learn what your child understands or is struggling to understand about racial bias.
To create a culture of inclusiveness, we all must look at and acknowledge our biases, so we can do something about the ones that are unfair or cause harm to others—like racial bias.