(This entry can also be read at the Huffington Post.)
I was watching “Sesame Street” with my two young sons the other day and found myself noticing the variety of people in the show. It was satisfying to see that not only were my kids getting to know Big Bird and the alphabet but they were also learning that people can work together regardless of their skin color.
Like yourself, my wife and I feel that it’s important for our kids to foster a greater openness to all people. Whenever there is an opportunity for our children to be exposed to kids from diverse backgrounds, we welcome it. Without bringing attention to it, we believe that the way we treat others, regardless of one’s race or creed, will speak for itself and will serve as an example for our children.
But is what we’re doing enough?
I have to admit that I’ve been rethinking our family’s approach lately. After reading “Nurture Shock,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and then digging deeper into some of the research they cite, it seems that my approach to teaching my children about race might not reap the openness I had intended.
Here, in my own words, are some of the conclusions from the studies by Rebecca Bigler and April Harris-Britt mentioned in “Nurture Shock” regarding kids and race:
- Children by nature need to categorize things and people in order to make sense of the world. However, without our guidance, when making the distinctions between different types of people, children are susceptible to basing them on longstanding stereotypes.
- Children’s minds start categorizing the world as early as they can identify pictures on a page and if we avoid discussing racial differences when they become evident, it becomes something they learn should not be spoken about — that it is taboo.
- As parents to young children, we should talk about race the same way that we discuss gender. In other words, comparable to how we say, “Both boys and girls can be doctors,” so should we speak about racial differences.
- We also need to be specific in how we speak with our children about race. For example, to say, “Everyone should be treated equally,” is not clear enough to children about what we are referring to.
- If you live in an area with little diversity, then explore cross-cultural differences in books that you can find in the library or by talking to your toddler after watching TV shows like “Sesame Street,” “Little Bill” or “Yo Gabba Gabba.” For older kids, author Ashley Merryman suggests that parents handle the subject of racial and cultural differences in much same way as they would be taught about history, science or geography.
Why is it so much more in our comfort zones to discuss gender issues with our kids than race? Are we that far behind in our thinking? Doesn’t having an African American president mean that we as a country are finally coming to grips with this issues? I’d like to think so, but it seems that old habits and perceptions die hard.
That’s where us parents come in.
If all of the studies are true about how people are permanently formed within the first few years of life and the findings of researchers like Rebecca Bigler and April Harris-Britt are also correct, then we as parents have a great opportunity to eradicate racism.
So, consider doing some research of your own and the next time you see your kids watching Sesame Street, don’t assume they’ll do the math regarding the diversity on the show. Instead, use it as an opportunity to talk with them about race. You might very well be changing the world as a result.