Talking to Kids about Race

About a year ago I read a book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  It’s a thought-provoking book.  Many of the chapters hit home but none quite as much as the one called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.”  It had a concrete impact on the way I talk and read to my 5-year-old niece Sophie about race.  It made me think about the ways my white parents did or didn’t talk to me about race as a kid.  This blog post is informed by my experiences as a white person and a children’s librarian.

Let me start by recapping what the chapter is all about.  It starts by describing a study done in 2006 by a doctoral student at the University of Texas named Birgitte Vittrup .  She investigated whether children’s videos featuring multicultural characters improve white, kindergartener-aged children’s racial attitudes.  What she found surprised her – families starting dropping out when asked to also talk about skin colour with their children.  Though the families may have said things like, “everybody’s equal,” very few of them felt comfortable talking to kids about race openly and directly. The 6 families that did saw greatly improved racial attitudes.

From there, Bronson and Merryman look at child development. They talk about how young children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.” Kids are visual learners and rely on what they see – hair colour, height, weight, and yes, skin colour. Babies as young as 6 months will stare longer at photographs of faces that are a different race than their parents because they are trying to make sense of them.  Even if no one talks to kids about race, they notice. And when we don’t talk to kids about race they are left to make their own assumptions and judgments.

The authors also coin the phrase Diverse Environment Theory which means, “if you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message.”  So basically, we white people don’t have to talk about race with our kids because they will learn about equality just from seeing all these diverse people!  It’s one of the leading arguments behind school desegregation (which they talk about at length).  But the authors also come to the conclusion that just being in a racially diverse environment is not enough for kids to have better racial attitudes. We still have to talk to them.

Here are some of their key messages for caregivers when talking to kids about race:

  • Treat it the same way you do boy-girl stereotypes. Just like we point out women who are doctors, astronauts, construction workers, we can tell children that people of any skin colour can be those things too.  Enforce this message often.
  • Don’t shush kids when they say embarrassing or racist things. Their brains are prone to categorization.  When we shush them or shut down the conversation, we are telling them that race is a scary topic.  Instead, engage them in a conversation and directly explain their fallacy.
  • Help children of colour develop a sense of ethnic pride.  Studies have found improved self-confidence when this occurs. White children will “naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society…so a pride message would not just be abhorrent – it’d be redundant.”

Since reading this book, I make a point to talk about race with Sophie on a regular basis.  Of course, it is a privilege for me as a white person that I haven’t had to have these conversations with her since she was born, and an even bigger privilege that our conversations can focus on the positive.  We are lucky to live in a racially diverse city like Vancouver so that we can have those conversations about people we know and people in our neighbourhood.  When we read books together, I point out the skin colour of the characters and relate it to something positive. For example, we read Double Trouble for Anna Habiscus! the other day and we talked about how the mommy’s skin is white and the daddy’s skin is brown and how they have a beautiful loving family.  I believe these conversations are crucial to being an anti-racist advocate and to raising an anti-racist child.

So now here I am, wondering if I can take what I’ve learned and practiced into my job as a children’s librarian.  The folks at Reading While White have started this conversation in a variety of ways already.  My questions are storytime specific.  Is storytime a space where we can start to have conversations about race with kids and caregivers?  Are you already using anti-racist practices in storytime?

Let’s talk.

We’ll Link to That: Summer 2016

Every quarter we write a column for YAACING, a youth services newsletter published by the Young Adult and Children’s Services (YAACS) arm of the British Columbia Library Association.  This quarter we’re sharing some of our favourite blogs and websites from outside the world of librarianship. Make sure to read the entire summer issue! If you’d like to catch up on our past columns you can find them here:

We love us some children’s librarian blogs. Our fellow youth services professionals knock our socks off on the regular with their amazing ideas.  But we also know that there are a lot of other people who work with children sharing ideas we can adapt and use in a library setting. So this quarter we’re sharing some of our favourite non-librarian websites that provide us with inspiration for serving the children and families in our communities.

Non-librarian blogs

  1. No Time for Flash Cards: Written by a preschool teacher, this website features tons of literacy-based activities for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Browse through craft projects, book lists, hands-on activities that are fun and educational.
  2. Playing by the Book: Written by a mum of two girls living in the U.K., this blog features picture book reviews and author interviews. We love the craft projects that accompany the books such as this amazing hot air balloon. So much inspiration for book clubs at the library!
  3. Teach Preschool: Our friend Anna recommended this blog written by preschool teacher, Deborah. It is filled with literacy activities, STEM ideas, and sensory play inspiration. Deborah understands the importance of play, and many of her posts include early literacy tips for caregivers and teachers.
  4. Mama OT:  Our friend Cate recommended this website created by a pediatric occupational therapist.  There is so much we can learn about early literacy by reading about the developmental progression of handwriting skills and learning about the importance of crawling. Highly recommended if you need to boost your knowledge of child development.
  5. Pragmatic Mom: We call Pragmatic Mom Queen of the Booklists! Seriously, she provides great round-ups of books for kids all ages. We especially love her focus on cultural diversity. A mom of three, she often shares what her kids are reading too. A genuine and authentic voice.
  6. Reading Confetti: It would be easy to brush this off as just another site with beautiful craft ideas for little ones. But lucky for us Lorie was a reading specialist before starting Reading Confetti and it shows! Check out her list of Book Club Link Parties which include ideas from all over the web on all your favourite books or her Year of Preschool Books & Activities which would be an excellent tool for planning storytimes.
  7. TinkerLab: Once you’ve located the small, white arrow on the splash page and landed on Rachelle’s visually stunning site, be sure to navigate to her arts and crafts and science experiments tabs along the top for step by step instructions and bite sized information chunks to answer the how’s and why’s along the way. As readers, we also love her list of articles about creativity and kids. Thanks Beth, of BethReads for pointing us to this great resource!
  8. Sturdy For Common Things: Ok, you caught us Rebecca is a librarian but honestly it would be a crime not to include her blog on this list. Her booklists span all possible titles on a topic and cover babes up to older readers and her Storytimes Anytime are truly inspiring. Enough said, go check it out!
  9. Fun at Home with Kids: Asia, the author of this blog has published several books on engaging kids with art and science and her blog is no different. Her simple DIY kits to keep kids busy could be easily adapted for the library as could many of the sensory play activities.
  10. Not Just Cute: Amanda Morgan is a former preschool teacher who focuses on intentional child development. Let’s just say this blog delivers on the name and then some. Drop into her Read Along which is packed with current research about early to middle school children or browse her posts under the language and literacy tag for some seriously validating stuff.

Do you have a favourite non-librarian website that we missed? We’d love to hear about it, give us a shout at