Illustrative GIF of a child with toys on their head

Illustrations by Mariah Llanes

How I’m helping my preschooler understand—and unlearn—racism

When my four-year-old dropped a bombshell comment at dinner, I realized we have to work harder to combat prejudice in everyday life

It happened, as many fascinating parenting moments do, over a bowl of macaroni and cheese. My then four-year-old daughter was happily slurping her noodles when she casually offered this non sequitur: “Mommy, my lunchroom teacher isn’t from Canada.” I immediately knew who she was referring to. The woman who supervises the daily kindergarten feeding frenzy wears a niqab, a garment worn by some Muslim women that covers the head and face.

“Oh?” I responded in that feigned casual way parents do when trying to create a teachable moment. “How do you know?”

More noodle slurping.

“She doesn’t wear normal clothes, like we do,” she replied. “She covers her head and face up. Not like Canadians.”

I followed up by explaining, as NDP leader Jasmeet Singh did on the 2019 campaign trail, that Canadians look like all sorts of people and wear all kinds of clothes. My daughter challenged me, as she often does, but ultimately seemed satisfied with the response and quickly moved on to begging for dessert. Back to business as usual.

I, however, did not move on quite as fast. As a white mom, I feel a keen responsibility to expose my white kid to different cultures and ethnicities. Her dad and I have started our process by  seeking out books with racialized characters, giving her dolls with different skin tones and talking about various cultural traditions. It’s by no means a comprehensive approach, but I figured she’s still young and we have time for bigger discussions. However, I admit I was taken aback by her dinnertime proclamation. Was she already showing cultural and racial bias at four?

Kids learn the darndest things

After a bit of research, I discovered that the answer is yes—and it’s completely normal, especially for little kids. “What we have learned from developmental psychologists is that by the age of nine months, children have an understanding about belonging and not belonging,” says Michelle Munroe, central coordinator of parent and family engagement for the Toronto District School Board. Part of Munroe’s mandate is to deliver workshops to parents and guardians about how to talk about racism with children. She encourages caregivers to start having the conversation early. “In research, we see kids do various types of grouping, and it’s easiest for them to group by physical differences—your hair doesn’t look like mine, or your skin doesn’t look like mine,” she explains. “If they don’t have a significant adult guiding them, they start thinking, ‘People who look like me must be better.’”

Or, in my daughter’s frame of mind, more “normal.” Munroe’s strategy for moments when kids express bias is engage, interrupt and disrupt. That means asking age-appropriate questions and facing any troubling statements head-on. “Address the language, ask where it came from and give them the counter message,” she says. “Say, ‘Tell me a bit about why you think that?’ or “Where did you hear that?’”

An ounce of prevention

Of course, conversations about race and difference shouldn’t start from a place of correction, but rather prevention. “I encourage parents not to think of this as a special topic, but as woven into the fabric of everything in our lives,” says Rima Dib, director of curriculum and training with Harmony at Work, a consultancy that offers pro bono and subsidized family workshops on diversity, inclusion and equity. That includes modelling inclusive behavior, which may mean confronting our own unacknowledged racial biases.

Normalizing is also a key tenet of Dib’s approach. “That means teaching kids that every physical body is normal,” she explains, emphasizing that this shouldn’t be confused with tokenizing. “If we’re trying to teach kids about same-sex families, for example, we could read a book called something like Sarah Has Two Moms. But what that book does is tokenize,” she says. “A normalizing book would be, for example, a story about how Mara goes to the city with her mom and her momma. It’s a story about a child and a family that just happens to have two moms.” The latter scenario gives the child reader a chance to understand that it’s normal for families to come in all different shapes and sizes.

Point out differences instead of ignoring them

For Alicia Cox Thomson, a Hamilton-based writer and mom of two, normalizing and exposing her kids, who are of mixed race, to different races and cultures—especially their own Bajan culture—is hugely important. Case in point: When Cox Thomson felt her five-year-old son’s school wasn’t doing enough to mark Black History Month, she volunteered to step in. “I went to his class and talked about Barbados and the culture, and brought coconut bread,” she says.

Pointing out racial differences to her son is also part of Cox Thomson’s strategy. “We’ve talked about how his grandfather is Black, and when he colours a picture of my dad, I suggest he use the brown crayon,” she says. “And if it’s not obvious that characters from books or cartoons are different races, I point it out, especially if he might not be picking up on it.”

For some parents, it may seem counterintuitive to point out racial differences. “Colour blindness” (the idea that to be truly progressive meant you had to claim not to see race) was a predominant philosophy when many of us were growing up. But that approach undermines racialized experiences and doesn’t give kids the language they need to process the differences they see around them.

Research backs this up. A 2017 study published in the journal Child Development found that when Chinese children aged four to six were asked to play with an app to distinguish individual Black faces, it reduced their anti-Black prejudice for at least two months. That may not seem like a long time, but it was the first study to demonstrate a lasting effect in reducing bias.

Talk, talk, talk—and then talk again

“If we talk about race, we can prevent racism,” says Munroe. “With younger children, it’s important we acknowledge the differences that they’re seeing.” That means asking questions like, ‘Who in your class looks different from you and what differences do you see?’ or ‘Which kids in your playgroup have black skin and which have white?’ or “What skin colours are missing in this cartoon?’”

Munroe notes that while every family should be talking about race, culture and inclusivity, the broader conversation is different for racialized families. “I’m speaking with racialized families about advocacy,” she says. “As a racialized family member, you’re affirming your children’s identity and giving them the language to advocate for themselves,” she says.

Next steps

After my conversations with Munroe and Dib, I took a hard look at how I approach race and cultural differences with my daughter. Her dad and I have been intentional about trying to normalize differences, but we haven’t been as direct about naming races and cultures. I realized it was time to have those deliberate conversations. So, one evening, again over noodles, I asked my daughter, “Who in your class looks different from you?” Her immediate response: “Devon, because he’s Black. Today he gave me a Pokemon.” And then we talked quite a bit about Pokemon. Business as usual.

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